Digital coaching: The new normal?

Digital coaching: The new normal?

man working remotely

The global Covid-19 crisis has thrown us without warning into a new normal, in which face-to-face work is impossible, and remote work is essential. Stella Kanatouri calls for coaches, mentors and supervisors to rise to the challenge by developing not only their technological but also their coaching skills, as we all adapt to digital coaching.

The reluctance to embrace digital

Over the years we’ve seen a tremendous increase in learning, working, connecting, and communicating remotely. Parallel to technological advances, we’ve been discovering new and creative ways to use the possibilities of technology: sharing information and opinions in social media, creating user-generated videos and 360-degree content, making educational content available online, or using technologies such as immersive virtual reality (VR) for mental health and training, and more recently for collaboration purposes (e.g. visualizing prototypes).

Digital media have allowed great flexibility and convenience. They have permitted a more democratized learning and circulation of information and they have empowered us to connect with one another and to work effectively together regardless of geographical location.

Even though the reasons for using digital tools to communicate remotely are increasing – including travelling less to reduce footprint, saving time, reaching more clients, and flexibility – in-person communication and services have remained the predominant options. Online therapy has been offered for years, but it has also been regarded with suspicion: Can it ever be as good as in-person therapy?

In education, MOOCs have provided an increasing number of online educational courses to support flexible, on-demand, lifelong learning. And yet, educational institutions have continued to be mainly classroom-based. In coaching, there has been an increase in the use of online communication media over the years, as industry reports evidence. While many coaches offer coaching remotely when it’s necessary for practical reasons, there has still been a tendency to prefer in-person coaching.

The reluctance to coach remotely has to some extent been because we are most familiar with face-to-face communication, and due to the friction of using tools, which inhibits and frustrates us at times.

A crisis forces change overnight

Within a very short time, the Covid-19 crisis is forcing significant change. It’s forcing new working practices, it requires us to improve our digital awareness, and it’s creating shifts in education and learning. Many believe that these changes could become part of the new normal.

At the very least, the Covid-19 crisis will make us more tech savvy. We will become more informed about the digital options available to carry out different tasks: What are the best options to have a video group discussion? How can we replicate face-to-face workshops and design thinking? Can we use digital post-its and whiteboards? Can we have a virtual conference in immersive VR?

As we are having to work remotely, we are also having to familiarise ourselves with digital forms of communication, and learn social etiquette for our communication to be smooth and effortless. By continuing to adapt and to find new ways to replicate our in-person meetings, our ‘water cooler’ chats, and our events using digital tools, we are likely to see two implications.

Firstly, the sudden high demand for digital tools to meet our needs will probably spark new technological innovations.

Secondly, as we embrace new working routines and develop our technological competences, we may start to re-evaluate our priorities and rethink how much of what we do in-person is actually necessary.

Potential implications for digital coaching

The importance of coaching to get through the crisis shouldn’t be underestimated. Good leadership skills, for instance, to support collaboration and find ways to bounce back, are more than ever key to face the challenges ahead.

And when things return to normal, coachees will probably have even higher expectations of their coaches. As coachees become well-versed in digital methods of communication, and more accepting of digital media to support productive work and meaningful discussions, coaches will have to quickly catch up too. This will involve not only developing their technological competences, but also by adapting their coaching competences to the digital form of coaching. When visual, auditory and contextual cues are missing, coaches may have to compensate by developing even stronger listening skills and by adapting their coaching techniques to complement the coachee’s verbal expression. Examples could include enabling embodiment through avatars and using metaphors or analogies through online symbolic images or virtual environments.

A potentially higher acceptance of digital coaching could create a higher demand for it, which in turn, would create a need for further tool improvements and innovations. To date, there is a wide spectrum of digital tools to support coaching. This includes generic tools such as video conferencing systems to deliver coaching, and tools for enhancing sessions with text-based and visual content, including PowerPoint presentations, online images, digital whiteboards, and virtual worlds. The spectrum of digital tools also includes coaching-specific software, such as simple, bespoke mobile apps, as well as sophisticated platforms that integrate coaching techniques and theoretical models.

We are likely to see new, improved options of generic tools, given that there is now an enormous demand for hosting meetings and collaborating online beyond coaching. Perhaps one of the factors that has prevented remote communication from becoming a more mainstream way of working so far, is the friction of learning and adopting digital tools, and our low tolerance towards it. Even though the necessity of working with these tools during the Covid-19 crisis may be making us more tolerant and willing to exploit the tools, improvements will focus on removing friction.

In addition, we may start to see innovations in coaching-specific tools. For instance, tools with theoretically founded content, with more intuitive, user-friendly interfaces, integrating a variety of solutions, synchronous and asynchronous, text-based and visual. Coaching software could also evolve into more holistic solutions that support the coachee through all phases of the coaching process – from matching with a coach, supporting the coachee in the analysis of the coaching issue, developing goals and action plans, tracking progress, and providing post-action evaluation and follow-up. Coaching platforms could integrate video conferencing with screensharing and whiteboarding tools. They could also include metrics for tracking progress, visual tools such as resource trees or constellations, email, and coaching questions (e.g. coaching question-sets to be used at intervals between the sessions).

As digital coaching gains acceptance and becomes more normal, it might even make coaches more daring and open to trying out new options, including VR and AR (augmented reality), as well as AI (artificial intelligence).

The possibilities of AI and VR technology

The exponential developments in AI make the scenario of AI disrupting coaching increasingly tangible. This doesn’t have to mean replacing the human coach, as some fear. AI can be used as a supporting, add-on tool in the coaching process. Coaching chatbots are learning from thousands of coaching conversations to ask intelligent questions, and soon they’ll become better at detecting human emotions by analysing coachees’ words and even their tone of voice. As they become more mature, we’ll be able to use them, for instance, to analyse coaching conversations, to identify patterns and to make suggestions to the coach.

They could take over admin tasks (scheduling appointments, matching and billing) and they could give pre-coaching questionnaires. Such automated processes can augment the human coach by offering accuracy and efficiency, while leaving more room for being human: showing empathy, developing the relationship to the coachee and using intuition.

Immersive VR technology could also play a stronger role in coaching in the future. Numerous applications already allow the use of lifelike avatars (in some cases created by uploading your photo), where coach and client can meet in a virtual environment of their choice, such as an office, house or landscape, where they can virtually sit or walk together, shake hands, and see each other’s body language. VR allows a sense of presence – the feeling of being there with the coachee. In the virtual environment, they can use various tools (such as post-its and whiteboards) to work together, or they can view presentations together and create 3D drawings and objects. Coaches may not have warmed up to the idea of using immersive VR technology just yet, for the simple reason that not everyone has a head-mounted display (HMD). This could change in the next few years, and in any case, many VR applications allow users who don’t have HMDs to participate in the meeting on their computer.

In the more distant future, desktop video conferencing could even be replaced by AR holographic telepresence. Being able to see each other’s hologram – the 3D representation of the person in full scale – wouldn’t differ much from meeting in person.

Such changes can’t happen from one day to the next. They are gradual and require time. Digital tools are opening up new dimensions for coaching practice and they have the potential to significantly enhance coaching. As digital coaching gains more acceptance and becomes more mainstream, coaches need to be prepared to meet expectations by staying up to date, adapting, developing their skills, and embracing technology.

Dr Stella Kanatouri is a qualitative researcher, psychologist, technology enthusiast and author of the book The Digital Coach. Her academic research has focused on exploring coaches’ experiences with digital media and understanding the role of technology in coaching. Stella currently works as a market research consultant and is responsible for delivering qualitative research projects for Fortune 500 companies around the world.

Photo by Ryan Mendoza/Unsplash