As we move deeper into the winter season, the time of year tends to peak interest in training and development conversations. It’s kind of like the start of a new year is a signal to businesses that we should be offering learning opportunities for our employees. Pre-COVID, many organizations would be gearing up for in-person conferences, trade shows and training/development programs.  Now, many companies are working remotely and have not seen their office in – literally – years! In cases such as this, it becomes important to understand how to build relationships virtually among our team to drive success and keep motivation high.

How Is Coaching Used to Build Relationships Virtually?

At Epiphany Coaches, we have been offering a combination of virtual and onsite training/development and coaching programs for many, many years.Building relationships virtually is just as important as face-to-face connection! We practice a human-centered approach through the use of our coaches, and believe that whatever is most effective for clients is the most human approach to take.  So, the decision to do onsite vs. virtual tended to be made based on whether there was a facilitator located in close proximity to the business requesting the program.

  • If there was not, there was no questioning the pros and cons of onsite vs. virtual.
  • If there was, it seemed more challenging to convince the business of the benefits and positive impact of virtual development and coaching programs. 

In today’s world there is no longer the in-person vs. virtual debate, however there are still the discussions around the efficacy of virtual training and development. This is why it is so important than leaders are skilled at communicating with their teams and creating success virtually, without the advantages of a joined workspace.

Build Relationships Virtually: Leadership Case Study

I was speaking with an international GM recently and we were discussing that issue. Prior to the pandemic hitting, I was going onsite at one of his locations to work with the leadership team on a variety of development topics. This was paired with both onsite and virtual coaching between team sessions. 

Once we shifted to strictly online learning and coaching, we shifted the length of the training sessions and got creative as to how they were delivered. It seemed that meeting virtually monthly was doing little to improve connection and communication between us, and so we decided to have shorted meetings twice a month instead. We went over a bit of a postmortem to analyze the experience and identify what went well and what we might change moving forward. 

“I think the shift from 3-hour monthly in person sessions to 1.5-hour biweekly online sessions actually had an improved retention and implementation aspect,” he shared. 

“I think there was an increased sense of accountability when they knew they would be getting together in 2 weeks as opposed to 4 weeks. There was a heightened attention on implementing the learning from the session in order to report back on successes and challenges at the next group meeting.” 

He went on to add, “That, paired with the 1:1 coaching sessions, has dramatically accelerated the development of not only the newer leaders but our seasoned veterans as well.” 

What does this mean?

Having more frequent, shorter meetings gave the client the ability to focus on retention within the meeting, and after. It became easier to apply what they learned because of the consistency and push to discuss the changes in a shorter time period. Previously, the client would have trouble remembering what was discussed in the last meeting, and did not have as much drive to utilize the skills.

This strategy aligns with some findings from human research trends, “Organizations that embrace a dynamic approach to developing skills find that employees are both learning the right skills, and extracting the value from those skills in a way they do not within the reactive and predictive approaches,” Sari Wilde, Managing Vice President in the Gartner HR practice. “The result is that employees apply 75% of the new skills they learn.” 

Through discussing changes and new approaches with clients, coworkers and leaders, coaching practices help guide individuals onto paths that lead to success. When we are open and honest with one another about struggles and differences, it is easy to build relationships virtually and strengthen connections that already exist.

Why Leadership Coaching Paired with Development Programs Works

So, we know leaders are facing rapid changes to the way they have to operate due to COVID. They are facing increased pressure to ramp up their virtual leadership skills to keep employees engaged and productive while resetting priorities and planning for an uncertain future. 

One HR leader was recently sharing, “I am really under pressure to come up with new ways to deliver training to our employees. We are focused on how to be more creative about our leadership development program to ensure we are offering good experiential learning that’s equal or better than they would have gotten during in-person workshops.” 

Firefighters and doctors use Virtual Reality to learn through ‘experience’. This locks the information deeper into the neurocognitive network. Coaching uses this same tactic with leaders, challenging them, letting them ponder, experimenttry on different perspectives and work through challenges just like simulations.  

Build Relationships Virtually with Adaptable Strategies

At Epiphany we got rid of our one-day workshop offerings because we are passionate about sustainable learning and more long-term impact. One-day workshops without the follow up to cement the learning are just not as effective. I think back to all the one-day workshops my former manager sent me to and what a waste of money and time they were.

Now, don’t get me wrong, many of them were great workshops with great facilitators.

The challenge was there was no follow up and accountability to put the learning into practice, to play around with it and really incorporate it into my daily habits, to check back with the facilitator to share successes and challenges with the learning and reframe it for my specific work environment. 

When you pair shorter development workshops with some coaching sessions you create an environment for sustained impact. Neuroscience shows that to ‘lock in’ new neurocognitive networks it takes about 3-6 months and yet we have clients that have seen results after just one coaching session. 

Coaching Programs and the Difference They Make

One coaching session can offer up ‘micro-learning’ that helps you use your new skills/mindset and translate it into your ‘real world’ environment. Follow up coaching sessions continue to deepen that learning. I had a client last week that 30 minutes into a 60minute session landed on something really impactful for her. 

“Is it okay if we just end there so I can focus on this one thing and put it into play right away. Then we can come back together to explore how it went?”  “Absolutely!” I said. That’s the immediate value of a customized ‘micro-learning’ approach. 

This concept of ‘micro-learning’ is reinforced by NINJIO CEO Zach Schuler has collaborated with actor Jon Lovitz to discuss and create virtual Human Resource training:

…[this] strategy is focused on story-based micro-learning: short, 3- to 4-minute animated episodes…The length of the episodes is designed to appeal to users’ shrinking attention spans. Schuler noted the Microsoft study that found the human brain today can be swayed from concentration in just six seconds; for millennials, that attention span is closer to two seconds.”  

“If you lose them, their mind is going to float,” Schuler says. “Traditional training is based on lecture, but for the vast majority of people, the way that they learn and retain information is if it’s delivered in a short bit and on a frequent cadence, as opposed to having to sit through a 45-minute-long death by PowerPoint.”  

So, Can We Build Strong Relationships Virtually? 

Some people are still skeptical about the possibility of building strong connections virtually. If you’re one of them, keep reading.

I have the great pleasure of volunteering with a local University to coach a group of marketing students. The premise is they get thrown together randomly and forced to become a high performing team very quickly to come up with marketing strategies for various companies in a very short period of time.

In past years, this team coaching was conducted face to face, as was the competition.  Of course, the 2020-2021 programs looked very different and all interactions, including the teamwork, were conducted virtually. 

What was the feedback?

As we are nearing the end of the program the teams were ruminating on the pros and cons of this new experience. Many participants expressed their surprise at how quickly we were able to create an intimate and safe virtual environment.They stated that they had all created connections with one another, showing the ability to build relationships virtually even among strangers with common interests.

An environment where they learned to push and challenge each team member to bring the best of what they have to the table. In asking what they are taking away from the experience the majority of responses had nothing to do with learning better marketing skills, it had more to do with learning to be a solid team contributor in a virtual environment. 

In 1:1 coaching programs, many coaches shared their belief that virtual coaching sessions are more impactful as it takes away the ‘awkwardness’ and allows people to open up more as they feel less intimidated and more comfortable doing some deep exploration in the comfort of their own environment. 

What are some keys to success in coaching and making connections?

I took a poll of both leaders and teams to ask what they felt were keys to success in excelling in the virtual environment.  Here is what they had to say…  

  1. Create virtual ‘rules of engagement’ – just like in a live meeting, get everyone on the same page with virtual etiquette. (i.e. Are we going to do camera’s on or off? How are we going to structure the session so everyone has a voice? How are we going to use ‘hand raising’, chat boxes, etc.).
  2. Ramp up your listening skills and pay attention to tone of voice – tone of voice is the ‘new body language’. Tone relays energy. One leader was sharing that she realized how much she made assumptions about her impact based on the other person’s body language She went on to say as much as you can watch someone’s facial reactions, she is now more in tune with their tone of voice to tell her whether or not something has landed right or wrong or if they are really on board with what she is requesting.
  3. Shorter, more focused learning sessions are more impactful – one team was sharing they can’t believe how much we get accomplish in an hour. When you limit the time frame it creates a focus on what’s important right now. Narrowing the focus to one or two topics per session allows people to absorb, play around with and consider how they can implement new ideas quickly.
  4. More regular follow up creates high levels of accountability which is increasing productivity and effectiveness of leaders and teams – ‘one off’ training sessions impart information. A series of development sessions paired with 1:1 coaching cements learning and changes behavior. 

We’d love to hear both what you are struggling with to build relationships virtually and what successes you are having that you’d like to share to help others! 

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