Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Support for Team Coaches Moving to 100% Virtual Team Meetings in a Global Pandemic

This week’s guest blogger, Christine Thornton, provides support for team coaches moving to  100% virtual team meetings in a global pandemic

Here’s what she had to say…

Turn up first as a person with as much courage and empathy as you can muster.  The global pandemic profoundly affects everyone. Help leaders and team members acknowledge and process some of the conflicting feelings that will otherwise disrupt your work with them.

The basic aims of team coaching remain the same: better relationships, more honest conversations, engendering a culture of curiosity and learning, to progress business goals. The technical challenge is how to enable this entirely within remote technologies, without the usual sensory clues ‘in the room’. 

Remember that a pandemic engenders high anxiety; these feelings come back in waves during its progress.  Bear this in mind in all interactions, and seek to normalize the experience. When fearful, people need a strong lead.  Be highly explicit about the aims and structures of what you are asking people to do. Try to be compassionate if people behave badly, but don’t tolerate repeated bad behavior; be openly curious about it instead.  

team coachesThe relationship between coach and team leader is even more critical than usual.  You must become the leader’s trusted ally in achieving their objectives, and help them to shine.  Even a highly skilled and confident leader may have a steep learning curve in a 100% virtual environment.

Be alive to the risk of divisions within teams and between leaders, as pressure and unwelcome feelings bounce around newly virtual organizations.  But the pressure of the situation has opportunities too. Among my clients, two co-directors explored how they characterize each other as ‘in denial’ and ‘panicking’, and managed to break through a destructive pattern they have enacted for decades. 

Another pair of leaders resolved a two-year divide by talking about their mutual misperceptions via a videoconference (VC).  Some people report being able to say more via VC than they can ‘in the room’.


In the contracting stage, accept that information based on virtual interactions with individuals may be less rich in information.  Be even more scrupulous than usual in explicitly checking out your perceptions.

Present your diagnosis to the team via VC for discussion, possibly backed up by brief, neutrally-worded summary documents/decks.

Design and delivery

Ninety (90) minutes is about the maximum quality engagement time on a VC.  This usually changes your intervention design.  Instead of offsites, structure several short VC sessions.  Keep the intervals close enough for continuity, eg daily at first, then reducing frequency over time.  The upside: this is generally more effective over the long term than an offsite. I have been structuring my team interventions in this way for many years – in the room. 

Design sessions to improve bonding, map difficulties and promote better conversation and action based on learning.  Older, familiar tools will be easier for people to engage with than complex new tools.

Modify your communication style to be more explicit, and allow for the more limited connection available virtually. 90% of communication is non-verbal.  Much nuance is lost on a screen, where even the visual image is two-dimensional, easily misinterpreted. Ambiguous or negative images of others provoke a more negative response, particularly in an already anxious situation.  VC is a verbal medium, so take time and create a structure to manage it. This all takes longer.

Prioritize verbal communication and model careful checking out and courteous invitation for all to participate, ensuring that everyone speaks. Summarise at regular intervals. The upside is the opportunity for everyone to improve their verbal communication skills.

Take the opportunity to normalize careful and respectful communication about a team’s dynamics. The highly structured style necessary to avoid VC miscommunication can also help task-focused teams to develop better skills.  

A simple tool for Process breaks and process reviews can be found >>> here <<<

This pandemic provides a good bonding opportunity IF people can tackle it together. Work alongside the team, eg observing their team meetings for 30-40 minutes and then facilitating a process review and feedback session. 

Get creative with the focus on words– encourage eg storytelling, brainstorming, appreciative inquiry.

Model and make explicit good quality engagement.  Bad habits from ‘normal’ VCs (or indeed f2f meetings) can be challenged in this new environment. Engage the team in setting ground rules– good timekeeping to maximize the use of everyone’s time, no multitasking, no interruptions, no stepping off the call without the courtesy of an explanation. Confidently acknowledge that this is new territory for everyone. Ask them how they can get the best value from their time with you.  

Offer the team leader additional 1-to-1 sessions to plan how best to lead in a 100% virtual environment.  The leader stepping up is critical to success; their team needs them more than usual in times of great uncertainty.  You can help the leader recognize and adapt their style to the new circumstances.

Use breakout functions to brainstorm across functions and subgroups, particularly in larger teams

If working with a team who seem not fully engaged, say so and check it out.  Ask them, given that they have to be there, what could they get out of it?  What else is going on? Refer back to and interrogate the stated objectives…

Have strategies in mind to deal with dominant or silent voices, modifying the verbal strategies you would use ‘in the room’.

There is another free download with ideas at Thornton Consulting

Take a look at other pandemic related topics in previous blogs.

Tell us what you’ve learned from this or can add to the conversation about team coaches by commenting on this blog or by connecting with your colleagues on our Facebook page.

Here is some information about the author:

Christine Thornton is a group analyst, supervisor and organizational consultant, author of the best-selling Group and team coaching (Routledge 2010, 2016), and The art and science of working together (Routledge 2019). Founding Director of the IGA organizational training, Reflective Practice in Organisations, she has been honored for contributions to the coaching profession. Christine works with organizational leaders and coaches enabling a better understanding of complex unconscious systemic and relationship dynamics. Click here to find out more about Christine.