At its core, coaching is a simple idea: help your direct reports improve both what they do and who they are. But it’s not a simple process. It requires a manager to know what his or her reports are doing, understand why they are doing it, and help them to recognize where and how they can get better. Good coaches create a safe space to have an open discussion, ask the right questions (and genuinely listen to the answers), and constructively challenge.
This is hard enough to do when you’re sitting face to face with an employee. So what happens when the person you’re trying to coach isn’t in the same room, down the hall, or in the next building – but working hundreds or even thousands of miles away?
It’s challenging, in large part because you don’t have a shared context. You lack information about the people on the
end of the line, and vice versa. On any given day, we pick up on countless pieces of information about the world around us, ranging from office politics to events in colleagues’ personal lives and even the weather. Without any conscious effort on our part –and often without even realizing it – that information becomes part of a mental database we use to interpret situations, decode interactions, and understand motivations.
This database is critically important in the context of coaching. When you coach, you aren’t just comparing stated objectives with a list of accomplishments. You’re helping people better understand the consequences of their actions and see when there is a disconnect between what they wanted to accomplish and what actually happened. It requires you be able to put yourself in their shoes and interpret various situations. That is harder to do from a distance.
But it gets worse, because not sharing context also reduces trust, which is one of the cornerstones of effective coaching. The people you’re coaching need to trust you enough to share their successes and failures, expose their vulnerabilities, and ask for help. And trust isn’t a one-way street. Effective coaches often make parallels to their own experiences, so you need to be comfortable sharing too.
When you work face-to-face or down the hall, trust typically comes more easily. It’s built through shared experiences and common relationships, both of which are harder to have from a distance. We’re just not as good at developing trust over intermittent visits or phone calls and video conferences. As a result, managers who aren’t co-located with their employees often find it extremely challenging to have the meaningful, open dialogues they need to coach them effectively.
So what’s a manager to do?
There is no quick fix. Even the most cutting-edge technology cannot provide all the information we get when we are face to face. Nevertheless, there are some things you can do to improve the situation.
1. Get it out in the open
The first step is to have an honest and open discussion about the challenges that you (collectively) are up against in trying to establish and maintain an effective coaching relationship. Acknowledging the problem gets you both on the same page, sets expectations, and helps you understand each other’s behaviors. At the same time, it builds rapport and trust by creating your own shared experience — the shared experience of working together to overcome the challenge of coaching at a distance.
2. Formalize the informal
To coach effectively from a distance you need to use structure to keep you honest, and to put in place processes to compensate for the things that don’t come easily.
First, set up and stick to regular meetings. When coaching face-to-face we often rely on impromptu check-ins as the need arises, but this is harder to do when you’re not down the hall. Research by Maznevski and Chudoba shows that a predictable rhythm is a key driver of trust at a distance. Plan ahead and set a fixed schedule for how frequently you will interact. Of course, schedule additional meetings as the need arises, but make sure they sit on a foundation of predictability.
Second, spend part of your time together establishing a shared context. This means discussing things like how the power and politics of their office work, and who they interact with on a daily basis. Learn not just what they do in the office but where they choose to spend the rest of their time. The purpose is to gain a more well-rounded understanding of what they have to deal with in their day-to-day work life. Will these conversations feel awkward and forced? Absolutely, because they are. But they will feel less and less so each time, and what you learn in the process makes it worth the initial discomfort.
3. Find a sounding board
At the end of the day, no matter how hard you work, you will never know your distant reports’ context well enough. If possible, seek out someone in your reports’ location who can serve as a sounding board. This should be someone you trust who can help you understand the environment your distant report is in and assess whether your recommendations make sense in that context. This is particularly important if some of the people you coach are distant while others are local, because the information you have about your direct reports in the different locations will be lopsided.
Anyone hoping to make these problems go away entirely will be disappointed. Distance makes coaching harder by taking away much of the information we rely on to understand our distant reports. But it’s not impossible. Put in place a few simple structures and processes and you’ll get at least some of that information back.