- Forced office attendance can lead to a mentorship imbalance.
- Rather than compelling everyone to return to the office in the hope of spontaneous mentorship, the need of the hour is a hybrid mentorship program that amalgamates in-person and virtual mentorship elements.
- In a world where remote and hybrid work models have become standard, it’s time to adapt and introduce hybrid mentorship programs that meet the needs of both senior and junior staff.
Envision this: a prominent technology firm opts to recall its workforce to the physical office, presuming this will promote mentorship and facilitate organizational continuity. Take the example of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff who, in the spring of 2023 during an appearance on the “On With Kara Swisher” podcast, advocated for in-person interaction among new hires.
He stated, “For our new employees who are coming in, we know empirically that they do better if they’re in the office, meeting people, being onboarded, being trained. If they are at home and not going through that process, we don’t think they’re as successful.”
In response to this belief, Salesforce overhauled its previously flexible policy. The company’s Chief People Officer, Brent Hyder, announced in a company blog post from September 2022, “We have never enforced office attendance at Salesforce, and we never will.”
However, come spring 2023, Salesforce stipulated that their sales and marketing personnel should report to the office four days a week. A similar shift in policy is being observed in leading tech, finance, and other sectors.
These policy shifts, by Salesforce and others, are genuinely aimed at enhancing the professional growth and performance of junior employees. However, the evidence suggests that in the post-pandemic era, such mandates are misdirected and lead to disgruntled senior employees, ineffective mentorship, and a less-than-optimal work environment. Here’s an exploration of why this happens, and how it can be rectified.
The Cracked Osmosis Model: Senior Staff Resentment Brews
Many leaders, influenced by their recollections of pre-pandemic times, assume that compelling employees to return to the office will spontaneously foster mentorship and growth. However, the pandemic has enlightened senior employees to the feasibility of high productivity outside of the office, and many now oppose the idea of resuming office attendance.
My observations during focus group discussions with 23 companies planning their office return and hybrid work policies revealed that senior staff (obligated to return to the office) often isolate themselves, thereby negating the anticipated osmosis effect.
Consider a regional insurance company where enforced office attendance bred resentment among senior staff, resulting in diminished availability for mentorship. Consequently, junior staff struggled to adapt to their new roles and tasks, leading to a drop in productivity and morale within the company.
The Mentorship Disparity: Favoring Interpersonal Skills Over Technical Competence
Forced office attendance can lead to a mentorship imbalance. Focus groups indicated that only those junior staff with pronounced social skills and initiative were mentored in the “forced return” scenario, leaving those lacking these skills — and arguably in most need of mentorship — neglected. Furthermore, strong social skills do not necessarily equate to technical prowess, leading to a scenario where those with excellent interpersonal skills but weaker technical abilities receive mentorship.
This was the case at a large professional services firm. Employees who were adept at social interaction benefitted from the office return, while their technically proficient but socially awkward colleagues were disadvantaged.
A similar pattern emerged at a late-stage SaaS startup, where employees with superior interpersonal skills gained the attention of senior staff, while their technically skilled peers with weaker social skills struggled to secure the necessary mentorship. This discrepancy can lead to a skills deficit that undermines the overall performance of the organization.
The Future Path: Hybrid Mentorship Programs
Rather than compelling everyone to return to the office in the hope of spontaneous mentorship, the need of the hour is a hybrid mentorship program that amalgamates in-person and virtual mentorship elements. This approach has been successfully adopted by several of my clients, yielding content senior staff and effective mentorship.
Why are senior staff more amenable to in-office mentorship as opposed to a mandate? My focus group discussions with senior staff disclosed that they value in-person mentorship immensely. Not only have they personally benefitted from it, but they also acknowledge that face-to-face interaction is crucial for establishing trust. This fosters a sense of comfort among junior employees, allowing them to reveal their vulnerabilities when seeking guidance.
Implementing such a policy does not necessitate enforcing a rigid office attendance schedule of three to five days a week. Instead, it calls for task-specific office attendance. Senior staff are likely to be more content and supportive when they understand the purpose of their office visit — for a mentorship meeting, in this case. This contrasts starkly with the resentment they may harbor due to an arbitrary office return mandate, which they perceive as a reflection of outdated, pre-pandemic thinking. The latter approach can lead to resistance, employee turnover, disengagement, and plummeting morale among senior staff.
On the other hand, seasoned employees feel appreciated when they are invited to the office for a specific purpose — a mentorship meeting, in this case. Moreover, they end up spending less time in the office if they are required to conduct a few mentorship meetings a week, compared to a full three-to-five-day office schedule. Hence, the leadership, senior staff, and junior employees all achieve their respective goals — a win-win-win situation.
Key Elements of a Successful Hybrid Mentorship Program
Based on my experience, a hybrid mentorship program should incorporate several key activities:
- One-on-one lunch sessions with senior professionals: These interactions are the most potent form of mentorship. However, due to time constraints, this should not be the only form of mentorship.
- Virtual coffee catchups with senior professionals: This is a less time-intensive alternative, allowing for more manageable mentorship arrangements, albeit less impactful than one-on-one lunch sessions.
- Group lunch sessions with senior professionals: Here, a senior employee hosts a few junior employees for lunch, promoting knowledge exchange and relationship building in a time-efficient manner.
- Group mentorship: A senior employee mentors a group of junior employees, fostering a collaborative learning environment while easing the time demands on the senior staff.
- In-person coworking sessions: One senior and several junior employees work on their individual tasks in a shared office space for a few hours. Junior team members can ask questions as they arise, while the senior staff member can periodically check on their work. This promotes teamwork and organic knowledge transfer while reducing the burden on senior employees.
- Virtual coworking sessions: Similar to in-person coworking, but conducted over videoconference for added flexibility.
Successful mentorship programs also require a set of guiding principles:
- Goal-driven mentorship: Ensure mentorship programs have clear goals and incentives to maximize engagement and effectiveness. Align the program with the organization’s values and goals so that both senior and junior employees understand its purpose and importance.
- Regular evaluations: Assess the progress and success of mentorship initiatives to ensure continuous improvement. Elicit feedback from both mentors and mentees, using the insights to refine and enhance the program.
- Mentor training and support: Provide senior staff with the skills and resources needed to be effective mentors. Offer training sessions to help them develop their coaching and communication skills and provide ongoing support to ensure their success in the mentorship role.
- Customization and flexibility: Recognize that different employees have unique needs and design a mentorship program that can be tailored to accommodate individual preferences and requirements. This approach will help maximize the program’s impact and effectiveness.
- Accountability and follow-up: Establish clear expectations for both mentors and mentees and track their progress throughout the mentorship relationship. Encourage regular check-ins and follow-ups to ensure that both parties are meeting their commitments and progressing towards their goals.
A Progressive Approach for a Post-Pandemic World
The main lesson to learn? Enforcing office returns with the hope of creating a mentoring environment through osmosis is outdated. In a world where remote and hybrid work models have become standard, it’s time to adapt and introduce hybrid mentorship programs that meet the needs of both senior and junior staff. Embrace this forward-thinking approach and witness your organization flourish in the face of change.