Dispelling the Office Return Mandate Myth: The True Path to Junior Staff Success
Picture this: a large tech company decides to bring employees back to the office, believing that this will encourage mentoring and support organizational continuity. For example, consider what Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said in Spring 2023 on the “On With Kara Swisher” podcast: “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.”
That’s why Salesforce decided to change its policy from its previous fully flexible model: for example, the company’s Chief People Officer, Brent Hyder, wrote in a September 2022 company blog post that “at Salesforce, we’ve never had office mandates, and we never will.” However, in the Spring of 2023, Salesforce demanded that sales and marketing staff come to the office four days a week. We’re seeing many tech, finance, and other leaders make similar claims and adopt similar policies.
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 Broken Osmosis Strategy: When Senior Staff Feel Resentment
Many leaders, driven by their memories of pre-pandemic times, believe that forcing employees to return to the office will naturally lead to mentoring and development. However, the pandemic has shown senior staff 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.
The Mentoring Mismatch: Rewarding Soft Skills Over Technical Abilities
The 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, the ones who need mentoring most are the ones without strong initiative and social skills, since 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 does not 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 have buy-in into coming to the office and doing mentoring gladly when they know they have a good reason to be in the office for a mentoring meeting. They are not going to be nearly as resentful as for what feels to them like an arbitrary mandated office return informed by biased thinking reflective of 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 if they do 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 should not 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 impactful than individual lunch sessions.
- Group lunch sessions with senior professionals: A senior employee takes out a few junior employees for lunch, which facilitate 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 coworking 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 coworking sessions: Similar to in-person coworking, but conducted via videoconference 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 impact and 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 now the norm, it’s time to adapt and implement hybrid mentoring programs that cater to the needs of both senior and junior staff. Embrace this bold new approach, and watch your organization thrive in the face of change.
Written by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky.
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