Individuals and organisations are continually seeking more productive ways of working to give them greater convenience and flexibility, in an attempt to combat the demands of an increasingly time pressured environment. Virtual coaching is one such method that is being employed more and more by managers.
Many who have never undertaken virtual coaching previously, have done so out of necessity in recent weeks. The likelihood, is that many will continue to practice virtual coaching, even after things return to normal, having experienced the unique benefits it offers over face to face coaching.
Since technology is so critical to virtual coaching, I thought it would be useful to focus in on this one element and share with you some of the tips I’ve picked up as a result of both research (for a Masters thesis I completed in virtual coaching) and also in practice, having delivered many hours of coaching, both virtual and face to face.
Let’s start with the benefits of using technology to enable coaching.
The benefits of virtual coaching
- Productivity – Both the coach and coachee can be more focused in virtual coaching sessions, which leads to greater productivity. My research suggests that the virtual structure tends to create a more business-like format which creates greater focus and discipline to the task at hand. Virtual coaching makes far better use of time, as other calls and appointments can more easily be planned either side. Additionally, when you only have to find 1 hour in your diary for a coaching session, as opposed to 3 (to allow for travel there and back), it becomes far easier to schedule these sessions.
- Convenience – The technology used to enable virtual coaching has advanced so far in the last few years (and will continue to advance), making it easy, affordable and convenient to set up these sessions.
- Credibility – the coaches credibility can be enhanced in the eyes of the coachee, when they demonstrate a level of technological expertise and have created an effective virtual working environment.
- Effectiveness – My research and experience suggests that Virtual coaching is different to but no less effective than face to face coaching. Positive outcomes for the coachee are possible in either format. The improvement in video based technology allows for better interactions that provide an approximation to the benefits of face to face coaching.
- Cost – Not only are the financial cost of travel and any related expenses removed, but there is a significant time cost saving for both parties, who do not need to allow travel time to and from meeting points.
Things to watch out for when virtual coaching
Whilst virtual coaching has its benefits, there are potential pitfalls that need to be prepared for and avoided. The following can all be countered with detailed planning and practice by the coach and by agreeing on clear ground rules for the coaching sessions at the outset:
- Technophobia – Coaches who do not have the relevant confidence and skills in the technology, run the risk of damaging their credibility with their coachees, not to mention the impact that a lack of understanding of the technology can have on the session itself.
- Failing technology – As skilled as the coach is in using the technology, the fact remains that technology is subject to connection problems and can fail. Avoid wasting time in coaching sessions by, where possible, arranging a 10 minute pre-call to check the connection for both parties in the locations they plan to connect from.
- Decreased commitment – My pre-covid experience, both of acting as coach and of interviewing other coaches, has revealed that people were more likely to cancel, or fail to show up for, a virtual coaching session than they are a face to face, as there was a perception that it was easier to do than when there was a face to face commitment. However I’m not sure that is currently the case as people are embracing new ways of working and maybe value the social interaction that these sessions bring.
- Coachee discomfort – The coachee will not necessarily have the same mindset as the coach with regards the technology. This can create unhelpful tension and reduce openness on the part of the coachee.
- Greater potential for distractions – Virtual coaching brings with it an additional set of potential distractions, that would not be relevant in a face to face environment. Firstly, virtual coaching is more likely to take place in a location in which there are other people present, not only causing potential distractions but making the coachee less likely to open up. This impact must by multiplied twofold, since it applies to both the coach and the coachee. Secondly, using technology for coaching enables both parties to be consciously distracted and drawn to other things; checking their emails, for example.
- Decreased awareness and understanding – Because of the difficulties in ensuring eye contact and the lack of environmental clues, some level of understanding and awareness can be lost in virtual coaching sessions, this can especially be the case when having deeper, more challenging conversations.
- Social inhibition – People sometimes behave differently when amongst other people than when they are on their own. We have all seen the humorous or embarrassing situations that people can get themselves into on video calls, there is something about the medium that can lead people to forget they are on camera. This can sometimes be to the advantage of the coaching session if people reveal more of themselves (in a positive way) than they would normally face to face. However also watch out for some different behaviours. During my research one coach shared with me their suspicion that a coachee had gone to the toilet mid session, fortunately for both parties this was a telephone based session and not video enabled!
Which technology medium to use
Perhaps the first question you’ll need to answer is whether to conduct virtual coaching sessions via telephone, or video. There are strong arguments for each. Whilst the telephone might not provide the advantage of visual clues, precisely because of this, it demands a higher level of concentration from both parties. There is also the comfort level of the coachee to consider; many people are uncomfortable being filmed and may talk more freely when coaching is conducted via telephone, resulting in more constructive coaching sessions.
The telephone may also be the better option when the coach lacks confidence in the alternative technologies because, as I mentioned above, a coach who is unable to use the technology efficiently is in danger of damaging their credibility with the coachee. However, I would suggest that this problem is better resolved by the coach taking the time to familiarise themself with the technology.
Whilst the telephone offers an adequate medium for virtual coaching, carrying with it it’s own unique benefits, the tools used should, ideally, be as technologically advanced as possible, so as to create a virtual session that is as close to an ‘in-person’ experience as possible. Therefore, technology that incorporates webcam functionality is preferable. There are so many excellent options available now and it is likely that you are more familiar with using this kind of platform due to recent events.
Virtual Coaching Checklist
It’s worth running through this checklist before beginning:
- How confident are you in using the technology platform? (If you lack confidence, I suggest setting up calls with friends/family members, in which to practice and try out the different levels of functionality.)
- Have you anticipated and prepared for possible technology-related issues? (e.g.; connection problems, whether IT constraints allow the coachee to download the required software)
- Do you want to be able to record sessions to refer back to? (Remember you need to discuss this with the coachee first.)
- Have you checked in that your coachee is comfortable with the technology medium you will be using?
- Have you laid out clear coaching groundrules ahead of the first session and given the coachee the opportunity to ask any questions in relation to these?
- Have you minimised distractions ahead of your coaching calls? (The location should enable a confidential conversation and all devices/notifications should be switched off.)
- Does your background reflect the credible image you wish to portray with your coachees? Check the lighting. What can be seen in your work space? Consider the use of virtual backgrounds. As I write this from my home office, I am now equipped with a standup desk, that allows me to coach with a positive energy, a lighting unit behind my camera that ensures I am well seen and a portable green screen that allows for an enhanced virtual background experience. These are relatively inexpensive purchases that can really enhance the virtual experience.