Making Mentorship Human: How to Succeed as a Mentor During a Pandemic
During a global pandemic, one thing is certain: Everything has to change. While major companies may be hailing the switch to remote work and the increased productivity of their remote workers, employees themselves are facing more challenges than ever before. Many young professionals are worried about losing their jobs, missing crucial opportunities to progress in their careers, and finding ways to move forward in a world gone stagnant.
Enter a critical resource for these professionals: mentorship programs.
It’s no secret that mentorship can provide invaluable support to individuals seeking to further their careers. Time and time again it has been proven that mentorship can and does work. Still, in these unprecedented times, one might wonder: Can mentorship stay relevant and prove functional?
The answer lies in adaptability — or, more accurately, a movement away from textbook practicality toward prioritizing human connection.
The past typically holds crucial clues that can inform our best practices moving forward. However, in the wake of COVID-19, much of our traditional business knowledge and advice has been rendered useless. The previously prevailing mentorship model — in which mentors simply listened to mentees and provided career advice — is now outdated. The game has fundamentally changed, and that means championing the age-old methods is not only idealistic, but also detrimental to the mental health of a mentee struggling to make connections and progress professionally.
The Best Way to Be a Mentor Now Is to Adapt to the Unadaptable
A mentor must reimagine the workplace and the many assumptions that accompany it. Many employees are working from home and coming into the physical office space rarely, if at all. This poses challenges for building interpersonal connections between members of a company, which makes the relationship between mentee and mentor all the more important. For employees both new and old, a mentor may now be the only point of contact who has their success in mind and isn’t caught up in pandemic-heightened competition. They may be the only person seeing that employee as a full human being, flaws and all, rather than just another number on a screen.
As typical work/home boundaries have dissolved, the pandemic has negatively affected the mental health of millions in the global workforce. Productivity is falling, and depression, anxiety, and employee burnout are on the rise. At the same time, employees are also dealing with persistent stresses on the home front they may not have faced before. A mentor must now expand their scope beyond the workplace and look at the forces playing on the employee’s whole life. Now more than ever, every facet of an employee’s life has a part to play in their professional well-being, and mentors must do the conscious work to overcome stigmas and dismiss the outdated notion that discussing home life and mental health concerns is “unprofessional.” This is not simply a matter of kindness and sympathy: Employees who feel their mental health and basic emotional needs are being met are more productive.
A mentor must not shy away from these discussions. Instead, they should support employees seeking help, and they should welcome discussions of roadblocks as a natural part of the path to individual and company success. Mentees need their mentors to be professional and respectful, but more importantly, they need their mentors to be human. Mentees want to know if their mentors are struggling through the same things they are. If a mentee is to open up and address problems as they arise, it is critical that they see the relationship as one based in reality and human connection, rather than a simple workplace requirement.
A mentor exists to offer support and guidance. This doesn’t change when mentorship is offered largely through a screen, but it does become all the more difficult — and all the more crucial. A sympathetic ear and a cautious word of encouragement can mean the difference between a functional, happy employee and a resignation letter. Mentors should try to leverage their superiority in the corporate ladder and relative security to broach the difficult topics and lay the groundwork for genuine human connection. During a pandemic, it’s easy for anyone to feel that their woes exist in a vacuum, but opening avenues for mutual dialogue can help break down the barriers erected by the shift to remote work.
In essence, the name of the game for pandemic mentorship is acknowledging the unique situation; openly communicating to set and maintain realistic goals; and fostering relationships based on vulnerability, honesty, and compassion. A mentor-mentee relationship that is open, respectful, and human will lead to stronger company connections, happy employees, and more productive workplace cultures — even in the wake of a global pandemic.
Brett Kaufman is founder and CEO of Kaufman Development and an entrepreneurial mentor.