Coaching in lockdown: Online vs virtual pt1

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Written by Sarah Cook and Steve MacAulay on 11 November 2020 in Features

In the first of a two-parter, Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay look at how to make a success of online coaching.

The restrictions of the current pandemic mean that much remote working is likely to continue for a good while yet. 

Leaders and managers still require development and the demand for coaching continues. As more and more development is conducted virtually, the world of coaching has moved online. What are the differences between face to face and virtual coaching? What are tips on managing a coaching session online?

In this article the authors discuss their experiences of online coaching and how to make it a success. We will review what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach and in particular, how can we make it work in the best possible way?

Similarities between online and face to face coaching

The principles of coaching are the same, be it face-to-face or on-line: the coach works with the coachee to help them achieve their goals. 

It is the coachee’s agenda that the coach works to, using questioning techniques to raise the coachee’s awareness and to encourage them to take responsibility for improvement. The coach creates a safe environment for the coachee to explore options and supports and challenges the coachee as they create and action a personal development plan.

Dependent on the personality of the coachee, some degree of small-talk helps to get the session off to a good start

Typically, coaching will take place over a series of sessions, agreed with the coachee as part of the ‘contracting’ process. Coaching can be preceded or used as part of 360-degree feedback process and forms an integral part of leadership development.

The differences

The key difference when coaching virtually is the reliance on technology to conduct the sessions. For coaching to be successful it is widely recognised that there needs to be rapport between the coach and the individual who is receiving the coaching, the coachee.

With the rise in home-working, most people are now used to technology such as Zoom and Teams being used for conference calls and team meetings. However, video conferencing on a one-to-one basis can feel very different from meeting face-to-face. 

When initiating coaching online, there is a greater need for the chemistry to be quickly established between coach and coachee so the coach needs to consider ways to create free flowing communication and quickly gain the coachee’s confidence.

If the coachee is new to coaching, it is helpful when setting up a series of virtual coaching sessions to send an explanation of the process, stressing the confidential nature of coaching and the role of the coach and the coachee. Sending some background information about yourself as a coach also helps give confidence to the coachee in the coach’s abilities.


As with all coaching, contracting with the coachee is essential so that both parties have an opportunity to discuss expectations and clarify roles and responsibilities as well as to agree when the sessions will take place, how many and how success will be measured.

Technological hitches can be distracting, so remember to check your technology prior to the coaching session. Ensure you have good bandwidth and that you are familiar with the system you are using. As a back-up, make yourself and your coachee aware beforehand of the telephone dial-in numbers in case the virtual connection fails and you need to make contact via phone.

Both the coach and the coachee need a private space in which to hold the session. Since each party will see the other’s working setting, ensure that you have a neutral and non-distracting background and also that you will not be interrupted. It is best to turn off email and other programmes during the session so that you can fully concentrate on the coachee.

Typically, when coaching face-to-face there is an ‘ice-breaker’ period where you may take tea or coffee and some small talk takes place. Many people report that they miss the ‘social’ aspect when working from home and they may be using video conferencing as their only means of interacting with others. 

Part of the coach’s role is to create a safe environment where the coachee feels able to speak with confidence, so dependent on the personality of the coachee, some degree of small-talk helps to get the session off to a good start.

This piece will be concluded later this week.


About the author

Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield School of Management’s Centre for Executive Development and Sarah Cook is managing director of The Stairway Consultancy. They can be contacted at and at


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