Mentoring Remote Workers Is More Workable Than You Think

    If you’ve ever been responsible for keeping remote employees engaged and productive, you know how tough it can be. It’s hard enough to manage people you see every day, so doing a really good job of managing people you rarely or perhaps never see in person can seem next to impossible.

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    If I wasn’t entirely convinced it was possible before, I certainly am now that I’ve had the opportunity to speak at length with Beth N. Carvin, president and CEO of Nobscot Corp. Nobscot is a Honolulu-based retention management firm that might best be described as the outcome of morphing an HR consultancy with a software company. And one of the things it does is provide the tools and know-how to help manage remote employees. That’s important, because chances are, you haven’t thought the whole remote-employee thing through.

    For one thing, how many of your remote employees have a mentor? That’s right. A mentor. How many? A grand total of zero, right? You’re probably thinking that building a trusted relationship between a mentor and a mentee who rarely or never see each other just wouldn’t work. But according to Carvin, the idea that relationships can’t flourish without meeting in person is a huge misconception.

    Carvin argues that for all of this to work, remote mentees need to be able to participate in the selection of their mentors. But that begs a key question: What qualities or experiences make a person a particularly good candidate to be a mentor of a remote employee? In other words, what should the remote worker look for? I posed that question to Carvin, and she said there are two approaches the mentee might take:

    Mentoring is a really great strategy when it comes to remote employees, whether you’re looking at this from the company’s perspective in trying to retain remote employees and keep them productive, happy with the organization and excited about their job; or from the workers’ perspective of making their job more interesting and successful. So in answer to the question of who you look for in a mentor, there are two different ways to approach that if you’re the mentee, depending upon your objective of the mentorship. You might want to look at someone who has been a successful remote worker—someone who has lived what you’re experiencing, has found ways to make it really work, who understands the challenges of working remotely and has come up with some solutions to be successful.

    The other approach would be to go the opposite way. If you’re only one of a few employees who are working remotely, and you’re feeling really disconnected from the organization—remote employees often feel like the stepchild of the rest of the company—then it would be wise to seek a mentor in the company’s main location who can keep you in the loop, who can make sure the people in the corporate office remember you, and remind people about the great things you’re doing and be your advocate, and also keep you well-informed of things that are going on in the organization.

    Carvin described Nobscot as a “virtual company” — although it’s headquartered in Honolulu, “almost everybody is located in different locations.” Most of the employees are scattered across the United States and Canada, close to where the clients are, so managing remote workers is in the company’s DNA. Nobscot’s core software development work is in the area of automating the exit interview process, so I asked Carvin how the company’s technology can help boost the engagement and productivity of remote employees. She said it’s all about determining why remote employees aren’t engaged, and why they ultimately leave:

    One of the reasons why we’re interested in this area is that first, we have remote workers, so for me as the head of the organization it’s been important for me to learn about the challenges of managing remote workers; and secondarily, employee retention is the area we work in with our clients. In working with our exit interview technology, we can look at the exit interviews of people who were working remotely and left. From a technology perspective, we really encourage organizations to be getting feedback and finding out why [the employ was leaving], because the reality is the reasons people leave are different for every company—every company has its unique issues, irritations, drivers of turnover. And with the remote workers, you don’t know what the problem is. Are they not getting the right training? Are they not being communicated with enough? Are they not being invited to the activities? Have they never had a chance to meet their manager in person at all? Do they not have the resources they need to perform their job effectively? You don’t know what the issue is, and you don’t want to guess. So for us, from a technology standpoint, we encourage organizations to be getting some kind of feedback, whether it’s new-hire surveys or exit interviews, and then analyze the feedback, look for the trends, try to identify where the problems are happening, and then address them.

    Carvin brought the discussion full-circle with a reference to the company’s technology for automating mentoring programs:

    From the mentoring perspective, going back to our technology, we have a program called Mentor Scout, and as part of that we have group mentoring. That’s something we recommend if you have remote employees. In addition to giving them the opportunity to have a one-on-one mentor relationship, if you can have some kind of mentoring group, whether it’s in person or online, it allows for more communication around a specific mentoring topic.

    Carvin had a lot more to say about remote work-related issues, from the Yahoo controversy to the gender and generational differences in how remote employees operate. It was a fascinating discussion, and I’ll share it in a later post.

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