Perhaps unsurprisingly given the continued march of infections across parts of Asia and Europe, my blog of the 20th of March was rather prescient as it was followed three days later by the UK Prime Minister’s announcement of further restrictions on our lives.
As a number of coach colleagues turn (more) to virtual/i-coaching, I have been asked whether I could recommend any ‘tips’, particularly for those who might be venturing into this new and exciting world at early stages in their careers. There are a number of web-sourced suggestions available but I thought I would save you some time and effort by summarising what I think seem to be the most common issues they suggest should be considered.
- It’s different, but the same – there are undoubtedly opportunities and challenges that emerge in coaching virtually and these need to be acknowledged, some of which I will mention, but the fundamentals of good coaching practice as reflected in your own model/approach should remain the same. Be truthful to your coaching and continue to trust the process rather than let ‘virtual’ be the determinant factor.
- Right space, limit distractions – like any coaching session, it is important to ensure that both coach and client are in a space that enables full, safe and confidential discourse. Both coach and client will need to perhaps practice an even greater level of attention to maintain their connection – this means limiting distractions as much as possible and operating in a physical space that allows Wi-Fi, but is private and conducive. I know, the reality is that we are all currently working from home and one of your kids will burst into shot at some point, but let’s try and limit the risks!
- Be (even more) present in the moment – it’s so easy to try and multi-task when working virtually – the mobile is next to you and a new message notification catches your eye. But it is even easier to suddenly lose that connection with your client so you have to be really present – perhaps even more so – if you are going to spot that ‘tell’ of an eye flutter to the side which gives-away important emotional response data.
- Right tech for you and your client – both coach and client need to be comfortable with whatever technology you decide to use – it should be a joint decision but be prepared to make some suggestions. I think most people are having to rapidly come up to speed on the range of resources to support connectivity with their clients and determine the right technology that suits both parties. I know many seem to be using ‘Zoom’ as it does allow pretty good visual and sound connectivity without taking up the entire bandwidth of the household (!) and it also allows for use of virtual white boards, two-way images and even separation of a larger group into separate virtual break-out areas (good for team coaching). But there are numerous options including Skype, SMS, SharePoint, WiKi Boards, phones, email etc. all of which can offer their own nuances to support coaching. The full range can be used to coach your client but each needs to be considered carefully and attuned to your client’s comfort and abilities (which may develop as they use the tech more).
- Quality of your tech– I think visual connectivity is critical unless it is a quick catch-up, so your filming device, microphone and WiFi speed needs to be able to provide you with that capability. Some mobile phones and/or lap tops are not bad but it may be worth investing in a better camera and microphone (possibly a headset if you don’t mind looking like you’re in a call-centre).
- Tech familiarity and comfort – as mentioned above, both coach and client need to feel comfortable with the tech you use. Both of you may feel a little anxious, particularly if it is all new. As you might in any coaching session, it’s good to admit and own these anxieties and continuously reflect on how successful they have been addressed. Take a moment during sessions to ‘check-in’ with clients that they remain comfortable. You may also need to give more time to create the right coaching atmosphere in this virtual space, particularly for a client in the first session.
- Practice your video technique – I know some coaches who revel in videos of their own performance, others less so. But it is important to practice and experiment with how your usual style comes across through the media you wish to use – do you need to use perhaps more effusive and accentuated tones, movements etc. to ensure that your connectivity through a screen retains the client’s full attention? Take a moment to watch and really listen to TV news reporters as they speak to camera and see if you can learn any lessons there.
- Be Prepared for Tech Glitches – we all have experiences when use of technology doesn’t go to plan – prepare for this. What can you still use if the WiFi goes down either your end or theirs? What if you lose only visuals? In most cases, there can be some temporary expedient, or you may need to be realistic and delay. Being prepared and not going into a panic mode will help you and maintain the client’s confidence in your virtual competency.
- Managing the coaching process – I think a message which comes-up loud and clear is ‘be prepared’, but should the sessions be more structured in some way? Clearly, the theoretical positioning of each coach, and hence their practice, will vary. However, there is a suggestion that virtual coaching may lead to greater levels of potential ambiguity and some have suggested that it may be beneficial to try and address this through frequent inter-sessional ‘check-in’s or even a more structured approach (I know one senior coach who prefers to utilise GROW when coaching virtually for this reason). Each will have their own position on this but seeking clarity throughout the session/coaching process is suggested to be important, in particular being clear about any actions/next steps.
- Contracting for virtual coaching – whilst your normal contracting arrangements can be adapted to include for many specific issues that relate to virtual coaching, one aspect that perhaps needs specific consideration is around the technology itself. i.e. how will various coaching techniques and models be used in this setting? (For example, if you wish to use chairwork or spatial visualisation techniques, how might the technology allow this and how will you ensure the client understands how this will work and remains comfortable?). What will you do if there is some sort of failure and/or interruption? What can be done to address any anxieties the client may have? How will you manage any concerns from the client about the virtual process should they emerge? Tina Cox and Hugh Reynolds termed this whole issue ‘Technology Etiquette’ which I rather like.
- Confidentiality – the use of technology brings with it obvious potential challenges and dangers in ensuring your client’s confidential data is protected and may take you into new areas of data protection legislation for which you need to be prepared. At the least, you may need to review your standard coaching contracts to ensure they are fit for purpose and comply with any regional specific legislation. Certainly, it will be good practice to seek ways of encrypting any data that is submitted as part of virtual coaching and that you use systems and approaches that minimise the risk (for example, in some Apps that you might use for connecting with clients there is the option to have password access controls). You may need to give specific attention to any materials you might store as a result of coaching if that is permitted and agreed, indeed consider what would be a safe method of disposal, and take care that any linked activity (e.g. if you keep any e-notes of sessions) do not allow data breaches through indirect routes.
For many coaches and clients, the current Covid-19 outbreak brings with it necessity for engaging with on-line coaching. This does undoubtedly bring challenges but also many opportunities which I am sure, following a period of reflection when we are through this to the ‘other side’, will see a continued growth in virtual coaching into the future. There are many advantages that virtual coaching brings; not least accessibility, flexibility, time and travel savings, use of exciting supporting technology and visualisation through potential applications of true Virtual Reality.
I hope my attempt to summarise some key issues might help as you engage in virtual coaching and will prove useful even to those who already have some experience.
I’ll leave you with a couple of last thoughts: if you fully engage with virtual coaching, I’m sure you will find many opportunities that might not be at first obvious and that you will enjoy the experience – be prepared to be flexible and, secondly, I am already hearing leaders starting to express concerns that during this period of isolation they are struggling to cope and have boundaries between work and life in general – do make sure that you allow time between virtual coaching sessions for your own reflection and well-being.
Stay safe all!
Please do check-out the following:
- The Rise and Fall of Virtual Coaching – Management Futures 30/10/19 (Online) – Tim Cox and Hugh Reynolds http://www.managementfutures.co.uk/insight/news/the-rise-and-rise-of-virtual-coaching
- Virtual Coaching Skills – Centre for Management and Organisational Effectiveness (Online) – Brian Miyasaki (accessed 30/03/20) https://cmoe.com/blog/virtual-coaching-skills/
- Online Coaching – 12 Key tips on how to run a successful session (Online) 18/03/20 – Catalyst14 – Liz Palmer and Damion Wonfor https://www.catalyst14.co.uk/blog/online-coaching-tips
- Tips for Coaching Remotely – Harvard Business Review (Online) 18/03/15 – Ed Batista https://hbr.org/2015/03/tips-for-coaching-someone-remotely
- Why and How to Optimist your Virtual Coaching – meetmaestro blog (Online) 03/04/18 https://meetmaestro.com/insights/virtual-coaching-best-practices/
- Tips for Virtual Meeting Mastery – Melissa Gratias blog (Online) (accessed 30/03/20) https://melissagratias.com/tips-virtual-meeting-mastery/