Coaching at a safe distance

One word that’s much more familiar to us all after a few months of pandemic, is Zoom. The video-call app has become a lifeline for many, and a bit like calling a vacuum cleaner a Hoover, the brand name is rapidly ousting Skype and becoming a stand-in reference for the thing itself (we used to ‘Skype’ people, now we ‘Zoom’ them).

The need to socially distance and take precautions against infection have changed the landscape of work for many, mainly by taking us out of the workplace. Zoom (and other apps) has been a lifesaver (a business-saver?) keeping teams in touch and together and has influenced how we deliver learning and development (seen not least in the rapid increase of webinar training options).

But it’s not just classroom training that is having to adapt to COVID-19. In a world now minimising face to face contact, coaching is yet another learning and development options that must evolve.

Our survey says…

Here at Maximum, we recently conducted a survey of industry professionals, looking at the impact of COVID on learning and development activity. In response to the question, “What have you been encouraging instead of physical classroom-based learning activities?”, 40% said, coaching. What’s more, in terms of immediate development needs, 43% cited “a lot more coaching skills”. So, along with webinars and e-learning, businesses are already focused on coaching as an option.

Shifting to a virtual relationship

Possibly more than any other learning and development activity, coaching is based on trust. That highly personal and individual trust between coach and coachee is the foundation on which the coaching relationship (and therefore coaching progress) is based.

Now, we’re in an ongoing, global situation in which interpersonal contact takes place through a video-conferencing filter. We all know this can reduce the subtleties of connection and communication. The following tips aim to smooth out some of the virtual wrinkles in the process.

  • Consider your experience of online communication – Bear in mind that alongside the usual video-call logistics (which app to use, finding a quiet but equipped space, competence in functions such as muting speech, sharing text, etc., whether to use headphones or not, and so on) the biggest influence on the quality of communication is the coach’s prior experience of it, the assumptions and prejudices they might be bringing to it. And those of the coachee, of course.
  • Shared context – A key to successful coaching is the shared understanding between coach and coachee. Often, parts of this understanding are the taken-for-granted common knowledge about workplace, people, relationships, practices, etc. A virtual coach may need to take the initial getting-to-know-each phase slower, digging deeper, ensuring that there aren’t any false assumptions made about the coachee’s context.
  • A conscious focus on trust – Trust is critical to successful coaching and yet for two people in the same office, much of their trust (or lack of!) is based on shared experiences that have little to do with coaching. With only the coaching sessions and interactions with which to work, a coach may have to work harder to create trust and rapport.
  • Try a more rigid timetable – When they’re in the same office, the coach and coachee can choose to be flexible about meetings, or add in brief, informal catch-ups and checkpoints. Working at a distance reduces that kind of spontaneity. The virtual coach is more likely to set up a fixed and predictable schedule of sessions.
  • Start with an acknowledgement of the situation – Rather than push on and make the best of it, have an early conversation about the specific (and personal) barriers thrown up by the virtual coaching setup; not only does this build honesty and trust, it also sets the problem-solving tone by focusing on a specific (and relevant!) challenge.

Arguably, coaching is well-suited to virtual working. As a learning option, coaching places responsibility and trust in the learner, to make their own decisions, choose their own path, etc. with expert guidance from the coach. Why shouldn’t that process, and the guide, be accessed virtually?

Longer term, to return to our recent survey, when asked, “How do you see your mix of L&D activities changing over the next year or two?” over a third answered, “a lot more coaching”.

If you want to know more about coaching options and advice in a virtual environment, give us a call on 01582 463461 – we’re here to help.

Categories: Coaching

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