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Junior Staff Are Struggling to Adjust to Flexible Schedules, But Forced In-Office Mandates Are Not The Answer — This Is.

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In today’s fast-paced business world, flexible work schedules have become increasingly popular, allowing employees to balance their professional and personal lives more effectively. However, with the rise of remote and hybrid work environments, one crucial aspect of employee development has taken a hit: mentoring. Recent findings by WFH Research, a group that includes Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom and other scholars, show that on-site employees devote more time to mentoring and professional development than their remote counterparts. Namely, those who came to the office devoted about 40 more minutes a week to mentoring others, nearly 25 more in formal training and about 15 additional minutes each week doing professional development and learning activities.

As a seasoned expert in helping leaders figure out a flexible return to office and hybrid work policy, I can attest that Bloom’s research is spot on. When you just let things take their natural course, junior staff suffer. No wonder leaders who previously showed strong support for flexibility like Marc Benioff and Mark Zuckerberg changed their minds, at least about junior staff, pushing them to come to the office for three days a week — but also asking senior staff to come to the office to mentor recent hires.

Mentoring: The missing link in flexible work

Unfortunately, their proposed solution is wrong-headed. Mandating in-office attendance for most of the workweek is bound to lead to attrition, resistance, disengagement and lowered productivity. And it will not be very effective for mentoring, either. In the context of the return-to-office wars, senior staff especially resent coming to the office with the sole goal of mentoring junior staff by osmosis. They tend to go to their office or cubicle, shut their door and put on their headphones, and try to avoid interacting with anyone else. Junior staff is usually too intimidated by this obviously hostile and standoffish attitude and fails to get mentoring.

Instead, the solution is a structured mentoring program that embraces flexible schedules. Senior staff feels much less resentment about coming to the office once a week for several hours to do in-depth mentoring, along with some virtual mentoring sessions, compared to an obligation to come in three days a week for the weak soup of mentoring by osmosis.

Picture a garden with an abundance of diverse and colorful plants. Each plant represents an employee, and the garden as a whole represents your organization. The sun, water, and nutrients these plants receive are akin to the mentoring and professional development opportunities that nourish your employees. Without these essential resources, the garden withers and fails to reach its full potential. Similarly, without a structured mentoring program, your employees’ growth may be stunted, leading to a less vibrant and successful organization.

And it’s not only the gardening metaphor that illustrates effective mentoring: a study by Charter and Qualtrics of 3,005 desk-based workers in the United States does so as well. They found that “hybrid work does not limit the potential of mentoring” and “Successful mentoring relationships were similarly likely to occur if mentor and mentee met remotely [or in-person.”

Similarly, the Harvard Business Review reports that “many individuals incorrectly presume that physical proximity is essential in developmental relationships. But like work itself, mentoring is defined less by the medium in which it is accomplished than by the outcomes delivered.” If you have “commitment, trust, relationship quality, and mentor competence,” these “are the real ingredients of developmental growth,” and you can have these in both in-person and “virtual mentorship.”

But what is involved in a structured mentoring program of this sort?

Related: CEOs Are Blaming The Need For Mentorship to Justify The Forced Return of All Employees. Reality Calls For a Very Different Approach.

Individual lunch sessions: Planting the seeds of trust

One-on-one in-person interactions with senior professionals serve as the sun in our garden analogy. These meetings foster personal bonding, vulnerability, psychological safety, and trust — the lifeblood of effective mentoring relationships.

While these sessions are powerful, senior professionals’ time is limited, and most want to minimize their time in the office. That’s why it’s essential to incorporate other mentoring activities.

Virtual coffee meetings: Nurturing connections across the distance

Imagine these virtual meetings as the water that sustains our garden. After trust has been established through in-person interactions, virtual coffee meetings with senior professionals offer a convenient and accessible way to maintain relationships.

The lower time burden and flexibility of these meetings make them an attractive option for busy senior professionals, no matter where they are in the world. I’m not simply referring to traveling: Many senior professionals at my clients moved to more attractive locales during the pandemic and only came to the office for quarterly retreats. They were too high-value for my clients to pressure them to return to the office.

But, we ended up making arrangements where these senior professionals met their mentees during quarterly retreats and began their relationships in these intense bonding experiences. Then, they continued mentoring in these virtual meetings, having established the trust necessary to do so.

Regardless of whether you do in-person or virtual meetings, make sure to do them often. Both my own experience with clients and the research by Charter and Qualtrics found it’s key to have frequent check-ins between mentors and mentees. In fact, according to the study, “Some 51% of very successful mentors meet with their mentees once a week or more often, compared to 37% for somewhat successful mentors.”

Group lunch sessions: Cultivating collective wisdom

Group lunch sessions act like the fertile soil that supports the growth of your organization’s garden. By engaging small groups of young employees with senior professionals, these sessions facilitate knowledge sharing and relationship building while making efficient use of senior professionals’ time. Such gatherings allow the collective wisdom of your organization to flourish.

Moreover, much like the pollinators in our garden, group mentoring sessions encourage the cross-pollination of ideas among a cohort of younger employees mentored by a senior employee. This approach fosters a collaborative learning environment of peer-based learning and reduces the burden on senior employees of teaching junior staff, promoting a thriving ecosystem within your organization.

Just like with one-on-one mentoring, group sessions are best started in person. Then, you can transition to remote once trust has built up.

Coworking sessions: Encouraging organic knowledge transfer

Imagine coworking sessions as the intertwined roots of plants in a vibrant garden. Just as these roots share nutrients and stabilize each other, coworking sessions present a unique opportunity for senior and junior employees to share knowledge and support each other. This shared workspace provides a fertile ground for collaboration, where ideas can germinate, blossom and bear the fruit of innovation.

In-person coworking sessions, in particular, are akin to the roots that delve deep into the soil, drawing essential nutrients and establishing a robust foundation. These sessions offer the invaluable advantage of immediate feedback, allowing for real-time adjustments and refinements. The energy and spontaneity in these physical spaces spark creativity, much like the invigorating feel of the earth between a gardener’s fingers.

Virtual coworking sessions, on the other hand, are comparable to the surface roots that adapt to their environment, spreading out to absorb rainwater and sunlight. They offer the flexibility of connecting from anywhere, making them an excellent solution for remote work scenarios. These sessions remove geographical boundaries, enabling the exchange of diverse perspectives, much like the rain and sun that nurture a garden’s growth. Unlike the one-on-one or group sessions, I haven’t observed the need for trust-building through initial in-person coworking, making this activity an especially flexible tool for teams with some members who are fully remote.

What makes coworking sessions a win-win solution is the reduction of burden on senior employees. By encouraging shared workspaces, both physical and virtual, senior staff members can impart their wisdom and experience without overextending themselves. It’s much like the way mature plants support the growth of younger ones in a garden without depleting their own resources. Ultimately, coworking sessions cultivate a culture of mutual learning and teamwork, laying the foundation for a thriving, resilient organization.

Related: CEOs Are Blaming The Need For Mentorship to Justify The Forced Return of All Employees. Reality Calls For a Very Different Approach.

Goal-oriented mentoring: Ensuring a fruitful harvest

To maximize the yield of our metaphorical garden, we must set clear goals and incentives for the mentoring program. This approach ensures that all parties are fully engaged and that the program is effective in fostering employee growth.

Just as a gardener regularly prunes and assesses their plants’ health, organizations must implement evaluations to monitor the progress and success of their mentoring initiatives. This process enables continuous improvement and helps your garden – or your organization – to flourish.

Again, the findings by Charter and Qualtrics supported these lessons from my work with clients. According to the study, “Mentors in successful relationships are more likely to have this mentorship supported through compensation (27%, vs. 17% for less successful mentors), recognition in performance reviews (42% vs. 33%), and being provided time by their employer to mentor (39% vs. 33%).”

Embrace structured mentoring for a thriving organization

As the flexible work revolution continues to gain momentum, organizations must recognize the importance of structured mentoring programs. By incorporating a diverse range of mentoring activities, such as individual lunch sessions, virtual meetings, group sessions, coworking initiatives, goal-oriented mentoring, and regular evaluations, your organization can continue to thrive. It’s like ensuring your garden has the right balance of sun, water, soil and care — it’s not just about planting the seeds, it’s about nurturing them to full bloom.

Now, dear reader, it’s your turn to take action. Consider your organization’s current mentoring practices. Are they like a well-tended garden, ripe with the fruits of shared wisdom and mutual growth resulting from a structured mentoring program fit for flexible work? Or are they more like a plot of land full of random weeds resulting from mentoring the natural way — by osmosis? If you let nature take over, you deserve the outcome.

As the flexible work landscape continues to evolve, remember that the roots of success lie in a robust mentoring program. Embrace this opportunity and watch your organization bloom. After all, a garden full of thriving plants is much more satisfying and beautiful than a barren field. Nurture your employees like a diligent gardener, and you’ll reap the rewards of a vibrant, successful flexible organization.

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