The case for and against: is Skype coaching valuable?

For/Against
Jamie Lawrence
Editor
HRZone
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There are plenty of contentious issues in HR and the workplace, and we think it's important to get a balanced discussion going on some of the bigger questions out there. In this series, we'll be asking HR experts and practitioners to give us opposing viewpoints on a key issue, and we welcome your input too! If you would like to take part in the series, get in touch.

FOR

David Cartwright is the founder of coaching supported online learning platform OBD Academy

Coaching is recognised as one of the most powerful developmental interventions in helping people to make sense of new learning. Its focus is not only on the acquisition of new skills, but also on bringing about behavioural change.

A coach helps us to reflect impartially on our actions, motives and feelings and, in so doing, we better understand not just of what happened, but why it happened and how our behaviours and those of others play out in the working environment.
 
Coaching is akin to a personal workshop in which our own development, rather than the homogenised needs of many, is the focus.

In education, we know that smaller class sizes offer more ‘me‘ time, resulting in a more engaged student development experience. Unfortunately, the model isn’t scalable. Just as governments cannot afford a learning model that focuses on personal tuition, businesses are similarly constrained. 
 
In an ideal world, face-to-face coaching for employees would be the development intervention of choice. In reality, it’s the preserve of only 5% of the workforce – the executive elite. Its benefits are clearly understood, but it’s seen as too expensive an option to make universally available. Cost is the limiting factor on wider participation, thereby compromising the development of many.
 
In adopting Skype as a medium to conduct a coaching conversation, we have found a methodology that creates an affordable and accessible platform upon which the coaching relationship can flourish. It democratises one-to-one coaching supported learning such that it can be made available to the many rather than remain the preserve of the few.
 
It’s more affordable because, unlike face-to-face coaching, you only pay for the coach’s time. There are no travel time and journey costs. It’s more accessible because Skype sessions are easier to schedule and, in our experience, tend to be of shorter duration, occurring more regularly than face-to-face coaching.
 
However, technology is only the enabler to coaching. First and foremost, coaching is about building a relationship and establishing a rapport between coach and coachee that fosters security, respect and challenge.

People are pro-social and will likely form better relationships where all cues are in evidence: not just the verbal cues of language and intonation, but also the non-verbal ones of posture, facial expression and eye movement.

Coaches and coachees must read these cues to be able to reconcile what we are seeing with what we are hearing. As with face-to-face coaching, these all contribute towards the whole picture, and can be observed via Skype.
 
In practice, we’ve also found it easier to connect with multi-site businesses. We’ve had a situation where one coach conducted two coaching sessions in one day, with one coachee based in Sydney, the other in Sheffield. Whilst coaching is about the individual, it’s also about being aware of organisational goals and standards.

The ability to cross country borders and timelines without compromising quality and ensuring consistency of message is important when providing coaching support to a large body of coachees from the one company.
 
With a coaching movement capable of reaching out to a broader and more diverse audience, it’s important to understand the evolving needs this new demographic represents. Individual development and growth remains the overriding priority, particularly for those operating at the sharp end of the business.
 
Early evidence from our coaching supported online learning platform supports our claim that Skype coaching is both impactful and invaluable. Importantly, it extends the reach of coaching deeper into the organisation, helping to embed new learning and bring about change.

Feedback from companies and coachees alike confirms that it is highly regarded by a demographic who wouldn’t previously have been offered the help and support of their own coach.  

AGAINST

Nick Bradley is founder of Mandala Leaders
 
The American statesman Benjamin Franklin once said: “Tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I learn.” 
 
His words are just as relevant today when we consider virtual or face-to-face approaches to leadership coaching. In my view, Skype helps you to be told or taught information but doesn’t deliver the deep involvement you need.

With virtual coaching alone, I believe that we will end up being told things rather than upping our game. This typically leads to only short-term benefits.
 
When executives commit to something as personal as coaching, they are ultimately seeking to change their behaviour. Many barriers to career advancement are rooted in inaccurate or outdated perceptions that we hold - and that others hold - about us.

When we sign up, we are at some point confronting our fears - and dispelling others’ views going back years. Can such multi-faceted change be fully delivered virtually?
 
To achieve breakthroughs by coaching, you need a trusted place where you contemplate change, challenge established belief systems and cast off habits that are holding you back from delivering your true potential.  
 
For me, deep change requires time and clear thinking - away from the office hubbub and virtual communications that entrap you. This deep thinking, reframing discussions and changing habits, are uncompromising: they demand a neutral or non-toxic location - and it can’t always be done effectively over a screen.
 
In a recent engagement, I coached a very capable executive stepping up to board level to identify her priorities. But this self-directed rethink wasn’t easy; several times in our initial discussion, I had to fold my arms and smile until she spoke.

Whatever we call this: empathy, tough love, or brinkmanship-with-empathy, I doubt it will work first-time on Skype; it could be perceived as awkward, or even aggressive.
 
When re-establishing trust between team members in a busy NHS clinic in another engagement, we swapped classroom-style teaching for exercises to build greater trust between employees, explored their approach to one another, and examined how they ran the practice.

I believe this day-long, face-to-face reframing of ideas in a boutique hotel - away from buffering screens and adjusting webcams - was the key to enabling trust and harmony; it outweighed the convenience of shoe-horning the session into a busy work calendar using Skype. 
 
Effective coaching is based on real change coming from within you – not ‘trainers’ telling you what to do, often by keeping to an agenda that is inevitably more rigid (and scripted) than face-to-face coaching. The critical first session or few sessions are best done face-to-face. 
 
Virtual communication is a vital part of building momentum or reinforcing learnings. And you may have no alternative to virtual strategies, given travel commitments or your company’s global reach. 
 
You can use Skype regularly, but only after establishing trust and empathy. Sitting down to define and change our behaviours can’t always be relegated to a Skype invitation or dodgy Wi-fi.  
 
As Benjamin Franklin said, involvement beats being taught - or told.

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