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Virtual Coaching is Inevitable but is it Effective?

Our world has changed, and the hybrid workplace with work-from-home opportunities is part of a new normal. For many of us, going to the "office" has taken on a new meaning. Companies that require employees to be on-site full-time are finding it harder to hire employees as competitors are offering flexibility. Technology enables individuals and teams to work collaboratively remotely. There is no need to ask if you should use virtual coaching. Instead, a better question is, how can you develop quality coaching relationships through technology? A quick Google search on the effectiveness of virtual coaching makes it appear as if virtual coaching is just as effective as face-to-face coaching. However, most of those articles are authored by virtual coaching organizations using their data. Here is what peer-reviewed research contributes to the discussion on the effectiveness of virtual coaching.

What is virtual coaching?

Virtual coaching is often used interchangeably with e-coaching, distance coaching, online coaching, and remote coaching. Like in-person coaching, there is a general lack of consensus on its meaning.

Virtual coaching is a technology-facilitated partnership between a coach and client to maximize the clients' personal and professional potential.

Virtual coaching can include asynchronous communications, such as email and text messaging through a virtual coaching app, and synchronous such as voice and video communications, that provide immediate feedback with a coach.

  • Asynchronous - means not existing or happening at the same time

  • Synchronous - means existing or occurring at the same time

Independent researchers have concluded that, like in-person coaching, virtual coaching improves learning, goal achievement, and work-life balance.

Evidence suggests that the primary benefits of virtual coaching are added convenience, service, and support over traditional face-to-face coaching.

Virtual Coaching Benefit #1: Accessibility

Accessibility is likely one of the most significant benefits associated with virtual coaching, especially for global organizations and times when offices need to close. Technology enables the coach and client to connect, whether in different places within the same building or worldwide. Also, a digital environment improves access to tools supporting goal setting, coaching preparation, and progress tracking.

Virtual Coaching Benefit #2: Availability

Virtual technology platforms enable the coach to be brought into just-in-time and rapid-response situations or situations like cross-cultural coaching goals. Also, both the coach and client benefit from the flexibility and administrative ease in scheduling.

Virtual Coaching Benefit #3: Affordability

You have probably heard it said that time is money. Affordability improves through reduced travel and associated time out of the office costs.

Although these benefits are very advantageous, the research does not support replacing face-to-face coaching with virtual coaching. In reality, in-person and virtual coaching have pros and cons.

What are the top challenges with virtual coaching?

It probably goes without needing scientific research to recognize that face-to-face communication is the most effective medium of communication. In reality, many people have some hesitation or even resistance to using virtual coaching.

Numerous studies have shown that different mediums of communication have varying degrees of effectiveness in supporting in-the-moment feedback, information sharing, communication cues, emotions, and customization of the message.

Although evidence suggests that the challenges with the lack of multiple cues and sharing emotions could be moderated by a skilled virtual coach, it is best to look at each client's situation and needs uniquely rather than a one size fits all strategy. A key is assessing the coaching situation and context to determine the best use for virtual coaching.

How to know if you are a good fit for virtual coaching

Virtual coaching is not for everyone and is not a fit for every coaching goal. So how do you know if it is a good fit for you?

Coaching clients using virtual coaching need to have the competence and confidence to be coached in a digital environment. Research indicates that virtual coaching requires a more significant commitment and accountability from the client. It is also best if you are self-confident with the use of the virtual coaching platform.

Your personality plays a role in whether virtual coaching is a good fit. Multiple studies conclude that clients with a higher degree of extroversion have stronger preferences and success with face-to-face coaching versus virtual coaching.

Your environment moderates the effectiveness of virtual coaching. Having a location free from distractions, dogs barking, and the temptation of multitasking improves coaching effectiveness.

It is important to take an honest assessment of your motivation, desire, confidence, competence, access to technology, and environment to understand if you are a good fit for virtual coaching.

Here is a free quiz you can use to help you discover if you are a good fit for virtual coaching.

What makes for an excellent virtual coach?

Coaching does not have to be face-to-face to be personalized and effective. Evidence suggests that virtual coaching and face-to-face coaching are equally effective when it's a good fit for you and the coach.

Here are a few of the attributes you should consider when hiring a virtual coach:

Virtual Coach Attribute #1: Qualification

A good virtual coach is a trained and qualified coach. Coaching is a skill, and the International Coaching Federation (ICF) is a globally recognized association with evidence-based competency and code of ethics certification requirements.

Virtual Coach Attribute #2: Education

What the coach knows matters. Evidence suggests that an academic background in a field like psychology enhances executive coaching outcomes such as the client's self-awareness and leadership performance.

Virtual Coach Attribute #3: Virtual Technology Competence

Just like your fit matters, the technical competence of the coach moderates the effectiveness of virtual coaching. An excellent virtual coach has the ability to:

  • Operate the tools and functions of collaborative technology.

  • Effectively interact to perform a task or solve a problem using technology.

  • Manage and provide support on how to use the technology and interact effectively.

  • Select and organize virtual tools in a way that optimizes interaction and best supports activity management. The ability to dynamically design the environment based on emerging collaborative and cognitive requirements.

References: Ahrend, G., Diamond, F., & Webber, P. G. (2010). Virtual coaching: Using technology to boost performance. Chief Learning Officer, 9,44–47.

Berry, R. M., Ashby, J. S., Gnilka, P. B., & Matheny, K. B. (2011). A comparison of face-to-face and distance coaching practices: Coaches’ perceptions of the role of working alliance in problem resolution. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 63, 243–253.

Charbonneau, M.A (2002). Participant self-perception about the cause of behavior change from a program of executive coaching. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Alliant International University, Los Angeles, CA.

Cornelius, C., Schumann, G., & Boos, M. (2009). Time and goal-management for junior researchers: Evaluation of online coaching. Organisationsberatung, Supervision, Coaching, 16, 54–65.

Frazee, R.V. (2008). E-coaching in organizations. A study of features, practices, and determinants of use. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, San Diego University, USA

Ghods, N. (2009). Distance coaching: The relationship between coach-client relationship, client satisfaction, and coaching outcomes. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, San Diego University, USA

Hamilton, B. A., & Scandura, T. A. (2003). Implications for organizational learning and development in a wired world. Organizational Dynamics, 31 (4), 388–402.

Hernez-Broome, G., Boyce, L. A., & Ely, K. (2009). The coaching relationship: A glimpse into the black box of coaching. In L. A. Boyce & G. Hernez-Broome (Chair), The client-coach relationship: Examining a critical component of successful coaching. Symposium conducted at the 24th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, New Orleans, LA.

Hernez-Broome, G. & Boyce, L.A. (2010). Advancing Executive Coaching : Setting the Course for Successful Leadership Coaching, edited by Gina Hernez-Broome, and Lisa A. Boyce, Center for Creative Leadership.

Hubschman, B. G. (1996). The effect of mentoring electronic mail on student achievement and attitudes in a graduate course in education research (Doctoral dissertation, Florida International University, 1996). Dissertation Abstracts International, 57–08A , 3417.

Newberry, B. (2001). Raising student social presence in online classes. World Conference on the WWW and Internet Proceedings, Orlando, FL: ED466611, 2–7.

Pascal, A., Sass, M., & Gregory, J. B. (2015, January 12). I’m Only Human: The Role of

Technology in Coaching. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. Advance

online publication.

Sitkin, S., Sutcliffe, K., & Barrios -Choplin, J. (1992). A dual-capacity model of communication media choice in organizations. Human Communication Research, 18 (4), 563–598.

Ting, S., & Hart, E. W. (2004). Formal coaching. In C. D. McCauley & E. Van Velsor (Eds.), The Center for Creative Leadership handbook of leadership development (pp. 116–150), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Trevino, L., Lengel R., & Daft R. (1987). Media symbolism, media richness, and media choice in organizations. Communications Research, 14 (5), 553–574.

Wang, L., & Wentling, T. L. (2001, February–March). The relationship between distance coaching and the transfer of training. Paper presented at the Academy of Human Resource Development, Tulsa, OK.

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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