Mentoring is a powerful tool that organizations can use to reduce employee turnover and increase engagement. Building a mentoring program for your remote team can support your team by helping you with:
- Employee development and upskilling
- Onboarding employees and integrating them into your remote culture
- Investing in and retaining employees from diverse backgrounds
- Planning for the transition of high-potential employees to leadership positions
Virtual mentoring programs have become more common as distributed workplaces seek ways to keep employees connected. Although virtual mentoring may seem as simple as moving 1-on-1 coffee chats online, there are challenges and opportunities you should be aware of before you get started.
We spoke with the team at Together, a company that builds software to help enterprise companies run mentorship programs, to learn from their expertise on how to translate a mentorship program to a remote workplace (or build one from scratch for your remote team). For this article, they shared with us:
- Why remote companies should have virtual mentoring programs
- How virtual mentoring works
- How you can get started building a remote mentoring program
Let’s dive in!
Why remote companies should have a mentoring program (is virtual mentoring effective?)
Building a connected remote work culture is hard. Implementing a mentoring program is an effective strategy to bring teammates together who might not otherwise cross paths. Mentoring programs help you invest in your team's professional growth, with the added benefit of helping you build a more socially connected distributed workplace. Here are some of the most common reasons companies start mentoring programs.
Onboarding new teammates and building remote culture
Connecting new employees with a mentor in addition to an onboarding buddy can help them quickly adapt to your remote company culture. It’s a great way to help facilitate remote interactions that might’ve more naturally occurred in an office setting.
Providing new teammates with a mentor gives them another experienced team member to ask questions who isn’t their manager. Mentors can go beyond the obvious and help mentees set goals, communicate more effectively, and fill in the details on how to succeed in your team’s remote culture that might not be explicitly documented anywhere.
Decreasing stress and preventing burnout for mentees and mentors
Research has shown that mentor relationships can help both mentees and mentors feel like their work is more meaningful and make them less stressed. Creating an intentional space for reflection helps teammates realize that their anxieties are more common than they might’ve initially assumed. Mentor relationships can also help both parties see how their current work might fit into their future goals, which increases job satisfaction.
Employee engagement and professional development
Helping employees develop new skills and strengthen their abilities leads to company growth and can prevent costly turnover. Mentorship offers a way to engage employees while providing them training and development opportunities. Robust mentoring programs also serve to attract new talent to your team and set you apart for those difficult-to-hire-for roles.
Knowledge transfer and growing with your role
Senior employees and leaders have valuable knowledge and information about the company, industry, and skills needed to succeed. Through mentorships, they can share this knowledge with more junior team members. This ensures that expertise is not lost when senior employees leave the company, and is crucial in a high-growth startup where teammates will likely see their responsibilities grow quickly alongside the company.
Hiring and retention (especially of diverse team members!)
The presence of a mentoring program will signal to your team and potential hires that you’re serious about their growth and development. Intentional investment in your employees through mentorship can also help you hold onto them for longer—especially when it comes to team members from underrepresented backgrounds.
The desire to increase retention prompted Randstad to work with Together on developing a mentoring program. They reported that employees involved in the program were 49 percent less likely to leave the company. The increase in retention saved them $3,000 per participant per year in hiring costs.
How does virtual mentoring work?
Virtual mentoring works by pairing employees to meet at a predetermined cadence (usually on a monthly or bi-weekly basis) to discuss professional goals, challenges, or ideas. It’s an opportunity for employees to encourage one another and learn andwill help you break down silos on your distributed team.
Keep in mind that you aren’t limited to the traditional 1-on-1 relationship between a leader and protege for your virtual mentoring program. There are several types of mentoring models you can choose from:
- Traditional 1-on-1 pairing between senior leaders and more junior employees.
- Group mentoring where a leader advises several employees’ professional development.
- Reverse mentoring where the traditional mentoring model is flipped on its head. Junior employees share knowledge around technology or ways of working with leaders.
- Peer mentoring is where colleagues coach and encourage one another. Research shows over half of employees learn from each other regularly. These programs create space for remote employees to engage in mentoring activities like discussing goals or challenges—with the dual benefits of learning and feeling more connected.
Virtual mentoring can support any of these mentoring models. Let’s dive into how to start a virtual mentoring program.
How to start a virtual mentorship program for your team
1. Set goals
You’ll need to define the purpose of the program. What should participants expect to get out of being involved? Do you hope to prepare future leaders to lead the company, or do you want to attract new candidates by building a culture of learning?
The basis of mentoring programs - employees building relationships with one another - are similar, but the ends they serve vary. Set some goals for your workplace mentorships, such as skill development or better onboarding to frame the outcomes you are optimizing for.
2. Get employees bought into the program
Your program will only be successful if your team genuinely wants to participate. We recommend running a survey or brainstorming session before implementing the program to hear what your team wants mentorship at your company to look like. Then, when the program goes live, share what elements of it were crowdsourced. Your team will be more bought in if they see their ideas reflected in the program.
Having a solid understanding of what your team wants should precede actually promoting it to them. Together’s CS Manager, Joey Cheung summarizes how to promote a mentoring program by saying,
“Overall, you’re making an internal communication strategy. By getting your team involved in creating the mentorship program before pairing even starts, you will set yourself up to build a successful program.”
3. Match up employees by analyzing answers to an opt-in questionnaire
Getting the best match is one of the key ingredients to a successful mentoring experience. To do this, have employees fill in a questionnaire when they opt in to the program. The team at Together has created a mentoring software that can streamline this matching process, so they’ve seen firsthand that the best questions to include are:
- Basic demographic information like position, location, gender, age, and seniority level.
- Interests and areas of expertise
- Gender preference for their mentor (in 1-on-1 pairings)
- Goals for joining the program (functional, personal development, etc)
- Long-term career goals
- Times they’re available
Having this data from employees will make it easier to see which employees would fit well together. If you’re on a small team, you can use spreadsheets and compare answers, but if your program is larger (roughly larger than 50) it might make sense to use a platform like Together’s that uses an algorithm to automate the pairing process.
4. Start with a time-bound engagement
Build in off ramps to your mentorship pairings (credit to our investors at First Round for this thought). Starting with a limited engagement of a few months limits the risk of awkwardness if the mentorship relationship doesn’t end up being a mutual fit. It can also help you structure the initial conversations so both parties get value out of them, without the pressure of the relationship having to go on forever (though, of course, if there’s chemistry it can easily continue).
5. Tap external mentors
Pairing more senior teammates with less experienced teammates is helpful for building a more connected remote culture, but if your team is still small it might not make sense or be possible. In that case, it’s helpful to tap into your broader network to help find potential mentors with relevant experience to introduce to your team. Work with the mentees to understand their goals and help them pitch potential mentors or find programs like First Round’s Fast Track that they might apply to.
This is an especially good option for your first hire in a given function to level up on the tactical side. Before I joined Remotion as our first marketer, our CEO Alexander sent me a list of 30 potential marketing mentors he could introduce me to, since he knew there were no more-senior team members in the marketing function I'd be able to learn from.
6. Provide employees with resources to build a successful relationship
Building trusting relationships is critical to the success of a mentoring program, but the onus is on the participants to cultivate fruitful relationships. You can make it easier by providing resources that help guide mentees through the process. Sharing structure and resources will help take the pressure off and set expectations on both ends.
The team at Together provides mentors and mentees with extensive handbooks they can draw from when preparing for each meeting. They also provide agendas for each meeting that include ice breakers, topics of conversation, videos, tips on discussing things like goals or challenges.
It can be helpful to share questions to ask mentors and how to get the most from a mentoring relationship with your team ahead of their first mentorship meeting as well. As a remote team, you should recognize that you play an important role in helping employees build successful mentoring relationships. Your job isn’t done once the pairs are set. Instead, you should assume the role of the mediator where they can nudge participants, encourage collaboration, and collect feedback.
7. Monitor the program with surveys and qualitative feedback
Developing a successful mentoring program at work requires tracking and monitoring its development over time. Seeking feedback from participants can demonstrate what is working in the program and what may need to be changed. HR leaders who have run virtual mentoring programs have said this can be a crucial element of workplace mentorships.
“If there’s a one or a two [rating on the feedback form], I call them. I simply ask what happened. I’ll say, ‘Hey, I saw you put in a 1-star for your pairing. Tell me what's going on.’ And every single time, they say, ‘I can't believe anyone reads that.”
Together’ CS Director, Mathew Sicoly, notes that it is okay if a mentorship doesn’t work out.
“People are going to go on vacation; some aren’t going to have a good fit. That's okay. That's all learning to help you improve your program for next time.”
If you don’t collect feedback throughout the program, you run the risk of having participants who aren’t satisfied with their match. If they feel like no one is there to listen to their feedback they may grudgingly attend unfruitful mentoring meetings or stop attending altogether. Either way, they’ll make their feedback heard; if not to you, then to colleagues, which will further jeopardize morale.
8. Share mentoring stories with the team
Show your team the impact that the mentoring program has on participants and the company. For example, you could make a highlight reel of feedback or success stories to share. You can also collect data on how many meetings took place, the ratings each participant gave, and overall satisfaction with the program or their matches. Sharing this data during an all-hands or through a quick Loom can help you maintain buy-in and keep your program going strong.
We hope this gives you a guide for how to build a more connected remote culture with your virtual mentorship program. Finding the right setup for your team will be a process that requires intentionality and experimentation, but it’s worth it for the momentum it will help you and your teammates build both as a company and individuals.
Help your team stay connected by starting a virtual mentoring program, and by using Remotion. Our free virtual office will help you cultivate stronger relationships on your hybrid or remote team.