With remote and hybrid work becoming the new norm, more and more managers are being faced with a new challenge—learning how to conduct effective remote coaching.
If you think earning someone’s trust and keeping them engaged during in-person coaching was difficult before, imagine what the challenges are like for remote coaching when everything is done through a screen.
But remote coaching does offer its own advantages.
Much like remote work, coaching through digital platforms offers convenience and access, with an added bonus of privacy. With remote coaching, there’s no risk that a co-worker could accidentally walk in on a session or overhear your conversation.
While the fundamental approaches to coaching—active listening, equal partnership, and having a discovery mindset—remain the same, the virtual environment does throw up certain risks related to shortcuts or compromise.
The biggest challenge with virtual versus face-to-face coaching is how to ensure that certain parts of the coaching process aren’t taken for granted.
In this article, Intellect’s executive and behavioural health coaches share some advice based on their own extensive experiences with virtual coaching to help managers get a better handle on coaching remote and hybrid teams.
Tip 1: Remove potential distractions
Focus is key to any effective coaching session, but when it comes to remote coaching, maintaining focus can be especially tough because it’s just too tempting to multitask.
Due to the lack of nonverbal cues over video, managers need to pay much closer attention to subtle shifts in tone, facial expression, or choice of words when coaching remotely. Any lapse in focus could result in missing out on these crucial details.
To ensure that virtual coaching sessions are as effective as possible, ICF-certified career coach Julie Samuel advises that managers respect the remote coaching process by properly planning their schedules, managing their time, and taking intentional steps to remove potential distractions.
“Be present during the conversation and avoid multitasking,” she suggests. “That could mean shutting down your email or desktop messaging apps so that you’re not distracted by notifications.”
Tip 2: Dedicate the first few minutes to work-related matters, if necessary
This may sound contradictory to the first tip, but hear us out.
While it’s important that managers approach coaching sessions with their full attention and focus, it’s equally important that employees do the same.
In addition to removing the temptation to multitask, it would also greatly help employees focus better on coaching sessions if pressing work matters are first gotten out of the way.
“Compared to when working in the office, it’s harder for remote employees to just ‘pop by’ their manager’s desk to get approvals or discuss other important work issues,” explains Atsuko Otsuki, an ICF-certified ACC coach who has been working with clients for over five years.
For this reason, in remote coaching, it can actually be constructive for managers to spend the first few minutes asking employees if there’s anything urgent that requires their attention before moving on to coaching proper.
“It helps both parties enter the session without something hanging over their heads so they can dedicate their full attention to the coaching process,” she adds.
Tip 3: Have a framework, but be flexible
Go into any coaching session without a framework, and you risk it becoming just another catch-up session.
“The beauty of coaching is that you make it possible for your coachees to come up with their own conclusions and action plans,” Julie shares. “You don’t give instructions—you explore an issue together to arrive at a solution together. Having a proper coaching framework helps enable this process.”
She recommends selecting one that you’re most comfortable with, such as the F.U.E.L. model described in John H. Zenger and Kathleen Stinnett’s book The Extraordinary Coach.
At the same time, it’s also important not to be too rigid with your agenda. Managers should recognise that hybrid work does take a toll on employees’ mental health, and that it’s important to engage emotionally with their remote and hybrid team members.
Coaching sessions are a valuable opportunity to do this, shares Atsuko, who recommends that managers some time to “set the energy” for coaching sessions by breaking the ice and warming up with some small talk, setting a positive tone right from the start, and genuinely checking in with how employees are feeling about work.
Tip 4: Guarantee confidentiality
The biggest advantage of virtual versus face-to-face coaching is that virtual sessions can be recorded and revisited at a later date. This can be invaluable for recording notes and feedback, revisiting key issues or challenges, and tracking progress.
Ironically, this could also lead to certain employees being wary of remote coaching, because they’re unsure of how private their session will be. This is especially an issue with hybrid work arrangements which put psychological safety at risk.
“For remote coaching to be effective, especially top-down coaching, it’s essential for employees to feel that they have a safe space to open up and that their confidentiality is prioritised and protected,” explains Shyamala Sashikumar, an ICF-certified PCC coach who’s had over 25 years of experience working in corporate environments.
She emphasises the importance of establishing intimacy and trust within the team: “Otherwise, the employee may not be honest or genuine with their responses, and the benefits of coaching will go unrealised.”
Tip 5: Get comfortable with asking ‘basic’ questions
The water cooler moments that we take for granted in an office environment actually contribute greatly to contextual information that’s necessary for effective coaching.
If someone’s having a difficult time at work, their family member is unwell, or their child is going through a rough time, as a manager, you’re likely to have overhead snippets of conversations to help you stay aware.
The same cannot be said for remote employees, and this shortage of information is exacerbated by the further lack of nonverbal cues over video.
So, when it comes to engagement during a remote coaching session, don’t forget to ask seemingly ‘basic’ questions such as “How are you feeling today?”, “How is everything at home?”, or “What’s going well for you today/this week?”
“Without that emotional connection, coaching can get superficial,” warns Atsuko. “Smart use of coaching can strengthen emotional engagement that’s often missing or lacking in remote and hybrid teams.”
For remote coaching to work, managers need to believe and commit
Whether it’s in-person or virtual, coaching offers multiple benefits including mental well-being, job satisfaction, and better employee engagement.
More importantly, coaching only works if you’re willing to see it through. It’s common for managers to make the mistake of approaching a coaching or check-in session as a list of tasks to be checked off, thereby turning it into an interrogation or opportunity to micromanage.
“It’s tempting to just offer a solution, rather than go through the entire process of letting the employee come up with their own solutions in a collaborative way,” explains Julie. “We may think: ‘The faster I get out of this online session, the more time I have for other matters’.”