Coaching Virtual Teams

Jeff Cochran

Over the course of the past decade, more and more teams have been moving toward virtual workspaces with all the benefits and challenges that come with that move.

Now, in the last two months, with the spread of COVID-19, what was a gradual migration has turned into a full-on stampede.

One of the possible casualties of everyone being virtual is effective coaching. In a virtual world, what is the equivalent of a pat on the back?

Here are 7 tips for helping virtual coaches stay effective.

  1. Meet Early

    According to Business Insider Magazine, “People are unsurprisingly more productive in the morning and seem to burn out after lunch.” So, if you want to have a productive session, have it in the morning.

    Some of the most common complaints of coaches and those coached alike is that when the medium is electronic, the likelihood of having the mind wander increases. Cut down on the chances of missing an important point or not providing much value by meeting when the mind is fresh.

    Coaching is all about changing behavior. That change comes about most effectively in small, frequent increments. 
  2. Meet Often

    Being a coach is a lot like being the captain of an ocean liner…you can affect the direction, but it's unlikely that you’ll be able to make any sharp turns.

    The logistical investment of meeting virtually is relatively low. There's no physical space to rent, no commute cost and the time savings gives both parties the ability to move right onto a new task immediately following the encounter.

    So, you don't have to meet for very long to justify the cost. A 15-minute meeting at 8:00 am on each Monday for a month is far more impactful than a one-hour meeting on the first Monday of the month.

  3. Don’t Let Technology Get in the Way 

    When I first started managing folks virtually, my first step was to master the hottest, most up-to-date on-line tools that were available. I quickly saw all types of capabilities and tried to use each and every one.

    As my team familiarized themselves with the platform, I'd have participants mute themselves, unmute themselves, raise their hand, clap for good ideas, wave at each other, respond to polls and start and stop their videos like we were playing a strange game of corporate hide-and-seek. It was interesting and engaging, but a lot of the capabilities detracted from what we were there to accomplish.

    IRL (In Real Life–look at me with the tech lingo) I'd never ask someone in one of our meetings to raise his or her hand–why would I do it on-line?

  4. Be Quick to Praise and Slow to Criticize 

    This one is true whether you're in person or meeting virtually. No one likes to be criticized. If you're communicating via e-mail or text, the sting of a minor criticism may linger even longer when it's in black and white. The recipient may read and re-read the written word where a spoken suggestion of a course correction may be headed but allows the receiver to save face.

    A corollary of #4 could be praise in public but criticize privately. Again, it applies regardless of the forum and allows a certain amount of face-saving.

  5. Be Very Careful 

    I know, I know, you're always careful. But when there's a physical gap between you and the person you're coaching, it's even more important to choose your words and actions carefully.

    IRL, I look my audience in the eye and pick up clues as to how they're receiving what I'm giving by all of their reactions. Yes, closed body language may only be an indication that someone is cold, but the entirety of the body language may tell me a more complete story. On-line, I may only have a face and that may eliminate my ability to see fidgety hands or a clenched fist.

    I confess…. I've unintentionally delivered a verbal on-line insult that I may have still said IRL but had I seen their face live, I could've quickly explained myself and immediately apologized, rather than have them carry it for days.

  6. Have a Guide 

    When it comes to coaching virtual teams you have to have a point of reference.

    For negotiations, we use a negotiators Field Guide. The Field Guide provides people with a structure for meetings. It gives participants independent work so that they can be as productive as possible when they meet with the coach. But it can be a lot of work so that it's actually done. Most importantly, it’s all focused on forward-looking so they get value by improving results rather than being judged for what they did.

  7. Keep It Simple

    It's possible that this piece of advice is not only a key to virtual coaching but may very well be the key to life itself. Complicated solutions invariably go awry. I think that when Alan Shepherd turned to Buzz Aldrin looking for advice on space travel, Buzz probably quoted his good friend John Glenn and said, “Keep it simple.” THAT is how universal that advice is. But what does it mean for you as a virtual coach?

    Keeping it simple means having clear, concise goals that are communicated directly in a one-on-one session. The goals should be objective and have a timetable attached.
    When goals are shared verbally, they should be followed up with written documentation. The conversation should discuss three potential outcomes…Surpassing, Meeting and Falling Short, and the corresponding actions as a result of each. I'm not talking about a scene from a movie where the outcomes are a new car, a set of steak knives or you lose your job, but any coach needs to make sure that outcomes are clear.


We’ve looked at seven items to consider when coaching virtual teams. As with most things virtual, there are challenges and benefits, but the best approaches in coaching are pretty consistent with the best practices regardless of mode of communication.

Andres Lares, Managing Partner at Shapiro Negotations Institute, contributed to this article.

In addition to managing the business, Andres' multi-disciplinary and lingual skills broaden SNI’s ability to effectively teach and advise in a wide range of industries, languages, and cultures. Andres’ expertise is in deal coaching live negotiations, often working with sports teams such as the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, Milwaukee Brewers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Brooklyn Nets. He also works closely with several of SNI’s non-sports flagship clients including Boeing, Google, PwC, and Sherwin Williams. He previously served as the Chief Innovation Officer where developed SNI’s online offerings, which now includes award-winning live online training along with various innovative tools, several of which leverage VR and AI.