Lyra Grands, a senior legal assistant with The Hartford in New Jersey, aspires to work in data and technology someday. So, when an internal mentorship program paired her with Prashant Nigam, a software engineering director, she was thrilled. It didn’t matter that he was based in Connecticut. In fact, it was a positive.
“In my opinion, I would say that remote mentoring is much better. If something came up at the last moment, rescheduling is not an issue," says Grands. “Remote workers carefully plan their workdays to make the most of their time. We calendar our events daily. In case we need to reschedule, we can look at each other’s calendar in Outlook and find a time most suitable for each other.”
It’s an arrangement that’s becoming increasingly familiar, as mentorship thrives in the corporate workplace and technology supports connection wherever an employee is based.
Consider this: More than 70% of Fortune 500 companies provide mentoring opportunities to their work force.1 On the federal level, the Small Business Administration offers a mentor-protege program for eligible small businesses (proteges) in which they're matched with experienced government contractors (mentors) to hone contract bidding and other skills. The program is incredibly popular, with an increase of 118% participation from 2014 to 2021 according to the U.S. Department of Labor.2
Adapting Mentorship to a Remote Model
As hybrid and remote work options stick around long-term, mentorship is evolving too.
Data to date shows that the format of mentorship programs is less important than the quality of the mentor-mentee matching.3 In other words, remote mentorship programs can be equally powerful as their in-person brethren when it comes to supporting employees.
“Program coordinators need to carefully match and train mentors and conduct follow-up monitoring to make sure the match goes smoothly. A poorly run mentoring program will fail – irrespective of whether it is remote or face-to-face,” says Dr. Belle Ragins, a distinguished professor at the Lubar College of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee specializing in mentoring, diversity and positive relationships at work.
In response to a growing demand for mentorship, companies are seeking new ways to mentor talent and connect employees.4
The Hartford’s work force is located across the country with many virtual mentorship opportunities for employees. Its Mentoring Program in tech and data, for example, offers a confidential and judgment-free environment for participants to ask for advice, share ideas, practice risk-taking and try new skills, says Donna DeFelice, director of learning and development programs for the company’s Tech, Data, Analytics & Cyber group.
“It also fosters growth in building networks, building confidence and reinforcing positive behavior so that teammates may contribute to a high-performance work environment,” she adds.
The Hartford's data and technology team had more than 200 employees participate virtually in the program this year as either mentors or mentees, says DeFelice. Many of these employees were already working remotely due to the nature of their jobs.
While there isn’t a singular set of guidelines to govern a successful remote partnership, there are plenty of pointers, including clarifying the rules of engagement and building trust.5
Mita Bhanushali, a manager of software engineering within The Hartford’s Enterprise Billing team, helps lead the company’s mentoring program. Her biggest piece of advice is to have mentees be proactive, set clear goals for their mentorship and craft an agenda for each mentor meeting.
DeFelice agrees, stressing the importance of accountability. “Both the mentor and mentee have an accountability to be present so that it's a meaningful interaction. It's definitely a two-way street.”
Understanding the Pros and Cons of Remote Mentorship
There are advantages and disadvantages to remote mentoring. On the positive side, mentoring virtually offers "incredible" access to mentors, says Dr. Raggins. "You can develop mentoring relationships with mentors across the world. Remote mentoring has no geographic boundaries,” she says. “They also offer more flexibility in terms of scheduling. This is really important for employees with children and dependents and for those seeking more work-life balance.”
This flexibility fosters an inclusive culture for employees who may have a disability or health issue. This flexibility and access fosters an inclusive, equitable culture for virtual programs.
That said, remote arrangements aren’t the first choice for some. Jake Moreno Coplon, CEO of the nonprofit America Needs You (ANY), which provides first-generation college students mentorship and career development, has overseen in-person, remote and hybrid programs. Virtual mentoring has positive aspects, he notes, but “it isn't a total replacement for the value offered when mentor and mentee are working together in person. We really believe as an organization that those high-touch, in-person connections are really going to be a foundational piece of how we approach mentorship forever.”
The connection that Coplon speaks about is an essential point – and one that takes dedicated effort in remote mentorship and sponsorship arrangements.
Nicki Jung, director of IT program management at The Hartford, saw that first-hand in 2021 when she helped launch The Hartford's Tech, Data, Analytics & Cyber Sponsorship Program.
“Protégé relationships that are formed organically are deep and meaningful. They are based on a level of mutual trust and respect that can take years to develop. In the case of our program, these were matched pairings of individuals who were expected to make a connection,” Jung says. “This was made even more difficult in a post-Covid world where many of these connections were being formed over the phone as opposed to face-to-face or through video conferencing. We needed to support them enough to give them direction and provide that spark that could ignite their relationship, but not so much structure that we stifled the natural progression.”
In response, the organizing team held mentee/protégé-only forums, took surveys and offered opportunities for private feedback to ensure mentees felt safe and supported.
“If we can make one person's career more enriching as a part of this program then that is success, Jung says. “When a company creates a culture in which leaders become sponsors, employees feel valued at work and will contribute to their teams in the overall company culture."
Kevin Bodie, vice president of The Hartford's IT leadership team and participating sponsor of the Tech, Data, Analytics & Cyber Sponsorship Program, agrees.
"I have had many great mentors throughout my career, each of whom made me a better employee as well as a better person. Now, as a sponsor, I get to do the same for others,” he says. “As we build the next generation of leaders we must use our influence, network and experience to sponsor and guide our proteges just as others have done for us. Great leaders help make great leaders.”
1 Why Your Mentoring Program Should Be Mandatory, Harvard Business Review, Sept.-Oct., 2022
2 SBA Mentor-Protege Program, U.S. Small Business Administration, November 16, 2020
3 How to Mentor in a Remote Workplace, Harvard Business Review, March 2022
4 McGraw Hill Partners with Chronus to Help Employees "Stretch Forward" with Mentoring, 2020
5 Virtual Mentoring Best Practices for Remote Employees, Association for Talent Development, April 2020
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