Remote work

To effectively mentor younger employees in remote or hybrid setups, companies need to be intentional and build trust, experts say

‘You can’t mentor someone who doesn’t trust you,’ said one remote-work consultant.
article cover

Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images

5 min read

For many of the workforce’s youngest entrants, forging a career in the age of remote work might feel like hitchhiking down a desolate road, clutching a sign emblazoned with a sad-face emoji and the words “Mentor me, please” scrawled in Sharpie. Even before the pandemic normalized widespread remote arrangements, cars (i.e., potential mentors) seemed to whiz by many eager entry-level employees instead of giving them a ride.

But being in-person still allowed mentoring relationships to blossom organically, said Linda Ho, chief people officer at the sales software platform Seismic. “When you were in the office, you can walk down and knock on the door or peer in someone’s cubicle and have these conversations,” she told HR Brew.

Younger workers—specifically Gen Z, who are those born between 1997 and 2012, according to Pew Research Center—seem to crave mentorship: According to a 2021 Springtide Research Institute survey of just under 6,900 US respondents between the ages of 13 and 25, 73% said they want to do better work when they feel their boss cares about them. Some 82% said “it’s important that their supervisor or future supervisor helps them set performance goals and achieve them at work and relate to them as a person.”

But mentoring in remote and hybrid environments presents quirks that weren’t as prevalent during in-person arrangements, HR experts who spoke to HR Brew explained. In order to help young talent hitch a ride down the interstate toward Career Advancement City, employers need to take a proactive approach to remote mentorship, ensuring programs are well-structured and intentional, the experts said.

Why does mentorship matter? “One thing that every employer forgets is that younger employees have a lot less confidence,” Ben Jackson, founder and principal of the workplace-culture consultancy Hear Me Out, told HR Brew.

A confidence deficit might lead younger employees to stumble through work without proactively seeking guidance. The lack of a concrete mentorship strategy makes this all the more likely and “creates a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity. And that really impacts younger hires the most,” Jackson explained.

To keep younger workers from going adrift, Ho suggested that HR departments inject a dose of intentionality into mentorship programs. “What we lean on is really building trust, because sometimes doing it via Zoom or on the phone, it just requires a little bit more time and intentionality. So we talk to our mentors [about] how do you do that.”

In response to employee demand, Ho said Seismic is currently building its mentorship program. Using a program called Chronus, Seismic matches potential mentors with mentees, both of whom opt-in and create their own profiles. So far, the feedback has produced unexpected results, she explained: “Most of the time, mentors tell me they learn more from the mentee than they think they’re giving back…talking to people with different experiences, having that curiosity, is hugely important to our innovation and growth, both now and for the future as we think about growing the company.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

Of course, mentorship programs aren’t without their hiccups. As Maggie Smith, VP of HR at compliance-training platform Traliant, explained over email: “One challenge is ensuring that the employee who is assigned the buddy or mentor role is following through on the commitment they made. Everyone gets very busy and in a remote environment, it can be out of sight, out of mind.”

Asking questions. Remote-work consultant Melissa Smith explained that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mentorship, but there are questions HR can ask to fine-tune their methods. “Do [employees] want to be mentored so that they can get promoted? Do they want to be mentored so that they can be better leaders? Do they want to be mentored so that they can understand themselves better?”

This helps build trust, because “you can’t mentor someone who doesn't trust you,” she argued.

If a company wants to present the possibility of mentorship to its new employees, it can try baking it into the onboarding process, Maggie Smith advised. Traliant initiates new hires to the company by pairing them with a buddy for three weeks or longer, depending on employees’ preferences. This can be a means of trialing a mentorship program, she said. “I’d encourage HR departments to start small.”

There needs to be a level of trust to any relationship, Ho said, so mentors and mentees should really strive to know each other on more personal terms beyond the traditional 9-to-5 paradigm. Mentors are taught to “ask mentees about their personal life and get to know that whole individual, because that allows you to really meet their needs. No one’s career is in isolation.”

Companies can make mentorship opportunities available, but they can’t force employees to pursue them. “We really believe employees need to be self-directed in this because it takes time, commitment, and intentionality to make it work,” Ho said.

After all, nobody ever picked up a hitchhiker who didn’t stick their thumb out.—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.