How to coach team members remotely
Coaching can be complex. It can be a skill, a set of tools and also a mindset. It can be ‘something you do’ with a team member and it can be a ‘way of being’ with others in any interaction. What I’m presenting here is coaching as a skill and set of tools. This will not make you a certified coach; this will assist you in using coaching skills as an option in your toolbox of leadership skills.
In the 12 years I’ve been coaching full-time most of my coaching has been virtual. Mostly by phone or audio, only recently has that changed to include video.
The what of coaching
Coaching is the creation of a reflective space for someone (aka an employee) to figure out their own solutions and ideas in relation to a particular topic. This is done by the coach (or leader in your case) listening in a deep and non-judgemental way and asking open (sometimes powerful) questions that help the employee discover ideas and possibilities in themselves.
I’ve coached people for 10 minutes who were passing by on the street (it was part of a street team providing free coaching in London) and been given feedback that they found the experience profound. I’ve coached people for hours to the same result, meaning coaching can be 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour or longer – depending on the situation, topic, the individual, what they want out of it and the time you have.
This is the starting point for great communication including coaching. Through my coach training with Co-Active Training Institute (CTI), I learned there were three levels to listening:
1. Internal listening or focused on self: Your focus is on yourself, your thoughts, feelings, issues. It’s about your internal narrative or conversation.
2. Focused listening on the other: Your focus is on what the other person is saying in a laser-like fashion, their thoughts, feelings and opinions. You have little awareness of the outside world.
3. Focused on the whole: Your focus is on everything, the space, what’s going on inside you and with the other person, what’s going on energetically. This is where intuition or gut-feel might come in.
For your purposes of coaching an employee, your focus will be on level two – listening to the other. This includes listening to what they don’t say. This level of listening says that you care and value their thoughts and ideas.
This is the second important factor to good coaching; it’s about being curious, so the employee gets curious. Formulate your questions based on what the employee says; use their actual words to formulate questions that help them delve deeper to greater understanding. Use open questions (which can’t be answered with ‘yes’ and ‘no’). Keep the questions short (as this focuses the thinking and doesn’t confuse things). Ask “so what?” after almost any question to get the employee to keep thinking or go deeper.
Coaching with a model like GROW. It might not seem sophisticated being just four simple steps and yet it can be incredibly powerful (model downloadable here). When clients have practised this in group coaching they are often struck by how often they just want to tell the person the/their answer; how they have so many ideas going through their own head they find it hard paying attention to what the other person is saying; how often they ask closed and leading questions; and how they want to speed up the process, even if the person is not ready. Some have been amazed at how often the employee generated tremendous value from the exercise even if the coach had no idea what was being talked about. Remember coaching is about the other person solving the problem or generating the solution, not your understanding as the coach.
G is for Goal
What’s the goal? This is to help define what, in fact, the problem or issue is. What’s the objective? What are you trying to achieve or accomplish? This can take a few minutes or quite a while, depending on what clarity the employee already has.
Types of questions are:
- What is it you would like to discuss?
- What would you like to achieve?
- What do you want to get from this session?
- What would you need to happen for you to walk away feeling that this time was well spent?
R is for Reality
What’s the current reality or situation?
It’s valuable to explore this area so the employee is very clear what is going on. This could highlight assumptions they have and gaps in knowledge – about the situation or themselves!
Types of questions are:
- What is happening now?
- How do you know that this is accurate?
- When does this happen? How often?
- What effect does this have?
O is for Options
What are the possible options? This is where you want them to brainstorm about alternatives. Continue having them generate ideas until they’ve reasonably exhausted the options.
Types of questions are:
- What are you thinking of doing?
- What could you do to change the situation?
- What alternatives are there to that approach?
- Who might be able to help?
W is for Will or Way forward
What’s going to happen? What will you do? What’s your way forward? This is the time to have the employee define next steps and create accountability.
Types of questions are:
- What are the next steps?
- When will you take them?
- What might get in the way?
Tips for coaching remotely
Many of the tips for coaching remotely are similar for leading remotely or interacting remotely.
- Make it a safe, non-judgemental space. You could admit this is something new to you too and would they like to try together
- Ensure the employee is in a private, quiet place (you too to pick up non-verbal cues). Turn off email and notifications to be focused
- Try audio-only coaching – Turn the camera off. Sometimes people don’t like being 'stared' at on camera as they are thinking. Clients have said to me they feel like they must perform or might be judged when the camera is focused on them. Let the employee decide what’s best for them
- Make yourself available for impromptu coaching – as if someone just popped into your office with a question or roadblock
- Use a compassionate and curious tone of voice rather than making it an interrogation
- Acknowledge the employee through the process, noting what they do well and how they are being during the journey (eg “You’re open. You’re reflective. You’re creative. You’re courageous for trying something new and unknown”)
- Encourage the employee at the end of the process with their identified actions, eg “Those are some good actions you’ve identified. Go for it. You’ll be great at that” (be more specific, related to the actual action)
- Stop before the end of the meeting time, so the employee can capture their thoughts and learning (and process any emotions if necessary) before running off to their next meeting
- Champion the employee, stand up for their potential and value, especially when they aren’t feeling it, by saying what you see when they are at their best
- Silence is good, it means someone is thinking and isn’t that what you pay people for?
- Allow time to improve as new things (for you and them) take time.
Anne Taylor, pictured below, is an executive coach & author. Sign-up for a complimentary session and a download of the first chapter of her book, Soft Skills Hard Results