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InfoQ Homepage Articles Virtual Group Coaching: How to Improve Group Relationships in Remote Work Settings

Virtual Group Coaching: How to Improve Group Relationships in Remote Work Settings

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Key Takeaways

  • Virtual group coaching improves group interaction or group dynamics in virtual settings
  • A virtual group coach focuses on team interactions and facilitates the process in which team members recognize group dynamic issues and improve them on their own, rather than providing solutions to resolve issues in group dynamics
  • For virtual group coaching to be successful, it is critical that all members take responsibility for improving group interactions within the team
  • Virtual group coaching can be applied to solve problems with group interactions and also to build on the team’s strengths
  • While managers or team leaders can enact the role of virtual group coaches, the greatest impact of virtual group coaching often occurs when one individual from the team -- or an external consultant -- is dedicated, after proper training, to that role

Few can dispute that the Covid-19 pandemic has revolutionized the workplace. Before the pandemic and according to a Gallup poll conducted in August 2020, the average American worker spent 2.4 days of a 20-workday month telecommuting; during the pandemic, the average American worker is averaging 5.8 workdays telecommuting (Jones, 2020). One in four U.S. workers now works completely from home. While only 51 percent of Chinese employees work from home, 69 percent of U.S. workers work from home at least part-time (Liang, 2020).

The software industry is no exception. According to Remoters, a remote work platform company, both people who want to work remotely and companies that want to hire remotely have increased after the pandemic, and software development, in particular, is the job type that best reflects this remote hiring trend. Although Covid-19 has led to the rapid shift of many software companies to remote working, the transition to distributed teams was increasing even before the pandemic. After the pandemic has been vanquished, many workers will want to work from home either full-time or part-time (Courtney, 2020; Statista, 2020).

The shift to remote work also brings diverse advantages to both employers and employees. Employers that offer work from home opportunities will enjoy advantages in attracting and retaining star talent and will save money by spending less on office space, equipment, salaries, and perks. On the employees’ side, the greatest benefit of remote work is that it allows them to concentrate on their work by managing their time effectively. So, employees become more productive in their work. Mercer’s global Covid-19 survey shows that 92.8 percent of 1186 respondents have maintained the same or improved productivity after switching to remote work (Mercer, 2020).

Even though remote work has distinct advantages, it creates new challenges for managers and workers alike. Working together in physical settings such as offices or plants is simply not the same as working apart in virtual settings. As Marshal McLuhan (1964) noted years ago, "the medium is the message." What he meant is that how a message is communicated changes, and influences, what the message is. And how people work together -- that is, in online rather than onsite settings -- changes how people achieve results, how they interact, and how they feel about their work products and work relationships.

Although various communication and collaboration tools have been devised to facilitate working together effectively in virtual work settings, how people interact changes when people work in virtual rather than physical settings. Perhaps most importantly, people tend to lose informal connections that add context and meaning to their working lives. They lose the informal conversations that occur before, during and after meetings. They lose the informal conversations that occur at their desks, in their cubicles, at the copy machine, in the cafeteria or break room, or at the watercoolers (or drinking fountains). A VitalSmarts survey found that people working from home often feel left out (Sococo, 2020). Those who feel left out can become absenteeism or turnover statistics. A research study revealed that one big challenge that software developers experience when working from home is also a lack of social interaction (Ford et al., 2020). If no effort is made to provide opportunities for informal and nonwork-related social interactions, people grow alienated, disengaged, and disconnected (see Wu, 2020); a sense of isolation may also affect employees’ mental health negatively (e.g., a rise in suicide rate; John et al., 2020). If remote work is prolonged due to the pandemic and its after-effects, trust among members may be undermined. That loss will, in turn, negatively influence communication and collaboration with coworkers. Considering that team interactions and collaboration are critical for the success of software development projects, the software industry should pay close attention to changes in how people work together, how they interact when part of a team, and how they feel about their relationships with other members. The reason: feelings and perceptions influence long-term team productivity.

What is Virtual Group Coaching?

What is needed is a new emphasis on how people work together in groups and how people feel about their virtual relationships. The process of improving interactions among people who work together remotely as a group or team (sometimes called virtual group dynamics) is called virtual coaching. It is the most recent iteration of process consultation, a helping method intended to facilitate improvements in face-to-face group interactions (Schein, 1986, 1988, 1998). In that context, process refers to group dynamics or group interaction -- that is, how people work together and how people feel about each other and their work.

            Picture a situation. A team is working together -- but from home, from offshore, or in mixed media settings in which some people work in a central office and others work from other venues. While managers will tend to focus on the task for the group to accomplish, the group or team’s productivity will hinge on how well people work together in virtual and/or blended settings. Because (in McLuhan’s words) "the medium is the message," how people communicate will change perceived meanings of work messages -- and will thereby affect their productivity and their engagement levels.

What may be needed is virtual group coaching. Our recent book, Virtual Coaching to Improve Group Relationships, introduces virtual group coaching as a means to improve group interaction or social dynamics in virtual settings. As emphasized repeatedly, how people interact with each other in virtual settings is different from that in physical settings due to the difference of the medium to communicate and collaborate. So, in virtual group coaching, the coach’s role is to facilitate improvements in interactions among people who work together remotely as a team or group. While the manager focuses on the group’s tasks (what is to be done and how it is to be done), the virtual coach focuses on the group’s relationships (how people work together and how they feel about each other and the task in virtual work settings).  The virtual group coach does not dictate ways to analyze and improve group interaction and group relationships. Rather, the coach helps members recognize their issues concerning group process and dynamics, reach agreement on what to improve, create improvement efforts on their own, improve group dynamics and learn more effective ways of working together. An important assumption made by virtual group coaches is that no group or team is working together as effectively or efficiently as the group or team could be working together.

How Can a Virtual Group Coaching Be Implemented?

Virtual group coaching can be applied to any situation where group interaction and relationships exist and where team members work online in whole or in part (In whole means that all team members work from home; in part means that some team members are in a central office and are interacting with other team members working from home). Let’s take a distributed agile team as an example. Typically, an agile team is a cross-functional team composed of people with different functional expertise who work together to achieve a common goal. So, one key factor that makes an agile team successful is effective communication and collaboration among members to move forward with its mission. To work in an agile way, a distributed agile team has a daily standup meeting to keep all team members informed, connected, and on the same track using virtual communication tools such as video/audio conferencing, instant messaging, and email across a range of devices. But, what if a daily virtual standup meeting does not work well? Imagine a situation where interactions and communications during a virtual meeting are not effective. What if people do not pay attention in a meeting? What if people do not attend on time? What if in a videoconference, people keep their webcams off during the entire meeting? What if people keep silence and conceal problems? These issues are often neglected. However, if the issues are left unresolved, they will hinder an agile team from working in an agile way and ultimately affect long-term team effectiveness and performance. This distributed agile team will need virtual group coaching.

The first step in virtual coaching is having the team self-diagnose, which helps members understand what is going on and how things are going within a team. In virtual group coaching, the coach does not assess group dynamics. Rather, a virtual group coach should help people identify and work through their own issues in group dynamics much as a clinical psychologist helps individuals work through their own issues. To make people more aware of their current status, diverse approaches can be used. One idea is to appoint one team member to monitor how people interact during meetings by counting the number of questions or amount of time each person speaks and observing attendance or punctuality, participation, ways of sharing information, reaction or responses, body language, and much more. And then, at the end of the meeting, this team member reports what he/she observed without editorializing about whether it was good or bad, and facilitates a team discussion on how team members could work together with more equal participation and engagement. Team members may take turns performing this role so that everyone shares responsibility for improving interactions and dynamics within the team.  

Also, consider one way that a virtual group coach might engage with teams. A coach begins by introducing him/herself and explaining that his/her role is to facilitate ways to analyze and improve group relationships. The coach may participate in a daily standup meeting but remain primarily a silent observer through most of the meeting. After the meeting, the coach might ask the team to complete an assessment to gauge how well the team members feel they are interacting (see the following assessment example). Or, the coach may video record a daily standup meeting, show segments to the team members, and ask their thoughts and feelings about what they observe in terms of their team relationships, rather than letting them know what the coach observed directly. A key point about diagnosis in virtual group coaching is that members should recognize their problems, and the coach facilitates this self-diagnostic process.

Once team members become aware of their current situations, they will have feedback sessions to reach an agreement on what to improve. In a feedback session, a coach does not report diagnostic results to the team members. Rather, a coach prepares an agenda for open discussion based on what each member talked about and facilitates a discussion to describe how the team can have more effective daily standup meetings, challenging team members to commit to ways to improve their interaction and work together effectively. This open discussion will lead them to their own solutions to resolve the issues that they perceived and improve team interaction and dynamics. This feedback approach will make members more responsible for, and engaged in, implementing the interventions and improving team dynamics than an approach in which a coach authoritatively reports diagnostic results and provides solutions. The diagnosis and feedback process can be iterated, occurring over a series of meetings, and the coach will help the team improve group dynamics and learn more effective ways to communicate and work together.

Who Can Play a Role as a Virtual Group Coach?

Who can be a virtual group coach? Can engineering managers, technical/engineering/team leads, or scrum masters serve as virtual group coaches as well as task leaders? The answer is "yes -- with some reservations." It is simply not possible to devote equal attention to task performance and team interaction. Trying to do so is much like trying to watch two television shows at the same time. While teenagers may find clever ways of doing that with a TV remote control by flipping back and forth between shows, they rarely do so effectively; they will miss crucial plot developments in one television program or the other. The same problem will happen when engineering managers, technical/engineering/team leads, or scrum masters try to monitor tasks (as described in the meeting agenda) and interactions (as they unfold when people work together in a meeting). For that reason, although engineering managers, technical/engineering/team leads, or scrum masters can play a role as virtual group coaches, it will be more effective to have one person focusing on leading the task and another focused on facilitating ways to improve group relationships. It is much like the leadership roles played in the traditional family; one parent focuses on tasks and a different parent focuses on creating a harmonious, nurturing environment.

What Would Be the Best Medium for Virtual Group Coaching?

As remote or distributed teams are on the rise, diverse collaboration tools are used to communicate and work together, such as instant messaging, email, audio and video conferencing, and many more. But, from the virtual group coaching perspective, video conferencing is the best way to communicate with the team rather than instant messaging or audio conferencing, as most parts of communication occur through nonverbal cues. According to Mehrabian’s 7%-38%-55% rule, 55% of communication occurs through visual cues (body language and facial expressions, which can be perceived by the eyes), 38% occurs through vocal cues (such as accent, pitch, tone, laughing, sobbing, yelling, and so on, which can be perceived by the ears), and only 7% occurs through verbal cues that are spoken language (Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967). Therefore, the lack of verbal cues increases the possibility that information is not delivered properly or is miscommunicated. By seeing others’ nonverbal cues, communication can occur more effectively, and eye contact during communication is helpful to build trust among people, which is the most critical factor for effective interactions and collaboration.

Instant messaging has been increasingly used instead of a formal or official meeting. For example, chatting using Slack substitutes a daily scrum meeting. It allows people to connect with the team instantly, so it might be the easiest and quickest way to share task-related information. However, it might not be an effective way to build trust among members and enhance group interaction and group dynamics. Virtual group coaching is a means to improve group dynamics by building a trusting relationship among members. Hence, in virtual group coaching, it is encouraged to find a way where trust among members can be strengthened when they work together, and when they implement a virtual group coaching approach as well.

Is Virtual Group Coaching Effective Only When Having Obvious Group Dynamic Issues?

Even if it seems that there is no obvious issue regarding group dynamics in a group or team, virtual group coaching will still be useful. Normally, when weaknesses or issues are perceived, efforts are made to fix them. However, change and development approaches can also be applied to enhance or build upon existing team strengths. The former approach focuses on negativity, while the latter one focuses on positivity. Virtual group coaching can be used in a way that emphasizes positivity. According to a survey conducted by PwC (2021), 83 percent of employers and 71 percent of employees responded that the switch to remote work due to Covid-19 has been successful. Even if remote work has been successful, and any obvious issues regarding group dynamics have not surfaced, in order to maintain team effectiveness and performance from a long-term perspective, it is important to strengthen relationships and collaboration among members, focusing on our team’s strong points.

Virtual group coaching using a positive approach can be implemented in four stages, adopting David Cooperider’s (2012) Appreciative Inquiry 4D model: (1) to identify and appreciate what already works (Discovery), (2) to imagine what might be possible by exploring an organization’s positive core (Dream), (3) to create systems, ideals, and structures by leveraging the best of what was and what could be in the future (Design), and (4) to implement the proposed design (Destiny). During this process, a virtual group coach does not interfere with the group process or impose solutions. A coach’s role is to facilitate the process, induce team members’ positive stories and feelings about interactions and collaborations with other members, and help them design approaches that will work well and implement them by themselves. It allows the team to strengthen trust and reinforce relationships and collaboration among team members, focusing on the team’s positive core strengths.

As the pandemic has prolonged, many software development teams will work remotely longer, permanently, or in blended venues such as some team members working in an office, some working from home, and some working from other venues (like coffee shops, shopping malls, or even automobiles). Effective interaction and collaboration based on trust among members will be a critical factor for team success and the need for virtual coaching will only increase.   

References

About the Authors

William J. Rothwell, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP, CPLP Fellow is president of Rothwell and Associates, Inc. and professor of workforce education and development on the University Park campus of Penn State University. As a consultant he specializes in organization development and succession planning; as a professor, he leads a graduate program in Organization Development and Talent Development. His most recent book is Virtual Coaching to Improve Group Relationships (Routledge, 2021).

Cho Hyun Park, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Organizational Learning and Performance Department at Idaho State University. She received her Ph.D. degree, with an emphasis on Human Resource Development (HRD) and Organization Development (OD), in Workforce Education and Development from the Pennsylvania State University and MEd degree in HRD from the University of Minnesota. She has about 15 years of experience as an HRD/OD consultant at Samsung. Her most recent book is Virtual Coaching to Improve Group Relationships (Routledge, 2021). 

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