Richard Tarran Investigates.
As an executive coach my response to this was always yes until I started to investigate it with my coaching supervisor. All good coaches have their own coaching supervisor to ensure they learn continuously and maintain best practice.

During one of these sessions I started to challenge my own biases and investigate whether there may be some advantageous aspects to online (web based app or phone) over conventional face to face coaching.

I started to write a list:

1. The client can more easily choose a comfortable and safe environment, even at home.
2. Timing I can be more flexible.
3. People may say things online that they may not say face to face.
4. People can be less inhibited.
5. It may be easier to listen.
6. It I can be easier to interrupt the client.
7. It is easier to keep an eye on the time.
8. It is easier to ask someone to repeat what they said or seek clarification.
9. Both parties can more easily take notes without feeling inhibited.
10. The coach can refer to notes and reference documents more easily.

This started to make me think, is it just my perception that face to face coaching is better? Are my biases with respect to on-line coaching preventing me maximising its advantages?

My biases are not helped by hearing people refer to it as virtual coaching. Virtual implies almost or nearly as good as.

I recall discussing the use of a psychometric profiling tool I use frequently soon after the on-line version became available. I was clear in my own mind that my clients would get a better, more reliable output from the tool if it was delivered face to face using the paper version, with me setting the scene and ensuring the clients were in the right frame of mind and understood the terminology. How wrong I was. Even the Managing Director of the tool said he thought the same way until he saw the results. There was no difference.

So what does research indicate with respect to coaching?

Berry, Ashby, Gnilka and Matheny (2011) investigated the relationship between the working alliance and whether face to face versus distance coaching resulted in a difference with coaching outcomes and problem resolution.

The results of their study suggested that NO significant differences were found between the reported levels of face-to-face coaching sessions versus distance (phone) coaching sessions. Coaches self-reported strong levels of working alliance in both conditions. This suggests that coaches may actually have successful coaching relationships and outcomes regardless of the method of contact they use.

Interestingly, while historically I have always preferred to see my clients face-to-face, I personally found these finding to be true. Both my long distance online or phone sessions resulted in similar outcomes to coaching compared to those sessions conducted in person.

The crucial point of change was when I parked by biases and perceptions and gave it a go.

What does this mean for coaches?

Since coaches do not have access to as good, or at times any, visual cues such as body language or overall physiology, perhaps they need to communicate or check in with their clients throughout the session to ensure they are well in tune with the clients thoughts and/or feelings.

Using such questions as:

“So what exactly do you mean by that?”

“What is happening for you right now?”

“How do you feel about that?”

“Can you clarify what you mean by that?”

Rapport is still important to build at the start of a session. It is also important to ensure both parties are in a resourceful state. Distracting events at home such as children, a boiling kettle, a ringing phone or a knock at the front door are not good, but all can be managed with a bit of forethought.

As for companies seeking coaching goes, they may want to consider utilising the coach that is best suited for their client without eliminating coaches that may be long distance or not as accessible face-to-face. In fact, researchers such as Lambert & Barley (2001) suggest that 40% of the effects of an outcome is due to the expectancy of the coach and client, compared to skills/techniques (30%), the relationship (15%), and outside factors (15%). In other words, the extent to which the coach and client think there will be an improvement is more significant than other factors including whether or not the coach is working with them face-to-face.

Things I have discovered that are unique and advantageous to online coaching:

I do not have to use video.

I can do things that would not be possible face to face:

“I would like you to go and find something you value highly”

“let’s take a five minute break while you walk around and consider what we have just been talking about”

I am less likely to jump to conclusions.

I am less likely to give visual cues such as unconscious agreement.

A client may feel less inhibited about closing their eyes or looking away from the camera, or turning off the video mode.

I have many more resources to hand. I have a row of books I can easily access.

I can draw models and hold them to the camera, this blanks my face out of the equation and allows the client to focus on the model while I speak.

I can email something over direct, or with an App pass it immediately.

I can avoid glass fronted office rooms.

It is easier to flip between an Authoritative and a Facilitative style