How to Mentor Young Workers in a Remote World
As we approach year three of the pandemic, we need to (finally) change how we train people.
A few days into one of my first jobs in public relations, I remember my manager giving me a spreadsheet and telling me to “start emailing people.” My boss sat roughly 10 feet away from me, and one day I timidly asked for some additional guidance. I remember being told to “just work it out for myself.”
Back then, I’d read many books on the nature of PR, but none of them were much help. My first year in the industry was awful, primarily because despite being regularly told what to do, I was almost never really shown how to do it. The “training” I received was nothing more than lectures when I made mistakes. I was stuck in a constant loop of burnout and depression. This sense of professional abandonment during my first working years is something that still affects me to this day.
It is important to note that all of this took place in an office. The “magic” of being in the same space that we hear so much about never occurred for me. Instead, what’s been happening to young people while working remotely during the pandemic happened to me: Even though I was barely a foot from several co-workers at any given time, I felt lost. No break room or management-consultant-driven pablum could compensate for the fact that I was never properly managed.
This is incredibly common in the United States. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that companies with fewer than 100 employees gave their workers only 12 minutes of training from their manager every six months, and in organizations of 100 to 500 employees, that was halved to six minutes. An Accenture study from 2011 reported on by The Washington Post found that only about a fifth of employees said they received on-the-job training from their employer in five years. According to a 2019 survey, 37 percent of professionals have a mentor, and 61 percent of those relationships grew naturally rather than with the help of the worker’s company.
These statistics should be eye-opening for those arguing that remote work “lets down young people” because of the lack of camaraderie, mentorship, and training. The truth is, corporate America has been letting down young workers for years, but it wasn’t always this way. A 1995 study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a much higher amount of hours invested in training, with employees receiving an average of 13.4 hours of formal training in six months—which is still depressingly low.
I believe that America’s failure to properly train—and, by extension, manage—its workforce is a huge part of what’s driving the “Great Resignation.” Companies haven’t stepped up to show loyalty to or investment in their workers, so why would employees show any back? An IBM study from 2014 found that employees are 12 times more likely to leave their company when they feel they won’t be able to achieve their career goals there (compared with those who feel they will), and leaving is 30 times more likely for new employees. (Keep in mind, this study was carried out before the pandemic.) Microsoft’s remote-work analysis, which I find to be extremely questionable, even notes that “consistent with pre-pandemic research, new hires interviewed felt more positive when they had consistent formalized, consistent and sustained 1:1 interactions with onboarding buddies, mentors and their managers.”
Remote work has its challenges and downsides, absolutely, but I am sick of hearing people suggest that human contact is this magical, transformative panacea in the workplace. Human connections are not made simply by being in the same physical space as someone else, nor are they guaranteed because you happen to get paid by the same company. Mentorship and training are not things that happen passively; they are actions to be done deliberately, thoughtfully, and consistently, with the intention of fostering and retaining talent.
This has been my core frustration in my writing about management—that so many people disregard it as something that just happens “naturally,” without formalizing and supporting it as a relationship that occurs separate from actual work duties. As a boss, you can’t merely tell someone what to do; you have to put in the work to make sure that they’re thriving.
As the Omicron variant further delays many 2022 return-to-office plans, managers would be smart to ask themselves how their younger employees can find proper training and mentorship as we enter year three of the pandemic. The person you’re managing today could be in a different city, state, or country than you are, and you’ll have to use any number of software tools to carry out the job. But regardless of the tooling, or the methodology, or the big ideas you may have, it really comes back to investing uninterrupted, thoughtful energy in another person’s success.
Here are three things to keep in mind as many of us continue to work from home.
Master the Asynchronous
One of the biggest challenges of remote work is getting people to do things at the same time. This becomes more and more convoluted as your team grows in size. One way to solve this problem is to quit trying to outsmart time zones, and to commit to investing in asynchronous mentorship as well as real-time communication. In other words, you should prioritize being on the same page rather than talking at the same time. An excellent article on asynchronous remote work, by Steve Glaveski in the Harvard Business Review, offers numerous recommendations for specific tools, as well as a very important idea: You and your mentor need a single source of truth. This may be a shared Notion document (within which you can include calendars, pipelines of work, tables, and so on), a Google Doc, or another constantly synced cloud-based document where anything you’re working on lives.
And honestly, there’s something quite special about having a body of work that you’ve both built together. Instead of simply talking every week about what you’ve done and what you want to do, you have a regular, documented feedback loop—no matter how physically far away you may be from each other.
Be Consistent, Be Human
Asynchronous interactions are just one tool. Every successful remote team still needs to master semi-regular synchronous meetings to combat the “island” effect. No matter how shy or introverted an employee may be, you, as a leader, need to hear their voice fairly frequently and pay attention to their messaging in how they discuss their work.
At an early job, only one person ever tried to mentor me, and he was not my manager but, perhaps, he took pity on me. He was given no time or resources to help me out, but he spared whatever seconds he had to pass me contacts, tell me little tidbits, or hear me cry because my spirit had been crushed by another manager. The beauty of that relationship was his consistency. If he said he was busy and would get back to me later, he did. If he told me he’d give me feedback on something, I got it. The reason I was so fond of him was not necessarily any one given thing he did, but a continuum of reliability and conversations about what we were both working on.
Being a great manager requires you to get someone “through” work. This is a combination of helping them complete their work and evaluating their emotional state as they navigate work-induced stress. Doing this remotely might mean taking the occasional late phone call from a mentee, or, better yet, having the initiative to ask a young worker how they’re feeling well before they reach a breaking or burnout point.
Hold Tangible Space for Success
When my team and I are at a low point, we look at one of our Slack channels where we keep every piece of coverage we’ve ever gotten for a client. It is a running log of success—a channel entirely for celebration and wins, built as a means of both knowing what we’ve done and understanding where we’ve been. By having a continual log of everything you’ve done together, your wins become more historic—you can see them, return to them, and relish them. And when failure inevitably comes, you can understand where it sits in the grand picture of your work.
I firmly believe that remote work is transformative, and that its pros outweigh its cons. The new year is a real chance for workers to have a better, healthier experience at their job after a prolonged period of stress and isolation. Management that hangs over your shoulder and bugs you about tasks won’t lead to a thriving remote workforce—but a thoughtful manager and a focus on career growth will inspire and invigorate workers, even if they’re thousands of miles away from one another.
Those who hope to run successful organizations should deliberately empower a culture of active management and mentorship, compensating mentors and giving them the time they need to do the extra work of nurturing young talent. The real threat to young people’s careers isn’t companies going fully remote; it’s companies that don’t invest in young people’s futures.