How to coach your team remotely (and make it worthwhile)

As we approach the end of 2020 (a year that seems to have flown by, yet dragged at the same time!), it seems working from home will continue to be a given during 2021. It’s not all doom and gloom — there’s lots of positives to remote-working. Everything from cutting commutes to increased flexibility and engagement fall under the ever-expanding umbrella of reasons to go remote, but there are challenges.

The lack of the natural flow of conversation we experience when we use video calls is something that regularly interrupts us (though the ability to mute pre-sneeze is helpful), as well as deterring our non-verbal communication. We know online alternatives to in-person meetings are never _quite_ as good, but when the overall benefits of remote or agile working outweigh the pitfalls of small problems like this, they’re worth getting our heads around to include ourselves in this increasingly popular — and currently necessary — style of working.

There’s a growing list of companies that are no strangers to remote working. The ‘corporate world’ has seen a huge increase in campaigning for flexible working, and employers are increasingly offering remote working as standard. In 2017 WordPress announced the closing of its Silicon Valley office, saying they simply didn’t need it because employees were happier working remotely. This year’s pandemic has seen brands declare they are permanently embracing remote work, including Facebook, announcing this a couple of months after the UK lockdown began.

This makes connecting with and continuing to coach your team more important than ever. It isn’t just about helping people achieve their goals and driving performance — though it is that too — but about providing the space for your people to navigate their challenges, use you as a sounding board (particularly important when working on your own) and build their confidence.

Coaching is just that — a safe and confidential space for an individual to hear themselves think, to consider their options and to challenge their biases or preconceptions. Ultimately, a great coach will heighten someone’s confidence, build their self-awareness and equip them with the tools to successfully unpick and overcome their challenge(s).

So, what challenges does remote coaching bring? And importantly — how do you overcome them?

The uncomfortable ‘hello’
In my experience, virtual calls are super-productive; you get straight to the point and they’re typically a lot shorter than an in-person discussion might be. Whilst not losing time from your day by nattering about your weekend down the pub (because, who does that anymore?), the lack of small talk will likely hinder your ability to have a productive coaching session. A great coaching relationship is just that, a relationship. You need to work at it to build trust.

The answer here is pretty simple — take the time to work on your relationship. As a rule of thumb, 5–10 minutes is a good amount of time to catch up before diving into the coaching session.

Lack of body language
Videos great — you can rock up in your pjs and no one will know (well, they probably do!). But it can hinder our ability to really read someone’s body language — the uncomfortable crossing of arms or legs, the slight squirm someone makes in their seat or the avoidance of eye contact.

The two things you can do to overcome this? Check in with them and hold the space. What I mean by this is asking how something landed with them or how they really feel about something. Then give them the space to respond. In other words, don’t fill the awkward silence; hold it!

Tip! Stack your laptop on a box or pile of books to bring your webcam up to eye level; it’ll help recreate the eye contact you have in person _and_ save painful shoulders from hunching over!

Gauging when to fill the silence
If you’ve ever been on one of my Coaching for Leaders workshops, you’ll know I bang on about ‘holding the space’ a lot. It’s sooo important.

A great coaching reminder is to think of the acronym, ‘WAIT’ — ‘Why Am I Talking?’. The problem here is that this kind of gap in conversation feels a lot more natural in person.

If you’re on video, you might worry the connection has dropped or realise the pause just doesn’t sound right. If you’re on the phone, you might be met with a confronting, “Are you still there?”. To get around this, address it head on. Explain the use of the pause and that you will use this after asking a question, so the person knows to expect it. It offers a head-on prompt that this is their turn to think and speak. Once you establish this as a key part of your conversation, it will shift to become normal and a memorable point of the session for the person you’re coaching.

Whilst it’s a little harder virtually, try not to fill the uncomfortable silence; they’ll let you know if they don’t understand the question or don’t have anything else to add.

Knowing how to wrap up the session without an awkward goodbye
It’s a little sad really… the people we once used to chat about nonsense to in the kitchen are the same people we find ourselves trying to create small talk with at the beginning and end of a call. We’ve got to get over this and if you’re feeling like that, it’s probably a sign you need to work a little harder at the relationship.

Just like at the start of the coaching session, spend a few minutes asking how they’re spending the rest of their day and chatting about anything else you connect over.

The rest is pretty much the same. Keep asking open, challenging questions. Listen and really hear what they have to say. Challenge their preconceptions, gently push them out their comfort zone and seek commitment and accountability for their actions.

Happy coaching!

This blog was written by Ally Jones, CEO + Founder of Alison Jones Coaching.

Helping tech scale-ups create incredible (+ super high performing) places to work through Leadership and Management development + executive coaching.

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