Learning & Development, Talent, Technology

3 Hurdles to Overcome When Coaching in a Virtual Environment

Remote work has become the “new normal” for many during the past few months, with some organizations going so far as to make the switch to remote work permanent. No matter how permanent virtual workplaces are, employees and leaders must adapt.

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Workplace coaching is crucial in a virtual environment, no matter how difficult or awkward it may seem. (The benefits of coaching, experts have found, are too important to ignore.) That’s why I share three common hurdles employees face in a virtual coaching environment and ideas for overcoming them.

Hurdle #1

First, recognize that fears and inhibitions are different when we meet virtually than when we meet face-to-face.

Moving a coaching meeting from in-person to virtual creates its own set of challenges. It’s almost as if we are helicoptering ourselves into someone else’s safe zone! Of course, there will be some awkward or uncomfortable feelings. Some people might be distracted by how they look or sound on camera, while others will be concerned about one of their children walking in during a meeting or how clean their at-home work space appears or whether the construction outside is as loud as it seems.

One way to alleviate those fears is to set clear expectations for at-home workers and have leaders embody those ideals. First and foremost, we acknowledge that working from home comes with challenges, and we recognize that there will be distractions—a child who needs help, a dog barking, or the doorbell. Our leaders set the tone for handling these distractions, and it’s often with a smile and a simple “don’t worry about it.” As leaders model and extend humor and grace, that creates the optimal environment.

At the same time, creating a “camera’s on” norm might be necessary (yet uncomfortable) to ensure coaching happens. At my company, we expect everyone to turn cameras on during meetings and conversations. Cameras provide essential visual cues that enable deeper listening and support focus. It’s hard to multitask when your camera shows it all. We set the expectation that we want to see each other in one-on-one and team settings. If workplace conditions don’t allow for cameras, you’ll need to work harder to listen, probe, and confirm understanding. 

Hurdle #2

Second, maintaining consistency in coaching—even remotely—is more critical than ever.

For organizations that haven’t created a consistent coaching pattern (daily, weekly, monthly), virtual coaching might be even harder because you’re setting new expectations while establishing a new way of working. The easiest way to overcome this hurdle is to schedule it.

Scheduled and structured one-on-ones are essential, so find a regular time on your calendar for a meeting, and then follow through. Canceling one-on-one coaching meetings is a form of benign neglect that leaders can’t afford.

To ensure the tenor of your meetings is consistent and effective, they should follow a similar pattern. We integrate an InsideOut Mindset for coaching and use a question-based approach rather than a task- or project-based checklist. Choose a set of simple questions, and share them with your direct report ahead of time to help them better prepare for the meeting.

At InsideOut Development, we use these questions: 1) “What’s working?” 2) “Where are you getting stuck?” and 3) “What might you do differently?” This framework allows direct reports to share their experiences and find their solutions. The questions also help managers avoid the temptation to jump in and fix while still providing an opportunity to fill in with observations and feedback.

Hurdle #3

Third, don’t let a lack of ownership stifle your coaching culture.

The ultimate hurdle for coaching programs in a virtual or face-to-face environment is creating a sense of ownership.

Ownership is an essential part of any successful enterprise, and to drive coaching organizationwide, leaders must pattern it. I find that organizations that struggle to keep coaching afloat often lack leaders who make coaching a priority. Leaders mustn’t merely endorse coaching; they must evidence it.

Managers can instill ownership by communicating about it in terms of a phrase we share with our clients: “SayDoCo,” which is short for “Say what you’ll do, Do what you say, and Communicate along the way.” Because coaching can be more difficult in a virtual environment, leaning into communication can make the transition (and ownership) more comfortable for both parties.

For instance, if coaching is a style shift for you, give direct reports a heads-up by “saying what you’ll do.” Explain why and how you’ll be working to integrate a coaching approach. Acknowledge that you will both be learning how to have a different type of conversation.

Let them know the questions you’ll be asking and how the conversation will flow. Doing so will acknowledge any hesitation from your direct report while setting the stage for greater consistency and an increased sense of ownership. As you exemplify ownership through coaching, your employees will start to incorporate it into their daily responsibilities and projects.

When challenges or constraints arise, many organizations feel that investing in coaching will add confusion, resentment, and an added layer of work to their already busy workforce. However, it’s at times like these—with shorter decision runways and even more constrained resources—that we need coaching more than ever.

When challenges throw off our workflow, support, and communication processes, coaching creates alignment. It improves our decision velocity, it enhances ownership and productivity, and it proves to empower employees to see past their constraints by focusing on what they can control. If there is ever a time to home in on coaching—even in a virtual environment—it’s now. 

Nancy Q. Smith’s passion is building coaching cultures that grow people and improve performance. Her career has spanned internal and external consulting, professional services and business processes.

In her current role as Vice President, Innovation at InsideOut Development, Smith leads product and service development. She has also held professional services and customer success roles and has had the privilege of working with Fortune 500 clients from all industries and sectors. Smith joined InsideOut Development in 2012. Prior to InsideOut Development, she led the strategic partnering practice at Exemplary Performance, and served as People Development Manager and Global Process Manager with Delphi Corporation.

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