Will we ever go back to face-to-face coaching?

Writing from my home office on the bleak depths of a second national Lock Down it feels unlikely that I’ll be able to meet coaching clients face-to-face in the near future. And I find myself wondering will we ever go back to meeting face-to-face for coaching sessions or has something shifted for good?

‘Good’ is the operative word here, as from my perspective I’m preferring online coaching for lots of reasons – both as a coachee and as coach. But as a coach I’m always driven by what’s best for the coachee so very conscious that not everyone is as comfortable online as I have become.

So what are the benefits of online coaching? And when would it be better meet in person instead, once circumstances allow. And, given we are likely to be mainly online for the foreseeable future, how can we make the most of this way of working for coaching specifically?

Let’s start with the benefits –

Coaching online saves time travelling to and from a place of meeting for coach and coachee, and it also eliminates the financial and environmental costs of travel. Very simply, online coaching costs less. In the wake of CV19 I changed my pricing for coaching to Pay What You Can – recognising how many people I knew were under-employed or unemployed and therefore would struggle to pay typical coaching rates. My individual clients now pay a wide range of rates from £10 to £80 per hr and I could not afford to work on this basis if paying the direct and indirect costs of travel and meeting room hire.

Another benefit of online working is that when coach and coachee meet in person we need to find a mutually comfortable and convenient place to meet – and that can be tricky. Some coaches rent meeting rooms, but that pushes up costs and those kinds of rooms can feel a little clinical to me. Others, myself included, meet clients at their own home/office. Many meet in public space like cafes and vestibules; I’ve had many a London meeting in Kings Place foyer and I know others use the South Bank Centre spaces. But I often feel those spaces are not ideal in terms of confidentiality. 

The beauty of online space is that it can be intimate but it is also private. The comfort of being in our own home, unobserved and in control of our environment, can make it feel like the safest space to think and talk. Even before CV19 many of my clients chose to schedule coaching for days when they were working from home as this offered a level of privacy, comfort and focus that it can be harder to achieve in the office or a semi-public space.

There are however downsides to online coaching –

Particularly at the moment, home might not feel like the place to do our best and freshest thinking, especially if we don’t have great wifi, a quiet corner to work from or there are other family members in the house who might interrupt or overhear. Others have a strong dislike of being seen on camera, in which case I find phone coaching can work just fine.

The tendency when we don’t need to travel to meet to cram in a session between meetings, or at the end of a long day of other meetings, can mean we are not getting the most from coaching. Before CV19, I already advised new clients to schedule sessions when they feel they will be fresh, able to focus and to avoid other commitments directly before or afterwards – to give them time to prepare for a session and process it. 

As a coach we will inevitably miss some things when working online that we might have noticed face-to-face, if we can’t see the whole person and notice their body language or movements as fully.

When working online, exercises that involve the coachee moving around the space might feel slightly odd at first – not both coach and coachee. But actually my experience has been that spatial exercises can and do work pretty well online (and certainly better than in a semi-public space!). They are not however a huge part of how I work with coachees, I tend to use metaphor, writing/drawing and conversation most often and all of those techniques translate great to online. For those coaches and coaches who are more into kinetic and somatic models the online space is potentially more of a limiting factor.

I’ve always learned a lot about coaching from being coached – and to this day I work with other coaches from time to time. When I am working with my own coach I actually prefer working online. It means I can work with a coach who lives several hundred miles away easily, rather than spending half a day and £100 on train fare which would be prohibitive. And I feel more comfortable speaking from my own home than being in a less familiar space. It feels no less intimate or effective, and a lot more convenient. But I’m an introvert and generally like working online, so I’m also very conscious the coachees I work with might have very different preferences.

In my experience though, far more has been gained than lost by taking coaching online during CV19 and I hope that coachees who might previously have preferred to meet face-to-face will at least try coaching over video-conference before assuming face-to-face is going to be better for them. 

I’m wondering if what we’ll come back to after CV19 is a hybrid model – where coach and coachee might meet initially but continue their work together online. This has often been how I worked with clients based further away – we’d meet face-to-face for the ‘intake’ or first session and then follow-up by phone or video-conference. But let’s not make that the default for every coaching relationship. For a long-time I assumed I had to meet coachees face-to-face initially to be able to work together productively but after the past ten months I don’t think that’s really true for all of us, and if there is a more cost effective and planet-friendly way to do things then I hope we can give it a go.

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