How Coaches Can Bridge the Digital Divide with Newly Remote Workers

The shift to digital presents coaches a real opportunity to change the way they work with their clients—and finally ditch the old seminar model.

COVID-19 presents challenges unlike any we’ve faced before—and with a massive shift to remote working underway around the world, that includes professional coaches.

New research indicates that the measures many employers have rightly put in place to stem the spread of the virus will form working habits in their employees, and that these changes will take time to reverse (if they do at all). For coaches, then, it’s time to start preparing for the new realities of the workplace in the post-COVID era—because the days of the traditional leadership seminar are numbered, and the momentum toward virtual coaching is accelerating.

As the co-founder of digital learning platform Sharpist, I advise coaches on the best techniques and strategies for delivering training through a virtual medium every day. Here are a few considerations coaches should take into account in bridging the digital divide:

1. Connect with your learners briefly, frequently, and over video.

Coaches are familiar with the standard corporate training engagement: a half-day or full-day seminar or offsite that typically occurs a few times per year at most. Simply put, they’re too long for all of a coach’s valuable lessons to stick, and they occur too infrequently for learners to form real habits.

(When you look at the hard numbers—the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that midsized companies spend an average of only six minutes every six months training their managers—it’s not hard to see why.)

Frequent, short sessions perform vastly better. Sharpist data shows the optimal length and frequency of coaching sessions to be around 30 to 45 minutes every two weeks.

However, the value of a face-to-face connection (even digitally) is still apparent. Face-to-face, a learner can speak freely, and turn to his or her “sparring partner” with day-to-day challenges and difficulties. For the coach, it’s an opportunity to ensure critical nonverbal cues aren’t missed, repeat (and repeat, and repeat) key principles, and increase the quality of their advice in the moment, as well as the relevance of any follow-up lessons or challenges they provide.

In this sense, the shift to digital presents coaches a real opportunity to change the way they work with their clients—and finally ditch the old seminar model.

2. Leverage digital content to adapt your curriculum to the moment.

We’re in unprecedented times, and professionals are faced with a different set of concerns than those they’ve faced before. Our data shows that “dealing with change and crisis management” has shot to the top of learners’ priorities in the last month alone, outranking both “emotion regulation and “stress management.” “Remote work” now also ranks among the top 5.

This calls for new approaches in coaches’ instruction methods. The old playbook can’t be relied on any longer, but this doesn’t require a return to the drawing board.

Nowadays, there are more high-quality online resources available than ever before; organizations such as MIT Sloan Management Review are leading the way in modular digital content that lets coaches adjust lesson plans on the fly—and lets them focus on what they do best: coaching.

3. Deploy “micro-tasks” to make learning a mindset, not a project.

Great coaching sessions can spark powerful motivation for change, but without reinforcement to keep this motivation at the top of learners’ minds, it can fail to translate to behavioral progress.

Piano teachers assign exercises to their students to stay sharp in between lessons, and fitness trainers prescribe healthy stretching and diet regimens in between workouts. It’s time for coaches to adopt a similar approach with their learners, and digital can make this easy.

Enter “micro-tasks”: short, digital challenges learners can complete in between coaching sessions. Micro-tasks are a powerful tool for coaches to sustain motivation, provide additional detail on coaching topics, and present actionable steps to guide learners.

It’s easy to assign micro-task learning plans to learners on almost any topic that’s top of mind for them. “How to Lead a Remote Team,” “Virtual Leadership,” and “Working from Home: Staying Sane and Productive” are just a few that are trending with learners on the Sharpist platform right now.

4. Lean into the advantages of having your learners based remotely.

“Virtual coaching not only creates new possibilities, but also creates a wonderful depth of encounter and effectiveness that goes far beyond the use of technology,” says Christa-Marie Münchow, an executive coach and host of the podcast Coaching-to-Go.

With more than two decades’ experience, Münchow has enjoyed a front-row seat to the digital transformation of coaching. In her view, coaching techniques such as anchoring and systemic constellations can actually work better in a virtual session than face-to-face.

Systemic constellations, for example, rely on the attribution of identities (the self, the ego, other individuals in one’s life) to objects in a space, and the exploration of the relationships between those objects. “Space,” here, is the critical word: Learners going through a systemic constellation exercise in the comfort of their own home can assign a degree of meaning to their possessions that just wouldn’t be possible in a conference room, making the whole session more powerful.

5. Measure performance to demonstrate progress to learners—and to leadership.

One of the great rewards of coaching is the chance to watch learners make real strides in their personal and professional lives. Sometimes, these breakthroughs happen in a split-second; for others, they take months of steady focus.

Coaches traditionally have lacked a quantified method to measure this progress and report it to learners and to leadership. HR needs a dashboard, not a thank-you note, and the C-suite needs business-relevant metrics it can make decisions with.

A more digital approach to coaching enables new measurement possibilities. Here are a few I’ve seen play well:

  • Measure learning interests at the start. After intake sessions with a new group, the mix of lesson plans assigned by a coach to learners can itself be insightful. Is there a strong bias for help with work-life balance? Or perhaps a desire for a healthier management culture? This in itself can empower HR to take necessary action.
  • Measure your sessions immediately and in-depth. After each session, digital can help coaches capture instant feedback, and go beyond a standard 5-point scale to track attributes such as quality of listening and usefulness of advice. Transparency in this area gives HR the necessary confidence that a L&D program is on track and should continue.
  • Measure manager and peer feedback. It’s possible to capture this digitally, too, and include it in a holistic view of performance. The input of learners’ managers and colleagues provides critical validation that progress wasn’t just made; it made an impact.

COVID-19 presents us many challenges. The core challenge now facing coaches is to translate what they do best to an increasingly digital world. If they can be successful in that endeavor, they will strengthen their discipline at precisely the time when learners need them most.

Fabian Niedballa is the cofounder and Chief Operating Officer of Sharpist, the digital ecosystem for personalized learning and development. Prior to founding Sharpist in 2018, he served as head of Sales and Supply Operations at travel experiences booking platform GetYourGuide. Niedballa hails from western Germany and holds a Master of Science from Bocconi University.

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