Mentoring best practices for the virtual workplace

Mentoring best practices

Mentoring is among the most powerful and effective ways to circulate knowledge throughout an organization. Bringing the right people together at the right time produces myriad benefits, from building both general and specialist knowledge to honing leadership, decision-making and critical thinking skills through conversation and taking action.

Mentoring is more important than ever in today’s coronavirus-induced remote-working reality, as social distancing requirements keep us apart. Well executed virtual mentoring programs promote feelings of connectedness to an organization and to a field of expertise, strengthening subject matter networks and reducing barriers to team and career success.

The good news is that virtual mentoring is equally or more effective as face-to-face meetings as it enables multiple convenient ways to interact that eliminate the barriers of geography.

Pollinate has delivered virtual mentoring programs for many years, matching pairs around the world and providing mentoring best practices and tools to help them achieve their goals. Here are some best practices insights for mentoring success in both virtual and face-to-face settings:

Mentor and mentee roles and responsibilities

Mentoring best practice number one is commitment. Committing to be a mentor means investing time to get to know your mentee and his or her situation so that you can provide outside perspective and be a resource as they face challenges and find learning opportunities.

Being a mentee means sharing information openly and honestly about your situation and circumstances, and being open to hearing another person’s perspective, even if you don’t always like or agree with what you hear.

Setting boundaries and expectations

Another mentoring best practice is setting appropriate boundaries & expectations – at the outset of the relationship. Discussing boundaries and expectations with your mentoring partner is key to creating alignment and understanding.

Ideally, a discussion around boundaries and expectations is part of the first conversation between mentor and mentee. It’s an opportunity to set out how and when you will connect, as well as any other ‘ground rules’ for mutual understanding and agreement to provide a framework to work from.

For example: what’s the expectation on turnaround time on requests? What information are we sharing that is confidential and shouldn’t be shared further?

Without this discussion, we occasionally see common issues crop up: for example, one of the partners is not following up: they’ve gone dark and the other partner doesn’t know why. Sometimes people show up to meetings unprepared, or they’re late for meetings or are constantly changing meetings. Other times people aren’t showing forward motion or really applying their learning.

This conversation can also head off case of boundaries being breached, such as too much contact coming from one of the partners, or one of the partners acting in a way that feels too familiar to other other.

For example, sometimes a mentee has asked a mentor, “Can I meet people in your network?” before the mentor really knows the mentee or feels comfortable making those introductions.

In order to do that, it helps to have a common understanding of how boundaries and expectations are defined within the context of the mentoring relationship:

Boundaries can be described as unofficial rules about what should not be done – they are the limits that define acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in a relationship.

Examples of boundary issues within a mentoring relationship include: sending multiple emails or calling repeatedly in a short time without allowing your partner time to respond; bringing up personal topics that the other partner doesn’t feel comfortable discussing; or missing agreed upon meeting times.

Boundaries may be personal or be related to the mentoring program itself.

Personal Boundaries

Different people have different levels of comfort when it comes to sharing personal information. Each mentoring partner should pay attention to the amount of personal information they want to share with their partner.

As a pair, you will create your own norm around information sharing.  Another boundary and expectation to establish with your mentoring partner is around the frequency and amount of communication and how you want to be contacted.

Mentoring Program Boundaries

Mentoring Program Boundaries include keeping the time together focused on a combination of the goals the mentee sets for learning and the goals of the overall mentoring program for the organization. Keeping goals a focal point during the relationship will help keep boundaries in check.

Expectations are another important area to navigate for successful mentoring relationships. Expectations are our beliefs about the things we expect our mentoring partner to do within the mentoring relationships, such as how often we’ll be in contact, what follow up looks like and the ways in which communication will happen, such as by video chat, text, phone, email, etc.

There are two types of expectations:  explicit and implicit.

Explicit expectations are fully and clearly expressed or demonstrated. If you’re part of a mentoring program, some explicit expectations may be outlined for you in terms of how often to meet and for how long.  In your first few meetings, mentoring partners should discuss other expectations they have.  An example could be that the mentor expects the mentee to send a note to confirm meeting times in advance.  If this is a preference or expectation, make sure it is known upfront.

Implicit expectations are implied but not directly expressed. Sometimes we may not realize those expectations exist.

In the mentoring relationship, it is important to watch for implicit expectations that you and/or your partner may have.  When you sense an implicit expectation, discuss it with your mentoring partner to clarify.

An example of an implicit expectation might be that the mentee expects the mentor to get back to them on a question in 24 hours. This may or may not be realistic. Once the expectation is understood, it can be discussed.

The 3 stages of successful mentoring relationships

Building a good mentoring relationship also takes time. Successful mentoring relationships go through three stages to build engagement and create productive outcomes. Think of it like a ladder that the mentor and mentee climb together with three rungs representing Trust, Application and Growth. Each step up the ladder is accompanied by an increase in effectiveness:

  1. TRUST – The mentoring pair begins by building trust through demonstrating motivation, responsiveness and respect.
  2. APPLICATION – This stage is about applying knowledge through reflection, guidance and counsel.
  3. GROWTH – The Growth stage of the mentoring relationship is where the partnership begins to pay major dividends through challenge, advocacy and, where appropriate, sponsorship.

Mentorship best practices when mental health issues arise

The frank and fulsome conversations at the heart of meaningful mentoring interactions can spark a range of emotions – from the excitement of closing a big sale to anxiety about a major decision or upset and tears due to financial stress.

But what do you do when a mentee’s behaviour raises concerns about possible mental health issues?

As a mentor, your role is focused on advancing the mentoring program objectives (e.g., helping your mentee navigate their career pathway). At the same time, mentors also should be alert to mentee behaviours – such as anxiety, loss of confidence or highly emotional states – which may indicate that mental health issues are a factor, or may be interfering with your mentee’s progress or goal achievement.

If mental health warning signs surface, remember that it is not your role to counsel your mentee on mental health issues, just as you wouldn’t provide marital advice. Here are some actions you CAN take:

  • Do employ your active listening skills and listen non-judgmentally
  • Assure your mentee that you see their concern is real, and encourage them to take action on their feelings and symptoms in the following ways:
    • Encourage your mentee to take time for self-care. Encourage self-help strategies, such as regular sleep, exercise, healthy eating and spending time in nature.
    • Encourage and remind your mentee to talk to their family doctor or get other professional help as necessary
  • Do get immediate help if you believe your mentee is at risk from self-harm or suicide. Do not leave them alone.

Additional mental health resources (Canada)

Those who are in a crisis or need immediate assistance, can visit or call directly at:

Canada: 1-833-456-4566
Quebec: 1-866-APPELLE (277-3553)

Find your local CMHA at

CAMH resources for coping with stress and anxiety during Covid-19

7 Elements of an Effective Mentorship Program Career Dev Cover image7 Elements of an Effective Mentorship Program

Mentorship programs build networks in and across organizations, professions and industries to transfer knowledge, develop and retain talent, and improve workplace culture. Learn the 7 strategies that successful mentorship programs must include: Get Pollinate’s 7 Elements of an Effective Mentorship Program: A Guidebook for Leaders today.


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