• Jeff Doolittle

Virtual Coaching is Inevitable but is it Effective?

Over the past several months, our world has changed as the pandemic has increased work from home opportunities and shifted in-person meetings to virtual. "Going to work" for many of us today has taken on a new meaning. Technology enables individuals and teams to work collaboratively remotely. There is no need to ask if we should use virtual coaching platforms. Instead, the better question is if quality coaching relationships can be developed through technology, and if so, what are the best approaches? 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 completed by virtual coaching organizations. This article references peer-reviewed research to understand what social science has to contribute to the discussion on the effectiveness of virtual coaching. To begin, we first need to define what coaching is and what is meant by coaching.

Coaching Defined

Coaching is one of those words that has different meanings to different people and often gets used interchangeably with mentoring and counseling. Even various thought leaders in coaching have different definitions of what coaching is and is not. Coaching can also take on many diverse forms, such as career coaching, executive coaching, life coaching, and leadership coaching.

According to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the leading global organization dedicated to coaching standards, coaching is a "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential."

The foundation of the coach and client relationship is trust-based and development-oriented. The ICF identifies the following eight core competencies updated as of 2019 based on empirical data collected over two years and from job analyses of 1,300 coaches globally:

  1. Demonstrates Ethical Practice

  2. Embodies a Coaching Mindset

  3. Establishes and Maintains Agreements

  4. Cultivates Trust and Safety

  5. Maintains Presence

  6. Listens Actively

  7. Evokes Awareness

  8. Facilitates Client Growth

Virtual Coaching Defined

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 can include asynchronous communications, such as email and text messaging through a virtual coaching app, and synchronous such as phone and Zoom 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

I prefer to think of virtual coaching as a technology-facilitated partnership between a coach and client to maximize the clients' personal and professional potential.

Empirical research concluded that virtual executive coaching leads to significantly higher transfer of training (Wang & Wentling, 2001), improved goal definition, work-life balance, and clear priorities (Cornelius, Schumann, & Boos, 2009). Additional research identified that the challenges with the lack of multiple cues and sharing emotions could be moderated by a skilled coach (Charbonneau, 2002; Frazee, 2008). Coaching does not have to be face to face to be personalized and effective. Research by Berry et al. (2011) demonstrated that virtual coaching and face to face coaching are equally effective when using a skilled coach.

Challenges of Virtual Coaching

Thoughtfully incorporating virtual coaching has many demonstrated positive impacts, but that does not mean it is without challenges. Numerous research studies have shown that different mediums of communication have varying degrees of effectiveness with supporting in the moment feedback, information sharing, communication cues, emotions, and customization of the message (see Table 1).

It probably goes without needing scientific research to understand that face-to-face communication is the most effective type of communication. Many people have some hesitation or even resistance to using virtual coaching. So probably the more helpful topic to explore is the benefits associated with virtual coaching.

Benefits of Virtual Coaching

Virtual coaching offers added convenience, service, and support benefits over traditional face-to-face coaching:

  • Accessibility is likely one of the most significant benefits associated with virtual coaching, especially during a pandemic. Technology enables the coach and client to connect, whether in different places within the same building or worldwide.

  • Availability improves, enabling the coach to be brought into just-in-time and rapid response needs or unique situations like cross-cultural needs. Virtual coaching allows the coach to increase the number of clients they can support at one time. Also, both the coach and client benefit from the flexibility and administrative ease in scheduling.

  • Affordability improves through reduced travel and associated time out of the office costs.

  • Access to resources improves through digital access to tools supporting goal setting, coaching preparation, and progress tracking.

  • The coaching relationship's evaluation improves through the ease of tracking commitments, satisfaction, strengths, opportunities, and trends both on an individual client level and at an aggregate organizational level.

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 both have associated pros and cons. It is best to look at each client's situation and needs uniquely rather than a one size fits all strategy. As we mentioned to start, virtual coaching is inevitable. The issue is to assess the coaching situation and context to determine the best use for virtual coaching.

Knowing if you a good fit for virtual 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 also 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 for face-to-face coaching versus virtual coaching. Your environment also plays a role. Having a location free from distractions, dogs barking (in my case), and the temptation for multitasking improves coaching effectiveness. Ultimately, taking an honest assessment of your motivation, desire, confidence, competence, access to technology, and environment contributes to understanding if you are a good fit for virtual coaching.

Take the Quiz: Is Virtual Coaching for You?

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

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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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Hi, I'm Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?