It’s a concept that has been around for decades, but now with the growing talent pool of young professionals taking over the workplace, it is becoming clear that reverse mentoring – where younger employees mentor more seasoned workers – is no longer a ‘trendy’ new fad, but a key factor in keeping businesses forward thinking and relevant.

As the generation gap continues to grow, more businesses are turning to younger members of staff to help drive business forward with their innovative ideas and expertise in technological advances, and as a result age is no longer the deciding factor in who should mentor whom. But while the benefits can be numerous and far reaching, there are several barriers, both organisational and generational, that can make implementing reverse mentoring more challenging than it first appears.

What are the benefits to reverse mentoring?

The benefits of reverse mentoring are plentiful if it’s approached in the right way. When used appropriately it can positively impact the development of individual employees and this will often radiate outwards, benefiting the company as a whole, via increased productivity and enhanced employee engagement. By encouraging junior employees to embrace their skills and use them to train senior staff, this provides development opportunities to both groups. It empowers younger, less experienced staff who will feel valued and important due to the knowledge they can impart, and senior staff members have the opportunity to learn new technologies and techniques ensuring they feel involved in the latest business developments. This therefore offers junior staff the chance to develop their own leadership skills early on, and also creates new learning opportunities for seasoned staff who may otherwise feel overlooked as a new generation of employees vie to take their place.

A resulting feeling of empowerment and a sense of being valued will be important to both groups in terms of helping keep them engaged. This will in turn ensure that companies don’t lose highly skilled seasoned workers who bring a depth of knowledge and experience to the organisation, and also don’t lose any fresh talent who can help drive the business forward. Encouraging the two groups to engage on work related matters and to share their knowledge and experience collaboratively will help generate a bond between two generations who may have very different values and approaches to work. Overall this sharing partnership will promote better working relationships internally, and will also help create a workforce of well-rounded employees who can appreciate and utilise different styles of working, creating a more dynamic and productive environment at all levels.

In terms of business progression and enhanced value for your company, reverse mentoring doesn’t just have a positive indirect effect through improved working relationships, productivity and engagement. It also has several tangible benefits that will not only help to directly advance a company, but if utilised effectively can also influence financial outcomes. One of the major factors impacting financial outcomes is in the reduced need for specific training packages around new technologies.

By utilising reverse mentoring to train older or less tech-savvy employees about the latest technology, there is less need for any formal training in these areas, saving businesses significant time and money. Of course this won’t be the case for every emerging technology as some may require specific training; but for many commonly used packages such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, having a millennial employee pass on their knowledge to colleagues will help progress the business, without having to outsource any training, thus saving money.

With regards to business progression, one of the main effects that reverse mentoring can have is on the overall development of the company at every level. These days it doesn’t matter what business you are in, if you aren’t keeping up to date with the latest trends, you are at risk of becoming obsolete. Thus businesses with a workforce who are reluctant to engage with new technologies and developments are liable to be left behind, whereas those who encourage employees to embrace this change will see significant advancement if utilised appropriately. When younger employees are engaged with older workers and helping to promote the use of new technologies and techniques, this offers significant value to the business as a whole, enabling employees at all levels to use these techniques to push the business forward.

Another key area where reverse mentoring can prove to be of tangible benefit is in learning about new consumers. Millenials are not just taking over the working world, they are one of the fastest growing demographics in the UK, and thus many businesses will want to be monitoring what their motivations and desires are. This can of course be done without the aid of younger workers, but having direct access to your target demographic is a vital part of staying fresh and innovative, and millennials provide this insight. Thus by encouraging them to engage with older employees, they can pass on their perspectives, which enables the entire workforce to better understand this group and helps to deliver more targeted approaches.

Barriers to reverse mentoring and what you can do to resolve them

Despite the varied and numerous benefits that reverse mentoring can have at both individual and organisational levels, it cannot be denied that there are several barriers that may influence the success of a company’s plan. Often this will take the form of personal defiance against the idea, both from junior and senior members of staff. Older staff members might be resistant to the idea as they may feel patronised by the idea of being ‘taught’ by younger professionals, or they may be wary of the millennials for fear that they are vying got their jobs. This sense of patronisation or feeling ‘pushed out’ needs to be managed carefully, as the last thing you want to do is lose experienced members of staff due to a misdirected attempt to help them develop. Similarly the younger employees may have concerns about training senior staff, perhaps feeling insecure about their skills, or not wanting to rock the boat.

There could also be underlying preconceptions about what or who a mentor should be in terms of age and superiority. On a practical level, you might face issues around time commitments and even being able to facilitate mentoring sessions, particularly if you have flexible workers or people working in different departments. You can easily overcome all of these issues with a positive approach to reverse mentoring (and not explicitly calling it reverse mentoring or even mentoring might be a good start). Establishing a positive culture of learning and development is vital in order to get employees to engage in any form of training, but with potentially anxiety inducing forms such as this, it is even more so. Emphasis should be put on how such an approach can benefit all parties involved, looking at personal and professional development, as well as assisting the business to achieve its goals. It should also be highlighted that collaborative working is an essential part of an effective business, and that fostering positive relationships between staff is a vital step towards a more inclusive and dynamic work environment, one where every employee feels valued.

By Rachel Kay, MD of Thales Learning & Development