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Using peer mentors in IT to connect staff and foster collaboration

When people collaborate in groups, relationships are formed, and bonds are made both professionally and personally. Implementing a peer mentor program in the workplace is an example of this. It gives people the opportunity to give advice, share experiences, and provide knowledge on various topics.

Ana Verma, an IT director who oversees the Office of Information Technology Help Desk and Computer Labs, implemented a peer mentor program with the goal of building relationships and cultivating a healthy, cooperative workplace for her teams.

Throughout this Q&A, Verma explains what the peer mentor program is, how it works, and its importance of contributing to a healthy work environment, which results in efficient end-user support and higher quality of service within IT at Rutgers.

When did you decide to start the peer mentor program?
It started about four years ago when our computer labs team and our Help Desk team were still separate. At the time, they each did their own thing. They both provided support, but there was very little overlap. We wanted to bring the teams together and get them to be more cohesive, develop synergy, and find ways to work alongside one another as one team.

What is the peer mentoring program and how does it work?
The way the peer mentor program works is that we take people from two different areas and team them up as mentors. In our case, it was a staff member from the computer labs and a staff member from the Help Desk. The idea is for them to build a cohesive relationship by having conversations, sharing ideas, and more. It gives people a chance to understand what the other person does, get to know one other personally, and be able to work better both separately and together as part of a larger team. It has worked wonders.

Where did the inspiration to start the program come from?
Several of us throughout Rutgers IT participated in a professional leadership program. We were assigned peer mentors and found it effective enough to continue to have peer mentor meetings even after the program concluded. It taught us to collaborate as leaders to foster healthy work environments for our teams, which I really liked. I thought it would be great to try out this program for my two teams with the goal of bringing them together.

When the program was first implemented, was it successful?
When I first implemented the peer mentor program with my team, people didn’t know what to talk about together, so we expanded on the idea more by making it more of a leadership series where we would have leadership articles and videos that we could discuss together. Peer mentors would read articles on their own and then come together to discuss them and exchange ideas. This allowed them to build conversations, share their perspectives, get to know each other’s work styles more, provide varying insights, and so forth.

What has feedback been like from people who participate in this program?
People find it very helpful. I’m seeing people working together as a team and understanding each other’s perspective more. We’ve gone from the Help Desk and labs being two separate areas to now being one cohesive unit to a point where they are fully cross trained. For the first time, the Help Desk staff work out of the labs and labs staff work out of the Help Desk. Having a vast peer mentor structure has helped us build a network that also increases psychological safety in the workplace. It allows staff to have an outlet and a support system that they can lean on if/when they are struggling.

How are peers assigned to each other?
This is very strategic. When peers are assigned to each other, they need to be from different groups. Supervisors and managers also participate, but managers are not paired up with other managers; they’re paired with staff, and staff are paired with other levels of staff. We try to make sure that people who have not worked together before are paired up so that they can explore new personalities and build new relationships. When they’re in the peer mentor program and when they’re having their peer mentor conversations, they are equal, and they understand that. They’re pretty much providing feedback and it gives both parties a chance to get the perspective of someone who’s not in that position, which enhances their working relationship and the team’s overall understanding of different roles and perspectives in the group.

Why do you think pairing people in different positions from different departments breeds success?
In addition to the personal benefits of building bonds in the workplace, when people are working together, they don’t have to wait on their direct supervisor or their manager to provide guidance. We’re in IT support and the answers are always in the room. Many times, questions come up and someone else might have already figured out the answer. When people feel comfortable with the team, they don’t hesitate to ask in a group.

It becomes a benefit to end users because now staff members don’t have to wait in a line to get an answer from the managers. It streamlines our work and helps them solve problems quickly and efficiently.

Why would you recommend this program?
I would recommend this program because it worked. It helped me, personally, and I’ve seen what it has done for my team. Overall, our goal was to be able to provide the support that we need to provide, but we also wanted to keep our staff members happy and comfortable with the team in their work environment. We had two major support groups come together, and to build that bridge, we needed them to make connections. This program was the way to do that. The students that go into the computer labs need to get the same level of support that they would get if they were to go over to the Help Desk. Because at the end of the day, all our jobs within IT are about how we can further enhance our end-user experience and help them where they need it – whether that be at the Help Desk or at a computer lab.

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