Art of Mentoring is a 100% virtual organisation - and for us, working from different locations and collaborating virtually is business-as-usual. Our clients are spread all around the world, with programs spanning Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Europe, the US and the UK.
Virtual mentoring, or distance mentoring, can be surprisingly effective, even though it is not necessarily everyone’s first choice.
Pros & cons of virtual mentoring
A virtual program has some clear advantages – for example, the ability to provide mentoring access to anyone, anytime, opens mentoring to people working in remote locations, who would not otherwise have access to a Mentor.
Our own research suggests that participants in virtual programs appreciate the flexibility of virtual mentoring – there is no need to travel to an agreed meeting place, and contact can be maintained even when one party is away from their usual workplace.
In a review of e-mentoring literature, Thompson, Jeffries & Topping (2010) note that electronic communication forms have been found to have some advantages over traditional face-to-face mentoring. Electronic media such as email can mitigate against social cues such as status getting in the way of mentoring relationships.
Being an asynchronous medium, communication by email also allows both Mentor and Mentee to frame and consider answers to questions rather than have to provide solutions in real time.
Some of the disadvantages of virtual mentoring are obvious. Whilst there is a rapidly-growing industry in “cyber coaching” which demonstrates that coaching relationships can be built without the richness of face-to-face interaction, some people nevertheless find it difficult to build rapport using telephone, teleconferencing, email or text.
Zey (2011) notes that in virtual relationships some mentoring activities like shadowing (where the mentee physically follows and observes the mentor in action), role modelling and attending events together, cannot be used. Thompson et al (op cit) also suggest that engagement and persistence can be problematic in virtual relationships. It appears that it is easier to walk away from a "virtual" relationship than a face-to-face one.
Houck (2011) draws on research from the fields of generational differences and virtual teams to suggest that in virtual mentoring, there is a need for frequent communication and that younger generations, whilst more comfortable with virtual technologies, may need more structure than their older counterparts. Millennials, it is claimed, also like group activities.
How to make a virtual mentoring connection powerful
1. Agree up-front how the virtual nature of the relationship will work. What medium or suite of media will you use? Experiment until you find what works best for you both – some people prefer video connection; others prefer phone or email/ messaging. How often will you connect and what is a reasonable response time to a message or email?
2. If you can’t connect using a visual medium, exchange photos so you each imagine what the other looks like every time you connect.
3. Work hard to establish rapport at the start and don’t forget to re-establish the human connection at the beginning of each call, message or email – don’t get down to work too quickly.
4. Allow what might seem like awkward pauses in a phone conversation – the other person may just be thinking deeply and not ready to reply. Silence can be a precious gift that provides a chance for the speaker to arrange their thoughts or work out their own solutions before they talk.
5. Have a clear agenda for each call and agree the focus of the conversation at the beginning. Really effective Mentees send an agenda ahead of time with pertinent background. Some useful questions for Mentors to ask include:
- What is the issue you’d like to explore?
- Why is it important to you? Why now?
- What do you genuinely know? What do you think you know? What do you feel?
- How can I help you? Are you looking for a different perspective or do you just what to bounce ideas around?
6. Remember to be fully present – connecting online offers plenty of distractions. Turn off alerts from other apps so you can listen and give full attention to your partner.
7. Email communication needs enough detail for the partner to understand and ask pertinent questions but not so much information that they drown in it.
8. Review and take stock even more frequently than you would in a face-to-face mentoring relationship. Evaluate, every few times you connect, how the relationship is working and what could make it even more effective.
With these thoughts in mind, and a collaborative problem-solving approach, every mentoring partnership can find its own way of working that defies our preconceptions about virtual connection. Successful mentoring partners put as much effort into creating and nurturing the relationship as they do to addressing the mentoring content, and what better skillset to master in the new virtual world?
Gina Meibusch & Melissa Richardson 2020
1. Houck, Christiana (2011). Multigenerational and virtual: how do we build a mentoring program for today’s workforce? Performance Improvement, Vol. 50, no. 2, 25-30.