Virtual Coaching in the COVID-19 Crisis

As the exodus of workers from their offices continues, schools close from today and social isolation starts to bite, the web has become full of tips and advice on how to work from home (WFH). The BBC recently ran an article on its web site on how to deal with the mental health impact of isolation during COVID-19 and I have been passed only today an article by Nick Blackburn on his Linkedin page outlining how to deal with the trauma of these exceptional and worrying times. Anxiety levels are understandably high ranging from worries about personal, family and friends health to job security, to the collapse of the stock markets, to shortages of essential supplies and medicine… one could go on, these are such unprecedented times that we don’t really know what the next chapter will look like. Many are asking what will be different after this period? We are into crystal ball gazing to predict that but I am wondering if it will accelerate the seemingly inevitable expansion of more flexible work patterns in our lives. Over the last few years there has definitely been a growth in WFH for example and even requests at times to ease transport challenges in London by staggering start times to ease congestion. Indeed, one only has to look into cafes and hotel lobbies in London for example, to see the tell-tale (marketing) lights of the lap top covers of remote workers – the Apple shines bright! How we use ‘space’ within buildings or the buildings themselves is rapidly changing to shared desk spaces and to multiple use (I recently had a meeting at a prestigious private club for media-types where a large area with comfy sofas was used for ‘work’ up until 6.30pm when it then became a bar before becoming a night club at 10.30).  
So alongside this, how will career and executive coaching develop to meet these more flexible working arrangements? Certainly we have seen a growth in online support of coaching, often accompanying existing face to face arrangements (a brief catch-up or follow-up for example). There are also numerous ways in which systems and Apps can be used to have sound and vision to support coaching online, such as Facetime, Zoom, WhatsApp. Apart from the ability to see, hear and speak to a coachee through this medium, there are many techniques used in individual coaching sessions that can be transferred to an online platform. For example, one of my peers can provide coachees with a pdf with copies of her coaching cards. Talking to a colleague I had doubted whether one could use the ‘chair technique’ online but he had simply asked the coachee to set-up two chairs in view of his laptop camera and guided him through the process that way. One could use the live film streaming on most mobile phones for ‘spatial’ coaching techniques, for example in using the camera-phone to help describe the ‘future perfect’ space in a room or going into a different environment like a park (as we are encouraged to continue to do in these times). Basically, there are many ways to duplicate or get around what will now be an increasingly common issue of coaching online. But will we miss some of the subtleties one gets in a face to face meeting – the fully body language, those slight hesitations and looks aside which often ‘tell’ of something really interesting and important– many elements that alert our ‘intuitive radar’. It may be a generational issue too, I freely admit to limited but important technophobic inadequacies. In my previous employment, we often undertook job interviews from candidates overseas online but it was always challenging and not greatly satisfying – I recall interviewing a candidate for a post-doctorate position whilst she was on a land-line connection in a bar in the middle of Tanzania! She was a great candidate but another was a disaster after interviewing well online and, subsequently, the organisation brought in additional requirements as part of the recruitment process for those selected online. So, can online coaching really replace face to face? (and, of course, team coaching brings additional complexities). I would suggest not from my own experience and I find it difficult to see how it currently can do given our existing (often fragile) supporting technologies. There are numerous reports of the technology ‘falling-over’ today as it struggles to cope with the sudden surge in useage. But that could all change – if there is a real shift to remote, flexible and more virtual approaches to coaching, accelerated by our experiences during this crisis, could Virtual Reality offer some prospect of achieving the full experience of face to face, or some other technology that has yet to emerge but is developed and defined by our coaching needs? In Higher Education, remote teaching and tutorials are becoming increasingly prevalent and, in at least one case I have seen, a true ‘virtual’ lecturer used to deliver teaching to large numbers of students. In addition, many universities in the UK are providing MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) which largely rely on ‘e’ learning of some sort. Many of these developments might well be transferrable to the coaching environment.
Whatever does emerge, the current crisis will require coaches to fully embrace virtual coaching. We will need to do so to continue to give our clients active support they need in a period where they will be facing unprecedented challenges and with high levels of anxiety. And for independent coaches, if this period of enforced isolation continuous for any extended time, we will need to embrace the virtual if we are to survive!  

Find out more about Richard Beaumont Coaching

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