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How To Mentor A Remote Employee

Mentoring a remote employee is similar to mentoring someone in-house, with a few key differences.

How To Mentor A Remote Employee
[Photo: kasto80/iStock]

Full or part-time remote work is growing trend. Gallup’s “2017 State of the American Workplace” report found that nearly four in 10 employees does some work from home.

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Gallup’s research found remote workers overall to be slightly more engaged than their in-office counterparts. However, the report also indicated that those who spend more time working remotely rather than in the office may miss “important social and collaborative opportunities that are integral to engagement and well-being.”

But Jody Greenstone Miller, CEO of Business Talent Group, says that managing remote workers isn’t much different than managing other employees. By building relationships and mentoring workers, you can develop employees and keep them feeling very much a part of the team, she says. And while mentoring people who work elsewhere offers some challenges, it’s not much different than mentoring people you see regularly, she says.

To create an effective remote mentoring program, focus on four key pillars.

Set The Same Expectations

Remote workers need to be on the same page as in-office workers in terms of expectations and policies, says Phil Shawe, cofounder and co-CEO of TransPerfect, a translation technology company. Lay out the rules on employee spending, vacation time, business trips, etc. for everyone, regardless of their location. “You don’t want to have a different set of standards for remote and non-remote workers,” he says. To understand how well you’re developing your employee, you need to know that you’re starting with a basic level of knowledge about the company and its policies.

Similarly, get on the same page about what each person expects out of the mentoring relationship, he says. Stay in regular contact without micromanaging, but you need to be sure how your protégé is feeling about issues like workload and deadlines so you can find areas where the individual needs help developing new skills or overcoming challenges.

Build A Relationship First (IRL If Possible)

Leanne Beesley, CEO and cofounder of remote work consulting company Coworker.com has both a remote mentor—her business partner, Sam Marks—and a remote protégé. One of the key challenges of remote mentoring arrangements is being able to build enough rapport so that they’re comfortable asking questions and to get to know them well enough that you can spot strengths and weaknesses. A mentoring relationship is a two-way street, so it’s crucial that you build a connection with your “mentee” early on so they don’t feel intimidated by you, she says.

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“When I started mentoring one of our remote employees, I flew her out from Toronto to Barcelona to work with me in person for a week. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made as the impact it had on our communication has been huge,” she says. Using personality profiles can give you a shortcut to help understand the person and how to best communicate and interact with them, she says. (Beesley prefers a form of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator).

Build In More Structure

Remote mentoring relationships need more structure and communication than you might think is necessary, says Nancy Halpern, principal of workforce consulting firm KNH Associates. You need to determine how often you’ll be in touch and through what formats. Keeping that cadence will help you ensure that you’re communicating regularly enough to have an impact.

“Mentoring relationships often fail because they can’t land in the sweet spot between overly casual and overly engineered. It’s critical when connecting remotely to have an initial agenda and a loose plan—so that the framework is there but you’re willing to adapt,” she says. You may also need to set aside time during each of your sessions to discuss development needs and planning—something that may occur more naturally or intuitively if you were spending more face-time with your protégé or mentor, she says.

And that structure may change over time, especially as you get to know each other better, Beesley says. She and Marks met when she was freelancing for a tech company. He had the strategic background she wanted in a mentor. As they began to build Coworker together, the mentoring relationship became more informal with less structure. Now, instead of calls or video-conferences, they use WhatsApp voice messaging several times a day. “Hearing each other’s voice helps bridge the gap that not being in the same office can cause,” she says.

Feedback And Recognition

Creating systems for feedback and recognition can help strengthen both formal and informal mentoring relationships, Miller says. At her firm, she instituted “feedback Fridays” where employees and managers are encouraged to engage with each other and share feedback to improve their communication with each other and recognize both areas for improvements and jobs well done.

She says the role of the manager is getting harder, overall. Managers face new challenges and need to be clearer than ever about the definition of success in the job and what it takes to get there, she says. It also requires more effort to stay connected with people to get a true understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, she says.

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“I think the basic core values of assuming positive intent, having a very high ethical culture because you’ve got people remote. You’ve got to have that. You can’t monitor what everyone’s doing. The values of a company, I think, becomes really important in a remote situation,” Miller says.

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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