WHAT IS VIRTUAL MENTORING?
“Virtual mentoring” simply refers to any mentoring activity that does not take place face-to-face. With today’s technology there is a suite of communication tools open to this style of mentoring, including Skype, telephone, email and messaging.
When your workforce is widely dispersed, virtual mentoring can be your only option. If you are working in a fast moving high-tech environment, virtual mentoring may seem more appropriate to your culture. But is it effective?
The answer is yes – so long as you plan to make it work.
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 DESIGN FOR VIRTUAL MENTORING
With all this in mind, some key design principles emerge:
- Rather than offer a “self-serve” mentoring option – where a single mentee searches for a mentor online – it may be better to roll the program out in “cohorts’ so that mentees feel connected as a group and can build connections with other mentees in their cohort. Provide participants with plenty of structure (advice on what to do when) and resource materials.
- When face-to-face events cannot be offered, each cohort should have at least three webinar event opportunities to prepare them for their mentoring relationships, allow them to connect with others in the program, and to provide closure once the program and/or mentoring relationship is completed.
- A relatively “high-touch” program management is needed to help keep mentoring relationships on track. Remember that virtual mentoring is more vulnerable to loss of commitment. So it is critical that participants know what they are doing from the start, and that they know they have access to help if they need it. Regular email reminders at key points in the program are useful and help maintain commitment. Supplement this with phone calls made to participants and webinar check-ins.
- Training is always a critical success factor in formal mentoring programs. In virtual programs, the training needs to address the usual topics plus how to make the most of a virtual relationship, including suggested frequency of contact (every 2-4 weeks). From our experience, allowing participants to access video demonstrations and interviews online in their own time, is more effective than a slide-by-slide webinar training approach.
Our clients use our Art of Mentoring suite of training materials, exercises, tips and articles. But these materials can also be created in-house. The key is to have comprehensive materials available for both mentors and mentees.
- 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.
- Thompson, L., Jeffries, M. and Topping, K. (2010). E-mentoring for e-learning development. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Vol. 47, No. 3, 305–315.
- Zey, M. (2011). Virtual mentoring: the challenges and opportunities of electronically mediated formal mentor programs, Review of Business Research, Volume 11, Number 4, 141-152