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Promoting Mentorship in Hybrid Workplaces through Office Design

26 December 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing lockdowns and other social restrictions, have impacted our professional relationships just as much as our personal ones.

The lack or absence of casual workplace interactions, while tough for all employees, is particularly challenging for individuals who are only just starting off with their professional careers. How can one build the workplace relationships that are so critical for survival and growth? At the same time, remote work poses a major social challenge for organizations as well, making it that much harder for them to create a diverse and inclusive working environment.

The Importance of Mentorship:

We believe that a commitment towards mentorship can go a long way in alleviating the above problems. Mentorship is essential for employee satisfaction and retention – particularly for females of for people of color, both of whom are likelier than other groups to see mentoring as critical to their career advancement. As far as retention is concerned, mentorship plays a role in both employee progression and development. Mentorship, especially at the undergraduate level, can help build talent pipelines and play a role in offering greater access and options to students who are often overlooked during conventional recruiting, such as students belonging to community colleges. Recruiting errors and inadequate employee support has always been costly, but the stakes in the modern environment are higher than ever before – effective mentoring can help us avoid both.

This begs the question – how can organizations provide the holistic physical working and mentorship experience for employees who are working remotely?

How to Promote Mentorship in Hybrid Workplaces through Office Design:

Encouraging Open Environments:

Even though virtual communication does have certain limitations in promoting effective communication, the one major advantage is that it can help to surmount inequalities between team members – inequalities that might otherwise have been hard to overcome. For example, in an in-person setting, a new or an entry-level employee might not have felt comfortable approaching someone from the senior management level. Remote working and virtual interactions, however, help to break down such hierarchical walls. This not only promotes collaboration but also boosts confidence among younger professionals, but paves the way for long-term development and growth.

Hence, in hybrid or remote working environments, team leaders need to strive for maximum face-time with their team members. While it might not have been possible for members to attend physically distant meetings, video conferencing provides an unparalleled opportunity to attend and shadow meetings or conversations. Face-time, whether in-person or virtual, helps develop stronger bonds that lead to tangible professional and interpersonal benefits.

Train employees about using technology to develop connections, and emphasize the importance of digital-skill sharing. Also, being virtual does not have to mean that physical movement or objects are completely out of the picture. For instance, you can mail over a physical object (such as notebooks or a box of cookies), and the mentor and mentee can open the package and enjoy its contents together. If the budget does not allow this, the mentor-mentee pair can find a similar object in their respective homes ( a cup of tea, for instance), and enjoy it together while conducting the daily check-ins.

In physical office spaces, time is limited – which is why office layouts must promote accessibility and openness. Clear lines of sight, for instance, offer a sense of inclusion and visibility that ultimately evolves into a collaborative organizational culture. Lower and flexible workstation panels like the AlcoveRiser, and glass partitions also encourage openness. Moreover, since these structures are movable, they also lead to greater customizability and mobility. Since observing the words and actions of their seniors is so integral to the learning and development of junior employees, organizations should go out of the way to eliminate physical and metaphorical barriers.

Establishing Benchmarks and Celebrating Victories:

We are storytellers and rely on believable narrative to make sense out of our lives and its events. Mentors, who set targets for their underlings without downplaying what they have achieved so far, create resilience that helps their students navigate trying times. It is, therefore, important to establish short- and long-term goals, as well as create a forum for updating and assessing progress. In the physical office environment, these forums often cropped up informally. However, the hybrid/remote environment requires employees to proactively work to come up with the digital equivalents of such forums.

Sharing pictures and videos of workplace wins, and using private online platforms to interact with people, can encourage a celebratory culture. Videos, graphics, and music can be used to mark important milestones.

Ensuring an Equal (Remote) Experience:

There is only so much that technology can do to replicate the experience of the physical workplace. That said, one of the easiest ways to enhance this experience is by using tools that allow for verbal, real-time communication. Organizations can use tools that offer real-time collaboration features to keep the employees engaged and active. Video-conferencing and other options should be utilized to maintain a constant line of communication and ensure that newer employees do not feel left-out or alienated. When used appropriately, these platforms can significantly bridge the gap between the virtual and physical worlds. Organizations must ensure that technology and design are implemented strategically.

Spaces with ideal acoustics and lighting are required to conduct meetings without distractions or interruptions. Private focus rooms, meanwhile, provide mentees with the kind of attention that they need to grow and develop. Installing sound-proof, thicker walls, as well as the correct positioning of these private spaces with regards to ambient noises, are all crucial aspects. Finding the ideal balance between private rooms and collaborative spaces allow employees working from the office to communicate effectively with their work-from-home counterparts.

Innovative tech such as 360 cameras can offer an all-inclusive view of the spaces in which they are installed. This will allow team members to see, hear, and perceive more of what resides at the other end of the screen, making them feel more involved in the interaction.

Other than that, 3D models created through the installation of multiple such cameras, helps designers meaningfully explore the digital versions of potential locations and ongoing projects. Effective mentorship programs for remote workers rely on the right use of technology which, in turn, relies upon the right design choices.

Prioritizing One-to-One Relationships:

Many companies trying to manage social connections during the pandemic have ditched one-to-one interactions in favor of happy hours and other social events, only to see the attendance plummet after the first few weeks. While unfortunate, this is hardly surprising, considering that these virtual events cause a lot of employees to feel worn-out and fatigued.

Hence, emphasizing on deep, meaningful, individual connections can serve as a welcome change, and provide the chance to create more genuine relationships. One-to-one discussions and conversations can help mentor-mentee pairs to realize the things that make them similar – no matter how different they might seem on the surface.

Regular one-to-one sessions provide the kind of rapport-building opportunities that are not available in group settings.

Offering Structure and Consistency:

Mentoring programs tend to focus on matching the right mentor with the right employee, and then evaluating the success or failure of the program once it is over –the structure which will guide how the mentor and mentee interact during the course of the program, is often missing. In the virtual working environment, having a period dedicated specifically for mentoring, is even more essential, which is why we recommend conducting weekly checkups. Consistency, setting time aside for each other, and showing up for each other, all help foster trust and understanding. An article or a video, along with a set of questions to initiate discussion, is also a good idea for adding structure. Knowing where and how to start can and will often lead to some very relevant, specific, and interesting discussions.

Making Mentoring a Part of Organizational Values:

To make the most of your initiative, it is important that both mentees and mentors understand the purpose behind this emphasis on mentoring. Does it have to do with helping employees develop or improve their skills, or do you want to provide a space where they can talk about their career goals and aspirations?

Whatever the goals for your mentoring program are, inculcating them with your broader organizational vision and values can help employees arrive on the same page even though they might not be sharing the same physical space.

Final Word:

At the end of the day, it is safe to say that physical, in-person experiences have no direct substitute. However, while remote working setups have made employee mentorship harder in some respects, it has also made it easier in others. Regardless, nurturing the professional and personal development of employees is of paramount importance to the overall organizational strength. Devoting attention and offering guidance to those who need it the most – junior- and entry-level employees working remotely – has become more important than ever. As we move forward, technology and design will play a fundamental role in helping companies bridge the gap between the physical and digital.