Coaching at a Distance

As a provider of “virtual” career coaching, Jennifer Britton usually gets on the phone or goes online to help her clients advance professionally. Apart from technology, her work is much the same as traditional in-person coaching. Take ethical standards: Like any professional coach, Britton must protect the confidentiality of discussions with her clients – the employees to whom she counsels.

Thus, coaches like Britton – founder of Potentials Realized, a Toronto, Canada-based provider of individual, team and group coaching – can sometimes find themselves in an ethical dilemma.

Say, for example, an employee reveals to Britton – or any professional coach, for that matter – that he or she has been bullied by a co-worker, but doesn’t want to inform a manager, or HR, or anyone else in the organization.

Some employees might be more apt to disclose such information to a coach in a virtual environment, compared to an in-person setting. In an instance like this, a coach might refer a worker to an employee assistance program – where he or she should be guaranteed anonymity – to help employees whose performance or well-being might be suffering from the mistreatment. Still, HR would certainly want to be aware of such activity within the workplace, to, hopefully, prevent future occurrences, and, if nothing else, to identify the source of bullying behavior and, hopefully, prevent future occurrences.

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“From an HR perspective, there needs to be validation that, yes, coaching conversations are happening, that employees are benefitting from coaching and that the organization is spending its money wisely” by engaging a professional coach, says Britton, who is also the author of From One to Many: Best Practices for Team and Group Coaching.

Making sure that the individuals and teams being coached are growing and improving as a result is just one example of the several factors that experts say HR must consider in implementing a virtual coaching program.

Setting the Parameters

The role of HR in designing and implementing a virtual coaching program varies, depending on how involved HR is in developing and maintaining such an initiative, says SharrÁ³n Dean, a Washington-based leadership coach and human capital consultant.

In the event that HR oversees internal coaches, “HR has the additional responsibility of coordinating the coaching along with the learning and development programs, helping to determine the appropriate program success goals,” she says.

The benefits of coaching aren’t necessarily measured in the traditional sense, adds Dean, noting that coaching programs are sometimes focused on effecting behavioral change. In addition, “it can be difficult to translate measurable goals when certain topics are not discussable due to confidentiality.”

Indeed, HR often must walk a fine line when it comes to confidentiality.

“It’s not always an easy sell to separate coaches from HR,” she continues, which is also “involved in conversations and actions that include progressive or corrective discipline.”

As such, an HR leader should work with a coach to establish boundaries, guidelines and expectations at the onset of the virtual coaching engagement, says Norma Nielsen, assistant director of talent and culture at The Fairmont Southampton luxury resort in Bermuda.

A virtual coaching initiative is often introduced along with a leadership or high-potential development program, says Nielsen, who is also a certified professional coach and former HR manager. She recommends setting parameters at the same time the program is developed.

“Consider who will have access to a coach, for how long, and how eligible employees will be partnered with a prospective coach,” says Nielsen. “Is there a pool of approved coaches that have already been vetted by the organization? Identify the metrics that will be used to benchmark the program, and agree to the manner and frequency in which feedback will be collected.”

If the organization is engaging external coaches, “then my preference is that the company have a master agreement with the coaching organization that governs the business side of the relationship,” she continues.

An HR leader and a coach must also determine the type of information that the HR department or others overseeing a coaching program should receive. While a coach might be able to discuss an employee’s progress toward pre-defined goals, conversations about more specific details might be off-limits.

Britton likes to sit down with a CHRO or another representative from HR to set parameters early on.

“I invite HR in at the start of a weekly or bi-weekly session, for instance,” says Britton. A coaching recipient’s supervisor might also take part in this meeting, in which reporting structures and development plans are created, in addition to determining the type of information that a coach can and cannot share with the organization.

Making the Connection

The personal, one-on-one nature of a coaching session is part of what makes professional coaching an effective resource for organizations looking to improve employee performance. Making this type of connection via the phone or a computer screen can be difficult.

“Relationships require some modicum of trust, which is enhanced from face-to-face, knee-to-knee, eye-to-eye contact,” says Dave Ulrich, the Rensis Likert Professor of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner at the Provo, Utah-based RBL Group. “Virtual coaching could work on a specific problem, but personal coaching requires a personal connection.”

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Translating emotional and language cues over virtual platforms can be challenging, says Anderson, noting that trained coaches with solid coaching skills can bridge potential gaps.

Getting a good sense of a coach’s communication skills can be done through conducting behavioral interviewing and “getting very specific around capacity and clarifying assumptions,” she says.

Evaluate, for example, a coach’s social and emotional intelligence quotient and commitment to their own development, says Anderson.

“How is the coach bridging their own gaps? What is the coach’s ability to pivot into different stances given the situation and the client’s needs?”

The goal of answering such questions, she says, is to understand “the coach’s capacity for seeking clarity both in their [own career] landscape and the client’s,” she says. “Think of it this way: The coach is the ‘instrument’ and this demands exceptional ‘tuning’ into themselves and the client. A well-tuned coach can discern subtle changes in facial expressions, voice inflection, emotion and somatic responses.”

Anderson also urges HR leaders to ensure that coaching practitioners are trained by a reputable program and are using a combination of time-tested methods and practices, such as the “co-active coaching model,” which focuses on providing coaching in all aspects of an employee’s life – physical, intellectual and emotional – versus just professional or personal life.

Delivering virtual coaching in this type of one-on-one setting is a relatively straightforward proposition. Providing it to a team, however, offers another set of challenges.

HR must work with IT, Britton says, to tackle the logistics of providing the necessary technology. But there’s more to the equation.

“One of the big questions is, ‘How do we bring these employees together?’ We can’t assume virtual teams are even ‘meeting’ on a regular basis,” says Britton. “We have people in a global team, but not really together in the traditional sense. They might all report to one person, but they don’t really interact.”

Anderson advises using a technology platform that “incorporates several logistic aspects” to make the virtual coaching experience a seamless one, such as an open calendar function to view available time slots. She also encourages selecting coaches whose virtual programs include videos and interactive modules, for example.

“The goal of coaching is to increase awareness and change behavior,” says Anderson. “Providing a foundation of adult-learning theory from a multiple-intelligence approach will set up participants for success.”

And be sure to democratize coaching, Anderson says, adding that the benefit is the “the new coin for recruitment, retention and engagement.”

Mark McGraw
Mark McGraw
Mark McGraw is a freelance writer who has covered human resources for nearly a decade. He lives in the Philadelphia suburbs and earned a bachelor's degree in professional writing from Kutztown University.