Research & Thought Leadership

Virtual coaching – making a virtue out of necessity or a future trend?

Jennifer Potten & Bente Thomassen

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The last year has put a myriad of barriers to face-to-face collaboration and has forced us to re-consider many areas of life: the way we work, the way we live, our habits, preferences, and beliefs. It has also imposed immense pressure to figure out creative ways to deal with restrictions. The travel ban, lock-down, constraints… an almost endless list of limitations and challenges to be dealt with.

Part of the answer has been a digitalization boom. For clients, technology in a variety of shapes and forms seems to become the new norm. Some clients tell us that adaptation has gone amazingly rapid and smooth, for others the transition into the virtual space has been an experience with rather steep and frustrating learning curves.

Online working – the new normal?

Moving from face-to-face into an online working environment with Zoom, Teams, Miro, Mural, etc is for some a ‘non-topic’. As one leader put it with a twinkle in the eye: “This is our day-to-day reality also before the pandemic. We are a global company; we have virtual management meetings and team meetings all the time – sometimes too much. Of course, we are looking forward to spending time together again, however, collaboration tools are here to stay. Welcome to the 21st century!”

Travel and face time are decreasing and increased time pressure and in a wider sense climate change seems to be strong drivers to reconsider travel and face-to-face meetings. Which meetings are essential? Which ones are better done online? And how might we utilize the wealth of technology and tools in skillful and creative ways?

Where does that leave coaching?

Today, the majority of our executive coaching engagements take place in the virtual space, which clearly mirrors a global trend. According to an Executive Coaching Survey from 2019*, face-to-face coaching has declined and now accounts for just 32% of coaching sessions. Given the current data, this trend is expected to continue, which will create an increasing gap between online and face-to-face coaching in favor of virtual sessions.

What do skeptical clients say?

We encounter leaders who are skeptical about entering into an online coaching engagement. They tend to prefer to postpone, in the hope that times will bring change and restrictions will be lifted. Or, when engaging in virtual coaching, they want to have the assurance of a future of face-to-face. “When the pandemic is over, I would assume we would have face-to-face coaching again“- the statement indicating that face-to-face coaching is better than virtual coaching. When diving a bit deeper into their hesitation vis-à-vis technology, we often meet a deep willingness to engage. Clients want a strong working relationship with their coach, they want an environment characterized by trust and psychological safety, they aim for a successful outcome – and they fear that technology gets in the way.

Indeed, a fruitful and productive coaching engagement is dependent on creating rapport and mutual trust between coach and coachee. The quality of the working relationship and level of psychological safety is essential in creating the desired outcome and results. Hence, some hesitation is understandable, and yet skeptical clients tend to be surprised when they hear experiences ‘from the field’.

What do appreciative clients say?

Advocates of online coaching see technology as a neutral means of communication rather than a limiting tool. In their working life and/or private life they have experienced that creating relational depth is possible and that meaningful and rewarding conversations take place regardless of channel.

Examples of voices from clients (Zoom sessions, and phone sessions).

  • “It was great to have the flexibility of being at home in my house, to reflect on myself and my role, and to define possible ways forward. For me, it helped immensely to get out of the office and create a distance to my ‘corporate persona’ in a very literal sense of the words. I really appreciated the online opportunity.”

  • “I had not expected us to go so deep so quickly. The coaching sessions were my safe haven in these turbulent times”

  • “It was liberating to do role plays with the camera, I enjoyed the playfulness!”

  • “The silence on the phone was the best part of the coaching. You were there, at the other end of the line, doing your ‘listening sounds’. It helped me to do the hard work, letting go of embarrassment and feelings of shame. I learned so much about myself, both the dark side and the bright side- and I also learned about the power of silence.”

  • “I have been really surprised how quickly we managed to develop a very trusting and containing relationship. It was astonishing how fast we were able to “cut through the crap” and get to the core issues. I still wonder if this would have happened, had we been face-to-face.”

Finally, what does research tell us?

Research into online coaching is a growing field. The work referenced are two solid pieces of research from 2009 and 2011.

“Distance coaching: The relationship between the coach-client relationship, client satisfaction, and coaching outcomes.” PhD thesis, Marshall Goldsmith School of Management and Alliant International University, California. The largest empirical study on virtual coaching on distance coaching by telephone Conclusion: it is possible through coaching solely at a distance to develop and maintain a strong coach-client relationship that results in positive coaching outcomes. The majority of clients were satisfied with being coached at a distance and observed positive coaching outcomes that were confirmed by co-workers. The client-coach relationship in this virtual coaching program had an impact on client satisfaction and coaching outcome, which is in line with findings in psychotherapeutic literature.

“A comparison of face-to-face and distance coaching practices: Coaches’ perceptions of the role of the working alliance in problem resolution”. Published in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. Berry, R.M., Ashby, J.S., Gnilka, P.B., Matheny, K.B. (2011).

Berry, Ashby, Gnilka, and Matheny investigated the relationship between the working alliance and whether face-to-face versus distance coaching resulted in a difference in coaching outcomes and problem resolution. The results of their study suggested that no significant differences were found between the reported levels of face-to-face coaching sessions versus distance coaching sessions. Coaches self-reported strong levels of working alliance in both conditions.

Jennifer Potten, Client Relationship Manager of Global Executive Coaching & Bente Thomassen, International Executive Coach at Hult EF Corporate Education

*Annual Coaching Survey, Sherpa Coaching, the University of Georgia and Howard University, 2019

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