REUTERS | Amit Dave

Rethinking group coaching: five things we’ve learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic

Last year we created a new group coaching programme designed for aspiring leaders in one of their most significant career transitions: from management to leadership. Since it was conceived in 2019, things have changed rather a lot. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way that we work and the way we deliver our group coaching.

We’ve shifted from in-person, face-to-face sessions, to working within a Zoom gallery view box. This shift has pushed us to ask some important questions before launching into the virtual world:

  • What is critical to learning online?
  • Is there a group benefit if all participants are remote from each other?
  • How do you keep the participants present in a session?
  • How strong will peer-to-peer relationships be when people have not met face-to-face?
  • How should we adjust the content and format of the sessions?

Here are five things that we’ve learnt since taking our group coaching online.

Quality conversation doesn’t disappear

We all know that some things are lost online, including:

  • Natural body language cues.
  • The tactile reward of a handshake.
  • The simple, necessary joy of spending time with others.

But when it comes to the workplace, and group coaching in particular, we’ve found that there are some benefits to this new virtual format. For example, during a video call:

  • Each group member can see and hear everyone else clearly.
  • Participants are more inclined to speak one at a time.
  • Some of the distractions of a physical space are more easily avoided, such as coffee being passed around.

The overall result has been a more time-efficient and inclusive experience.

Relationship building is different

The quality of the relationship with our participants is critical to coaching success. Interacting via video calls is different to in-person meetings but the quality of relationships is not diminished and, in many ways, it is intensified.

Engaging robustly with the group is the key to establishing an environment where relationships can flourish. Providing clarity on confidentiality, reporting and accountability is critical. Because of the physical distance between members, building relationships with each other becomes a priority of the sessions, not a consequence.

Sharing ideas between peers is powerful, whatever the forum

Research by Bev Flückiger et al suggests that group coaching encourages shared learning. It empowers individuals to discuss their different approaches, ideas and perspectives. The power of group coaching lies in this collaborative approach to development. Gathering individuals together to share their learning, peer-to-peer, in a safe space is entirely possible in a virtual environment.

Our experience is that these peer sessions can be easily facilitated using virtual breakout rooms, which are much more efficient than in a face-to-face setting. The breakout rooms create an intimate and focused environment, and are the highest-rated element of the learning experience by participants.

Accountability is king

Having a skilled facilitator is vital in bringing each individual into the conversation and ensuring that their contribution is heard. Building accountability into the programme, whenever possible, is equally important. It helps to ensure that participants do what they say they will do and that ideas “stick”, especially when members are held accountable by their peers, as well as their facilitator.

In this programme, group sessions were interspersed with one to one sessions, where participants were asked where and how they had applied the learning from the group sessions. For example, if they said they were going to try a new method of business development, they would be asked to specifically describe how this had gone. It was this level of commitment and follow-up that ensured participants did what they said they were going to do.

Rethink learning and development to include group coaching

We are about to enter a severe recession and businesses are justifiably thinking carefully about where they spend their money. Learning and development leaders are now presented with a choice. They can adapt their tried-and-tested methods (depending on the feasibility of face-to-face development) but if budgets are cut, they will pull fewer individuals through the leadership pipeline. Alternatively, they can grasp this opportunity to innovate their talent development to include a virtual group coaching model and pull through more aspiring leaders.

Virtual group coaching through these challenging times has been tremendously instructive. The inclusive environment we created allowed everyone to have an equal seat at the table and the same weight of voice. The virtual environment also allows for fewer built-in biases than are present face-to-face, for example around the accessibility of the venue. This brought the group through more quickly and facilitated deeper learning, as well as lasting peer-to-peer relationships.

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