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Mentoring relationships among NUWC Division Newport employees remain strong during coronavirus pandemic

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs | June 4, 2020

NEWPORT, R.I. —

Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport employees are finding that mentoring is critical as they navigate the coronavirus pandemic and during an era of maximum telework, restrictions to social proximity and daily stress.

A long-time advocate of mentoring and its benefits, Division Newport leadership continues to encourage professional connections among peers to share guidance, advice and support. As the new “workplace” is re-defined in a virtual environment, so too are professional relationships that inspire mutual learning and development. Making the effort to connect with a mentor or mentee will ensure professional, and social, advantages.

“Mentoring is not always a senior- to an entry-level relationship,” Jamil Jorge, mentor program manager in Division Newport’s Workforce Development Branch, said. “You can have co-mentors – people to help each other through these tough times. I certainly see it happening with the cohorts and my own mentor and co-workers. We help them get things done. It took some getting used to, but we’re getting more comfortable working from home now.”

Jorge said a workforce development team completed a pilot program in March for a group of new hires to meet once a month with a mentor who is an experienced employee, to help them integrate into the workforce. They discuss professional development, integration techniques, how to manage reviews, how the Navy works, etc., all of which are topics that come with little training. The second group meeting will happen in June, and Jorge hopes it will be successful enough to operate for all new hires going forward. The group is also being provided with a website as a resource for notes and reference links.

“With this high-velocity learning program, they’re not just learning from the mentor, they’re learning from each other too,” Jorge said. “Everyone looks for those social interactions anyway, so we’re sharing information about how to organize time while working from home, and that guidance is really important. As much as people think they can figure it out on their own, they might have one-on-one conversations, and those resources could be useful to others.”

Research shows that mentors play a pivotal role in safeguarding retention, building organizational commitment, particularly in times of crisis, as well as ensuring workforce proficiency which reduces mistakes.

The Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute concurs that there are myriad benefits of a mentorship program. Chief among them are higher employee satisfaction, immeasurable transfer of knowledge and skills, extended networking and collaboration skills, and improved retention. Mentorship also can become a sounding board for ideas, provide an opportunity for counseling, coaching and guidance, and strengthen an employee’s confidence.

“Mentoring programs are one strategy that organizations use to manage diversity. Indeed, organizations are increasingly relying on mentoring programs,” reports Dr. Richard Oliver Hope of DEOMI’s Human Relations Research Center. “Up to two-thirds of employees have reportedly engaged in a mentoring relationship.”

Poonam Aggarwal, an electrical engineer, concurs that the benefits of mentoring are far-reaching. When she arrived at Division Newport 11 years ago, she found acronyms, used often by co-workers, were confusing and she needed to learn the unspoken campus rules. Since that first day of “freshman year,” Aggarwal said she has made it her mission to connect with her mentor regularly, even now, despite not being able to meet in person.

Multiple mentors in different sectors can help focus conversations and target individual objectives across Division Newport’s diverse workforce. For example, Aggarwal was assigned a mentor when she first started as a principal investigator for power systems, but when, four years ago, she switched to the Sensors and Sonar Systems Department, she sought an advisor devoted to that topic.

“I didn’t know anything about sonar so I had a mentor teach me about acoustics,” she said. “When I moved to Rhode Island from New York, I didn’t know what bank or market to use. So I asked my branch head as my unofficial social mentor, no matter what question it was.”

As a logistician in the Sensors and Sonar Systems Department for five years, Patrick Atwood also guides his mentee in their area of expertise, and the two of them talk weekly about tasking, professional guidance, concerns and resources. Atwood also likes to praise his mentee’s progress in completing tasks.

“My role is to mentor about logistics, but that’s not to say we don’t talk about other things,” Atwood said. “Because logistics is a broad area of expertise, and no one person can be an expert in every element, I want to make sure that I am being helpful and giving my mentee what they need.”

Distance does pose challenges, however, especially as the workforce trades time together, at meetings or in the hallway, for phone conversations or video messaging. And being flexible with co-workers’ schedules and understanding their needs is paramount to mentoring success.

Julie Henry, branch head of Submarine and Surveillance Training, Logistics and Fleet Support, suggests that now is the time to reach out to make sure team members are doing all right. A quick, impromptu chat is an easy way to stay connected without scheduling and having another “meeting.”

“If you’re making those connections in person, it’s easier if you’re sitting in an office,” Henry said. “But most people who have acted as a mentor in the past know that now is a good opportunity to do training, because you probably have a little more time if you’re not in the office. But if people don’t know where to turn, they can connect with me and I can point them in the right direction.”

Aggarwal and Atwood said that their mentor/mentee relationships seem to be thriving during the maximum telework situation. Aggarwal speaks to her mentor almost daily by phone, rather than in person, and, though the acoustic lessons they discuss no longer come with a dry erase board illustration, Aggarwal finds the conversations instructive and beneficial. She also speaks with her mentee multiple times a week about new employee onboarding tips.

“I always ask my mentor about my work before I send anything out because it’s good to have another set of eyes on it. Plus if I have any work/life questions, I ask regularly because there is always something coming up,” Aggarwal said. “My mentee is a new employee, so I offered to teach him systems, and give him projects to do that are directly related to our branch. With the pandemic, it’s been more difficult — because I don’t see him, I don’t know what he’s struggling with. But we still have been connecting over email, so I’m just helping him out.

“It’s more important now (to stay connected), because at work, the person can go and talk to anyone. But right now, especially new professionals, they need guidance. From far away we can’t tell what that person really needs,” she added. “It’s important to maintain that mentor/mentee relationship, to reach out, make sure they’re comfortable and doing what they’re supposed to do, and they’re safe. It’s important that we’re talking to each other more often with distance learning.”

Since the opportunities for social interactions are so much more minimized now, that is all the more reason for a mentor to reach out to check on a mentee, Atwood said.

“I feel strongly that we need to have priorities, and if this is a priority, which it certainly is, then it never occurred to me to not do it. It’s important to me and meaningful,” Atwood said. “Certainly our people are our most important asset, and we have to treat them that way. You can’t just say, ‘we’ll just pick this up when COVID-19 is over.’”

NUWC Division Newport is a shore command of the U.S. Navy within the Naval Sea Systems Command, which engineers, builds and supports America’s fleet of ships and combat systems. NUWC Newport provides research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater  systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures associated with undersea warfare.

NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869.  Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.