Virtual team coaching at times of Covid-19. How real can we make it?

One of the upsides during this pandemic crisis has been that it forced all of us to be creative and solution focused. As in the past weeks everything turned virtual, so did team-coaching for us. And as by “virtual” we refer to “digital”, its other meaning is “almost like, but not completely as”. Being team coaches ourselves and loving to work in the here-and-now team dynamics, our deepest concern has been if virtual team coaching, will be “almost like”, but not the real thing. In these past weeks we discovered, how important it is to rethink of the digital environment so that provides the right conditions for a team growth. We’d like to share our own ideas and practical learning, which may help you as a leader, team member or fellow coach.  
  1. Multi-day workshop format
Multi-day “offsite” programs are a very effective format due to their “pressure-cooker” effect when there is a need to transform existing team mindsets and to invest in intimacy. Practically, when team members have to travel to meet at the same location you want to make the most use of that investment. With virtual team workshops, you may still want to consider more compressed intense session, if the team needs a turnaround on strategic decisions. But since there is no travel involved, there is also no need to compress it all in two or three days. We found that in such format, it works well to split a workshop into 3-4 hours per day and cover it over 5 workdays. This format helps the team to create momentum, in order to reach concrete outcomes and there is opportunity for essential processing in-between daily sessions that can be very constructive.  
  1. Interval session format
If there isn’t however a need for speedy decisions, but to work on its development needs over a longer period, that can be organized by intervals (weekly or bi-weekly). That assumes that the team has already done some groundwork together on its fundaments. The benefit of this option is that it allows for application and practice in-between as team meets to discuss regular business. The benefits of the virtual setup is that those don’t have to be planned in large blocks. Now, more than ever teams find more need in connecting and having open spaces to connect, share, learn and adjust.  
  1. Duration and energy levels
The biggest challenge of virtual team workshops is energy management. Team workshops can be tiring, because we work on many different levels at the same time (cognitive, social, emotional, etc). When this work is done virtually, it can be even more exhausting as we sit and stare at the screen for long periods. The challenge with team coaching is that longer sessions are essential for the team to challenge its existing perspectives, as well as to display its natural team dynamics. One solution is to choose an interval format as already discussed. If you however want to plan longer group sessions, it is essential to plan breaks every hour, before continuing the discussion and make sure people move away from their screen, during their break.  
  1. Visual connection as much possible
When I ask you to think of your team, you typically get a mental image with everyone present. Visual presence on a virtual environment is very important. And therefore you need a digital platform for team sessions that provides the ability to see all cameras of the full team simultaneously. We advise team members, to use a double screen if content is shared. Avoid connective via your phone!  To create a real experience of entering, have a “virtual lobby” where you can play music and where team members can socialize by drinking coffee before a session starts. We also used an image of a circle of empty chairs and asked participants to “take a seat” by writing their name on a chair. This way people visually and mentally entered a different space.  
  1. Always on and staying present
Staying in the here and now is very difficult, let alone virtually. For that reason, make it a rule, to shut down any other devices, but also programs on the background like email, internet, alerts etc. Cameras and microphones always on. Being on mute or turning of the camera might create a sense of cocooning away from the team, which is not constructive in the team coaching context.  
  1. Being together from home
You may want to encourage people to show their natural home environment on camera, rather than a digital backdrop. This sometimes creates an interesting dialogue, not only about how people are working from home, but also what they choose to allow in, towards their team members. In introductions ask them on the spot to select an object around them, that tells something about themselves. Advice team members upfront to prepare how to deal with family members or pets that may disrupt. You may also agree as a team that it is ok if this occurs, as it is simply the times we live in.  
  1. Avoid turning the workshop into a webinar
Very early we establish the principle with team members, by already sharing some preparation points. In a real-life workshop, a team coach is very conscious not to “hold the marker on the flipchart” too much, that the team is relying on an external person to function. But in a virtual team workshop, where you control the technical environment, it is even more risky that the workshop feels like a webinar. One way to deal with it, is to establish it as a workshop agreement from the start. Further, you may have to minimize the visual content you project. Walk through instructions or reflective questions, and then put them on the chat box, rather than continuously project them. This replaces the screen space for camera icons and opens up the space for the team, moving the coach to the background of the team process.  
  1. Digital team dynamics?
If you work with here-and-now team dynamics, you might often surface avoidance routines of the team, work with silences, even the physical position of team members. But how to deal with that in the virtual environment, when technical functionality takes away discomfort, but perhaps makes team dynamics unreal. We therefore decided as a principle, not to use technical probes like the chat functionality, virtually raise of hands, or smileys to break in a discussion. Leaders have to find their own voice and space and teams may need to reflect on how much space they allow for other perspectives and for constructive dialogue.  
  1. Digital breakouts
Our experience of using a platform that manages breakout rooms was that it had the following functionalities:
  • Ability to create random breakout groups or pre-define them.
  • Allowing facilitators to get in and out of breakouts
  • Timings announcement during sessions and
  • Time count-down till the end of the breakout sessions, that meant strict time boundaries without negotiating with facilitators.
Here again, the usefulness of the tool maybe at the detriment of the team process. Group composition may be very meaningful for the topic discussed or for the team process. You therefore may want to decide upfront: should I randomize groups, should I pre-determined them or does the team work on the spot to divide themselves? In one occasion we had one-to-one feedback dialogues to address trust needs and we asked team members upfront with whom they needed to speak.  
  1. Process checks
In between sessions it is very helpful to explicitly separate the technical review of “how we are doing” from the team process and content review. This allows to correct or find solutions with regards to duration, breaks, connectivity. Having that done first, allows space for more essential discussions on the team process.   Maybe this crisis can reinvent team development from a “planned event” to a more accessible and more constant forum. And that shift can make virtual teams more real!
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