By Ruth Gotian & Christine Pfund – Nature

Male trapeze artist catching man, low angle view.

Solid support and good communication are essential in times of transition.Credit: Getty

Transitions are stressful. Big changes, such as moving, beginning a new job or starting a family can be disorienting and cause a wide range of emotions, including fear and anxiety. Over the past year, people have endured countless transitions, including working remotely, altered contact with family, friends and colleagues and, in some cases, illness and death. Whatever their experiences during the past year, returning to the laboratory is one more transition on top of the many scientists have navigated. Developing a clear, intentional, realistic, culturally responsive plan for this transition is key.

For decades, we have studied and taught about the science of mentorship from both the mentor’s and trainee’s perspectives. We have developed and tested mentorship intervention and led mentoring programmes. We have written about the subject extensively for diverse audiences.

As some people start to return to their labs and offices, mentoring during this time of transition needs to be reimagined. What worked before might not work now. People’s priorities have shifted, and mentors should not be tone-deaf to this changing landscape. It is also important that mentors recognize they are going through a transition themselves while simultaneously supporting their trainees through their upheavals and progressions. Here are some ideas to help you mentor during this time.

Plan in-person interactions

Labs have not been at full capacity, and many people have led a solitary lifestyle for more than a year. Although most are craving human interaction, the practice might be awkward at first. This is a time to work on group dynamics and norms. Returning face-to-face in groups can be disorienting. Be sensitive that people might react differently to the ability to reconvene. Give people the grace to warm up to getting together. Continue to plan activities for lab members to get together face-to-face in a socially distanced manner, but recognize it might be difficult for some as they learn to reenter a populated environment. See what activities from the past year can be reimagined and enhanced as people return to work.

Reassess goals

In addition to baking sourdough bread, home-schooling children and supporting their communities, many have reconsidered their future goals and priorities. This is a time to explore your trainee’s career plan and see whether things have changed in the past year. Now is the time to encourage them to dust off their Individual Development Plan and rework it to align with their new goals and timelines. Meet with them to discuss if and how their priorities have changed in the past year. This discussion might take longer than your usual meeting, so allow enough time to discuss not only any new goals, but also specific processes for achieving them, including any milestones.

Realign expectations

Realign expectations and recognize they are a moving target. Going back to pre-COVID-19 expectations is not realistic. Take time to review productivity expectations and timelines. Invite honest sharing of concerns about deadlines for finishing experiments, presenting results, writing or completing manuscripts and submitting grant applications. Discuss how you will manage challenges, both expected and unexpected, and the related shifts in timelines in the coming month. In addition, revisit expectations around how you and your trainee will work together on a regular basis. Revisit and realign your expectations. For example, discuss your preferred approach to communication during this stage of transition, in terms of both frequency and mode. If something more formal is helpful, consider writing out or revising your shared expectations in the form of a mentoring agreement so that you can refer to it regularly and adjust as needed.

In a time of transition, long-term goals are too far away. Work with your trainee to break them down into realistic 3, 6, 9 and 12-month goals with associated milestones. Use visual aids, such as checklists, shared documents, Gant charts or the online app Trello to help visualize met milestones. In times of high anxiety, we know it is imperative to list individual steps. It is important to visualize them all and be able to check things off as items are completed. Celebrate progress and achievements.

Attend to psycho-social needs

Whereas you might have checked in passing before, now is the time to pay more attention to the psycho-social needs of your trainee. Find out about their cognitive and emotional load, and how they are handling civil unrest and family pressures. They might need more or less time alone, extra motivation or support and strong partners in collaboration. They might not know what they need. In group meetings, have them rank how they are doing on a range of 1–10. Follow up with anyone who is a 7 or lower. Ask open-ended questions, such as “What’s on your mind today?” Avoid yes/no questions. Enquire beyond the “I’m fine”. Look for subtle changes in behaviour, appearance or responsiveness.

Lead by example

Recognize that your trainee is watching you. Engage them in conversation about what is and is not working for you and what you are trying to do to reduce your own stress while improving your productivity. We have learnt in the past year to be more vulnerable and authentic. This is the time to be transparent about the load you bear outside work; from managing the care of children or elderly people to concern about your funding or promotion. Talk about how you plan to let go of perfectionism, balance an overwhelming workload, find your voice and create social bonds with others outside the laboratory. If you found a book, video or person who was helpful to speak to, share that with your trainee. By setting the example, you are letting them know that challenges are normal, and you are working to create a safe environment in which everyone, including yourself, can be authentic.

Successfully navigating one transition — let alone several — takes time, energy and intentionality. Mentors can play an important part in supporting their trainees in this process by using some of the strategies suggested above, as well as by role-modelling healthy, reflective and realistic approaches to this next set of transitions.

Ruth Gotian is the chief learning officer and assistant professor of education in anaesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. Christine Pfund is senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.