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Gleb Tsipursky


Return to Office Does Not Mean Improved Mentoring

Here’s the true path to junior staff success

Published: Wednesday, May 31, 2023 - 12:03

Many leaders, driven by memories of pre-pandemic times, believe that forcing employees to return to the office will naturally lead to mentoring and development. For example, consider what Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said in spring 2023 on the On With Kara Swisher podcast after the company demanded that sales and marketing staff come to the office four days a week: “For our new employees who are coming in, we know empirically that they do better if they’re in the office, meeting people, being onboarded, being trained. If they are at home and not going through that process, we don’t think they’re as successful.”

We’re seeing many tech, finance, and other leaders make similar claims and adopt similar policies. However, senior staff have found that they can be highly productive outside the office, and many of them now resist the idea of returning.

When I ran focus groups while helping 23 companies figure out their return to office and hybrid work arrangements, I found that many senior staff forced to return to the office often come in, put on headphones, and avoid interacting with anyone, effectively nullifying the intended osmosis effect.

For instance, consider a regional insurance company where senior staff—feeling resentful about the forced return—became less available for mentoring, leading to junior staff struggling to adapt to their new roles and responsibilities. The insurance company’s productivity and employee morale took a hit as a result.

Certainly, these changes at Salesforce and other companies represent well-intentioned moves trying to develop the careers and performance of junior staff. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that they are misguided in the post-pandemic world. The result? Resentful senior staff, lackluster mentoring, and a suboptimal work environment. Here’s why, and how to fix it.

The mentoring mismatch: rewarding soft skills over technical abilities

A forced return to the office can lead to a disparity in mentoring. The focus groups revealed that the only junior staff receiving mentoring in this “forced return” scenario were those with strong initiative and social skills. Unfortunately, this approach leaves those who need mentoring the most—employees lacking social skills and initiative—in the cold. After all, mentoring helps develop these soft skills. Moreover, strong social skills often don’t correlate to the ability to do the technical job well. Thus, the ones who do get mentoring are often the ones with great soft skills but weaker technical skills.

Consider the case of a large professional services firm where this exact situation unfolded. The employees who benefited from the forced return were those who could navigate social interactions adeptly, while the technically skilled but socially awkward employees were left behind.

In a late-stage SaaS startup, a similar situation occurred. The employees with outstanding interpersonal skills managed to secure the attention of senior staff, while their colleagues with strong technical skills but weaker social aptitude struggled to obtain the mentoring they needed. This imbalance can lead to a skills gap that hampers the overall performance of the organization.

The path forward: hybrid mentoring programs

Instead of forcing everyone to return to the office and hoping for osmosis-driven mentoring, it’s imperative to create a hybrid mentoring program that encompasses in-person and virtual mentoring elements. Such a program has been successfully implemented for several of my clients, such as the companies mentioned earlier. The result was happier senior staff and more effective mentoring.

Why are senior staff more willing to come to the office to do mentoring rather than through a mandate? Well, my focus groups with senior staff showed that they overwhelmingly realized the value of in-person mentoring; not only did they get in-person mentoring themselves, but they also recognized that in-person connection is very important for building trust. It allows junior people to be vulnerable when they ask questions that reveal vulnerability.

Such a policy doesn’t require indiscriminate mandates of return to office for three to five days a week. Instead, it requires people to be in the office for certain set tasks. Senior staff are much happier and more likely to support and buy in to coming to the office and mentoring gladly when they know they have a good reason to be in the office for a mentoring meeting. They’re not going to be nearly as resentful of what feels to them like an arbitrary mandated office return informed by biased thinking that reflects pre-pandemic realities, which results in resistance, attrition, disengagement, and morale problems among senior employees.

By contrast, established employees feel that their individual and specific expertise and contributions are being valued when they are asked to come to the office specifically to do a mentoring meeting. Moreover, they end up spending less time in the office with several mentoring meetings a week than if they have to be in the office for a full three to five days. Thus, company leaders get what they want, senior staff get what they want, and junior employees get what they want—a win-win-win for all.

Key components of a successful hybrid mentoring program

From my experience, a hybrid mentoring program requires several key activities:
• Individual lunch sessions with senior professionals; one-on-one interactions with senior professionals are the most powerful form of mentoring, but given the scarcity of time for senior professionals, this shouldn’t be the only mentoring activity.
• Virtual coffee roulette with senior professionals; a lower time burden for senior professionals, allowing for more accessible mentoring arrangements, even though less effective than individual lunch sessions.
• Group lunch sessions with senior professionals; a senior employee takes a few junior employees out for lunch, which facilitates knowledge sharing and relationship building in a time-efficient manner for senior professionals.
• Group mentoring; a senior employee mentors a cohort of junior employees, fostering a collaborative learning environment and reducing time demands on senior staff.
• In-person co-working sessions; one senior and several junior employees work together on their individual tasks in shared spaces in the office for a couple of hours. Junior team members can ask questions as they come up, while the senior staff person can check in on their work every half-hour or so. Doing so promotes teamwork and organic knowledge transfer while decreasing the burden on senior employees.
• Virtual co-working sessions; similar to in-person co-working, but conducted via video conference for increased flexibility.

Successful mentoring programs involve a number of important guiding principles:
• Goal-oriented mentoring. Ensure mentoring programs have clear goals and incentives to maximize engagement and effectiveness. Align the program with the organization’s values and objectives, so that both senior and junior employees understand its purpose and importance.
• Regular evaluations. Assess the progress and success of mentoring initiatives to ensure continuous improvement. Solicit feedback from both mentors and mentees, and use the insights to refine and enhance the program.
• Mentor training and support. Equip senior staff with the skills and resources they need to be effective mentors. Offer training sessions to help them develop their coaching and communication skills, and provide ongoing support to ensure their success in the mentoring role.
• Customization and flexibility. Recognize that different employees have unique needs, and design a mentoring program that can be tailored to accommodate individual preferences and requirements. This approach will help maximize the program’s effectiveness.
• Accountability and follow-up. Establish clear expectations for both mentors and mentees, and track their progress throughout the mentoring relationship. Encourage regular check-ins and follow-ups to ensure that both parties are meeting their commitments and making progress toward their goals.

A bold new approach for a post-pandemic world

The key takeaway? Forcing employees back to the office in hopes of fostering mentoring through osmosis is a relic of the past. In a world where remote and hybrid work are the norm, it’s time to adapt and implement hybrid mentoring programs that cater to the needs of senior and junior staff. Embrace this bold new approach, and watch your organization thrive in the face of change.


About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps quality professionals make the wisest decisions on the future of work as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. A proud Ukrainian American, he is the best-selling author of seven books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His cutting-edge thought leadership has been featured in more than 650 articles in prominent publications such as Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and USA Today. His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and more than 15 years in academia as a cognitive scientist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipurskyLinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course


WFH Works

Good article. I believe that insisting on an "office" presence is micro-managing, which is a close cousing to "Theory X" management, which is directly contradictory to the teachings of Deming, Imai, etc.

The bogus pretense that it "improves collaboration" is dead-on-arrival, unless the company culture is inherently collaborative. And that's not going to happen under Theory X micro management.

The sole exception of course is factory work, because very very few can be operated remotely. And of course those service industries that are directly customer-facing.