Remote and hybrid work models are here to stay. Widely adopted out of necessity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies now realize that remote and hybrid work arrangements offer benefits for both employees and the bottom line.

That said, adopting remote or hybrid work isn’t without its challenges. Building connection and engagement in a virtual environment isn’t easy, and employees working remotely are less likely to benefit from informal development opportunities that occur more naturally in an in-person setting, such as impromptu “brainstorming sessions” over lunch or even a quick catch-up with an executive by the coffee machine. This can quickly lead to an inequitable employee experience: In a 2022 survey of C-suite executives, 41% of participates said they believe remote employees are less likely to be considered for a promotion. The survey also found that remote and hybrid workers are 47% less likely to have access to company leadership.

Virtual mentoring can help ensure that remote and hybrid employees receive the development and support they need to improve their performance and advance their careers. However, “leading remotely is challenging,” says Kelly Lockwood Primus, chief executive officer of LeadingNOW, an inclusive leadership development training provider, and many leaders may find themselves ill-equipped to be effective virtual mentors.

Stephen Bailey, CEO and co-founder of leadership development provider ExecOnline, explains that the rapid rise of remote and hybrid work has “left many leaders unprepared, as traditional methods of leading teams no long longer meet the demands of leading increasingly distributed and diverse teams.” In fact, research by ExecOnline found that only 5% of leaders surveyed have the right combination of strategic prioritization and talent engagement skills needed to effectively lead right now.

Let’s consider why virtual mentoring is a critical skill for leaders today, and how learning and development (L&D) can help leaders develop it.

Why Mentor?

Today’s leaders are busier than ever, and finding the time to mentor team members can seem next to impossible. However, it’s critical that leaders treat mentoring as a business-critical initiative — because it is. Research shows that when mentors are actively engaged with mentees, those mentees form stronger emotional bonds to the organization, report higher job satisfaction and perceive greater support from the organization broadly.

While leaders may feel like they don’t have the time (or energy) for virtual mentoring, investing in their team’s professional development can ultimately save them time and energy down the line by bridging skills gaps, driving engagement and reducing turnover. Mentees aren’t the only ones who benefit from virtual mentoring, either. Bailey says that “the opportunity goes both ways.” For mentors, “the ability to connect with people who may be quite different in any number of ways opens up the chance for learning and gaining [a] new perspective and appreciation,” and doing so in a virtual environment also provides an opportunity for mentors to progress their skills in communicating and connecting virtually.” The learning, therefore, is “bi-directional.”

Lastly, virtual mentoring can also support your organization’s broader diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals. “Being a mentor in a virtual environment means you can share your experience and insights with a much more diverse potential pool of mentees, as you’re not bound by geographic limits or time-bound to traditional work hours,” Bailey says. That means you can provide development and support “to people who have been previously overlooked — single parents, for example, who may have smaller windows of availability.”

In fact, Omer Glass, co-founder and chief executive officer at Growthspace, a talent development and personalized coaching provider, consistently sees clients adopt virtual mentoring as a way to invest in employees from underrepresented groups. By making virtual mentoring available, he says, organizations often see tangible progress toward key DEI metrics and goals.

Training Leaders To Be Effective Virtual Mentors

It’s clear that virtual mentoring benefits both employees and the business. However, these benefits can only be realized if leaders receive the training they need to be effective virtual mentors.

If the virtual mentoring experience is a negative one, mentees and mentors alike can become disheartened and hesitant to continue. Glass explains, “You want your mentors and mentees to be happy and engaged, and you don’t want them to be disappointed in something that doesn’t work.”

To set leaders up for success as virtual mentors, train them on the following best practices:

  1. Plan ahead. It requires more preparation to have an effective mentoring meeting online than it does in person, Lockwood Primus says. When sending a meeting invite for a virtual mentoring session, include an “agenda” of points or challenges to discuss, and encourage mentees to come prepared with any questions or concerns. Have any documents, worksheets or supplemental materials downloaded and ready to share via chat or screenshare in advance of the meeting.
  2. Be authentic. The rise of remote and hybrid work has largely humanized the employee experience, so it’s important that virtual mentors are authentic in how they show up and in the stories and experiences they share. Mauro Porcini, chief design officer at PepsiCo and author of “The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love with People,” says that leaders “don’t need to be professional communicators in order to effectively communicate their stories.” They need to share their experiences in an authentic way that encourages mentees to do the same. When it comes to building a strong relationship with a mentee, especially in a virtual environment, “authenticity is truly key,” he says.
  3. Be present. Having an environment that is free from distractions is important for both virtual and in-person mentoring, Bailey says. With virtual mentoring, however, there’s the added element of technology as a potential distraction. Before logging on to a mentoring session, encourage leaders to silence notifications and make sure their internet connection is strong. It’s critical that mentors remain present and engaged throughout the duration of the mentoring session. Practicing mindfulness can help leaders stay “in the moment” and make the most of their sessions with mentees.

Planning ahead, being authentic and being present can help leaders be effective virtual mentors. But it’s also important that the mentor-mentee relationship is a good match to begin with. While some mentees may prefer a mentor with a similar background or experience, others may seek out someone with a different perspective. Consider your options, which may include bringing in external mentors or matching employees with mentors across departments, to determine the right fit for your employees.

Learning how to effectively communicate in a remote environment “is probably one of the most critical leadership skills that need to be taught right now,” Lockwood Primus says. By training leaders to become effective virtual mentors, you will be well on your way toward supporting your people with the development they need to thrive — no matter where they’re located.