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Online group coaching – An impactful tool for South African companies

In recent years, long before COVID-19 pushed coaching firmly into the online space – group and team coaching was being harnessed by the Coaching@GIBS team, both directly to clients and as part of leadership development programmes. What started as a novelty of sorts has mushroomed into an attractive standalone product which enables a small group of people to come together and actively engage and interact with one another. This facilitated peer-to-peer process offers something one-on-one coaching cannot: the dynamism of interaction, competition, support from contemporaries, and a plethora of different ideas and approaches.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Under lockdown, local companies and multinationals began making greater use of online group coaching to fill the need for greater reflective dialogue, engagement, and social interaction on programmes that had become virtual. Many of these sessions continue to integrate with leadership development programmes and dovetail with ongoing executive coaching, to help individuals make sense of the disruption and the complexities arising.

As a business school, the ability to provide a digital bridge connecting companies, individuals and students to the institution during a time of physical separation has proved significant; allowing an institution built on personal interactions, meaningful dialogue and debate to keep that aspect of the GIBS experience alive. For the business community, it provides a vital way of supporting and developing employees and managers through an uncertain period by tapping into the growing group coaching trend.

A global trend
Not only is this form of coaching cost effective, but the collective approach taps into the power of collaborative exchange, replicating the social framework of a team or office space. Research from Peter Hawkins, an expert in systemic team coaching, and author Christine Thornton indicates that 60% of group coaching is targeted towards intact teams and 40% for target groups who come together for the purpose of learning and developing. Conducting group coaching via online platforms is a tried and tested offshoot of this coaching arm, which has been spurred on in recent years with the development of viable online platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, Coaching@GIBS experts were offering virtual group coaching for clients in South Africa and around the continent with growing success. What the current crisis has done is blown open the world’s tentative adoption of online options and forced online group coaching to the fore. This is not without its own challenges, including a reticence to commit to coaching online and even to the necessity of rewiring old ideas to better suit an emerging new world.

A learning curve
Resistance to coaching methods and input is something which an experienced coach deals with by adopting a neutral and supportive stance, after all change is challenging and uncomfortable. This extends beyond the participants to the gatekeepers overseeing the rollout of leadership and team interventions, many of whom are dubious about pure group coaching and downright sceptical of the virtual option. But, in our experience, those organisations that have embraced the potential have been pleasantly surprised and, at senior levels, executive managers often favour the quicker format and scalable impact on team cohesion. Online coaching holds all the value that face-to-face coaching might bring, in spite of a lack of personal presence. It also has fewer distractions, which sometimes leads to greater impact.

The coaching evolution
At the centre of any coaching intervention is, of course, the coach. In a group dynamic, where input is being received from a variety of individuals and where responding to both visual clues as well as verbal input is important, a coach with a high level of skill and experience and a greater degree of adaptability is required. This means that coaches will need to be able to adapt their approach to an environment in which anything might happen – from participants snuggled under their duvets to those rushing off to deal with deliveries or to placate irritable children.

A recent webinar on virtual facilitation, hosted by global learning company Action Learning Associates (ALA), also stressed the importance of the technical producer role, particularly when it comes to harvesting input from larger groups and monitoring the discussion. How the online platform is being used is another consideration which can prove challenging for even the most experienced coach. During a recent foundational management session with younger Coaching@GIBS students, the decision was made to give the students the option to put video on or stick to audio; as a way of saving data. This requires more intense listening skills on the part of the coach, who must be more aware of the absence of physical cues.  One of the biggest adaptions we’ve had to make in this virtual space, both in facilitation and group coaching, is the need for crystal clear structures and instructions, strict time management and having a specific agreed order of sharing.

Group/team coaching and COVID-19
Challenges aside, successful group coaches are becoming increasingly upbeat about the virtual reality options on offer, from incorporating online simulations to the potential for using real-time data during sessions to better steer the conversation for maximum effect. In fact, one of the most profound tools used in on-campus group coaching at GIBS was video feedback. Online group coaching makes that real-time video feedback a continuous and accessible tool for self-awareness and feedback. While these online tools hold great potential for the future of virtual group coaching, it is fitting that the simple creation of a space for human connection is the most significant aspect of this form of learning and development.

Three weeks into lockdown, a well-known IT company conducted a survey of its people, asking if they missed human interaction more than usual. After just three weeks the slice of the pie had grown exponentially. People missed their teammates, so finding ways for them to connect is important. The rapid shift to working from home has also opened concerns for companies around employee work-life balance. While many firms have traditionally been reluctant to authorise remote work due to a fear that productivity will decline, what lockdowns around the world are showing (at least on a colloquial level) is that productivity is growing.

This is also backed up by a study by Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom in 2015 which saw a 13% increase in performance among Chinese employees when working from home, in addition to a 50% decrease in employee attrition. But this raises another concern – without scope for social interactions and water cooler conversations, employees may be drowning in the task-heavy focus.  By deploying group coaching to check in with employees and guide them through this new remote working reality, companies are finding better ways to encourage healthy working behaviours while drawing out unconscious psychological concerns and fears. Unfortunately, as leaders and managers scramble for survival and to adapt to a new reality, many of these conversations are simply not happening and managers are left in limbo. This puts collaboration at risk and makes it harder for leaders to motivate and inspire. 

How the coach fits into this complex web is part art and part science.
An academic model seeking to understand the role of the coach in a virtual group setting, put in place by a GIBS special interest group, places the coach firmly in the conductor’s chair during these online interactions: juggling the logistics, monitoring challenges and drawing the very best performance from each and every performer. The key is to make sure you are working with a Benjamin Zander, a JoAnn Falletta, or a Kalena Bovell, a conductor who can turn a group session into a symphony.

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