Strategies for Remote Mentorship

One of the more challenging aspects of my transition to working remotely here at Atomic since this March has been adhering to our Teach and Learn value.

So much of that value was ingrained in a key part of our workplace culture: proximity to one another. As a mentee, this proximity to a pair (and other coworkers) meant you could learn a lot by simply observing how others go about their work. As a mentor, this proximity meant you could keep a looser “leash” of sorts on whomever you were mentoring. You didn’t have to constantly check in with them because it was easy for them to ask a quick question with minimal overhead. And if they were working independently but struggling with a problem, you could pick up on it.

These advantages don’t apply now that we work remotely, so as someone who sits comfortably in both the categories of Someone Who Can Offer Mentorship and Someone Who Needs Mentorship, I’ve been trying to sort out the best ways to maintain the quality of both halves of that Teach and Learn value. Here are a few of the strategies that I feel have helped with that effort.

Mentees – Be Pushy

As a mentee, I’ve had to be pushy. I personally get a lot out of pair programming with someone more experienced than I am, and now that there’s nobody sitting next to me, I’ve had to be more proactive about it. I’ve tried to set the expectation that I prefer to pair by default — even on tasks that may not be complicated — instead of having to suggest it each time.

If you have a teammate you’d like to learn more from, I’d suggest being very open about setting that expectation. Then, instead of occasionally feeling like you’re pestering someone to work with you, it will be built into how your team operates.

Mentors – Be Consistent

As a mentor, I’ve had to be consistent. Some projects really lend themselves to independent work, and it’s easy to accidentally have days where you hardly talk with your teammates at all and just plug away at tasks. This can be pretty frustrating for less experienced colleagues, whose means of learning relies quite heavily on consistent communication with you.

During stretches of projects where my teammates and I have worked mostly independently of one another, I try to check in with the junior developer at least at the end of every day (on top of morning standups). This consistency can give some security to your mentee, knowing that there’s always going to be at least one opportunity for them to speak up about problems, failures, and successes. It also allows you the chance to step in and offer help when they may otherwise not ask, which can be very valuable to more introverted teammates.

Everyone – Slow Things Down

Finally, as both a mentor and a mentee, I’ve had to slow things down. Without the advantage of sitting next to my pair or being in the same room when the meeting’s phone call ends, things simply take longer (and take more steps).

Pair programming (despite screen sharing and video calls that let you see one another and the same code) is simply more difficult. When I’m pairing as the mentor, I try to talk through every action I do or suggest: what my intention is when moving a function from point A to point B, what I’m observing when I’m sitting there refreshing my browser over and over, what I’m looking for and why when I check my other screen at documentation, etc. Sure, it’s slower than I would normally work, but I know it’s important for my pair to know exactly what I’m trying to do and what my thought process for doing it is.

With regards to meetings with clients, I always try to debrief with my pair afterward, regardless of what the meeting was about. This creates space to share thoughts and get on the same page about what was discussed and what needs to be done moving forward. It won’t necessarily feel as casual as a conversation while you walk back to your desks from the conference room, but sharing and seeing each other’s reactions to the non-technical parts of projects is a huge part of the mentoring process.

Ultimately, like most advice about working remotely, it boils down to maintaining the level of communication you had before. It’s challenging to do (I have trouble following these strategies myself). But the way I see it, the value of maintaining a mentoring relationship is well worth the challenge — for both parties.