Coaching Comes to the Cubicles
#evolve Magazine
July 15, 2022

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the business coaching industry. Once a field typically focused on corporate executives looking to improve their management skills, coaching has now become more common throughout all levels of organizations, with practitioners asked to attend to workplace issues engendered by the pandemic, such as anxiety about working from home, caregiver stresses and burnout.

Demand for individual coaches — and newly emerging coaching businesses such as Torch and BetterUp — has increased in the past two years, fueling a global market of nearly $3 billion and growing, according to the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the industry’s leading credentialing body.

That trajectory seemed unlikely in the spring of 2020, as the onset of the pandemic prompted many of the companies that had hired executive coaches to retreat to home offices and cut off engagements perceived as nonessential. “A lot of coaching [before the pandemic] was still happening face-to-face,” said Magdalena Mook, ICF executive director. “Many organizations were hoping that COVID would be a short-term thing and said, ‘Let’s just stop it for a sec, we’ll be back in two or three months.’”

Not only did coaching bounce back quickly in online venues, but overall demand for coaching spiked. Mook reports that, since the start of the pandemic, ICF has enjoyed record member-retention rates, and requests to pursue ICF’s credential increased 30%. Alongside that increase, the kinds of coaching that people were seeking changed. “There was a shift from a very specific focus on the bottom line to ‘How can I be a good leader?’” Mook said. “‘My own life is being affected in many different ways.’ People were recognizing that before they can be a good leader, they have to be a balanced person.”

Coaches interviewed for this article report that their work now often resembles something closer to therapy than workplace guidance. As corporations embrace a more holistic coaching approach — and not just for their executives — leaders are hoping they can head off some of the anxieties that have prompted talented employees to leave their jobs during the Great Resignation. “I think with the pandemic, there was permission to get to some of those deeper issues quicker,” said Bridgette Theurer, an executive coach and author. “In the past 10 years there’s been a big difference in people’s openness to things like mindfulness. That you have a physical body, that you need to pay attention to it, that emotions are part of our experience at work.”

Expanded Roles

As job roles began to change during the pandemic, approaches to both who gets coached and how coaching is conducted have changed as well. Coach and author Marcia Reynolds saw her practice with established executives increase during the pandemic. But she also noticed that more people were newly thrust into leadership roles as well. “Some of my companies just accelerated so fast that they were promoting people multiple levels very quickly,” she said. “There was a lot of acceleration of change, and companies recognized they really needed to give these people coaching.”

Amid that acceleration, added Theurer, many coaches like herself have been asked to not just coach but provide internal training for organization staffers so they can do their own coaching. “A lot of people recognize that you can train people, but unless you offer coaching with it, very little of it sticks,” she said. “I have been doing a lot more leadership training that embeds coaching in the training.”

Executive coach Carol Vernon experienced a brief dip in engagements at the start of the pandemic, but by the summer of 2020 she was as busy as ever. Addressing new modes of work and new stressors for executives topped her clients’ agendas. “Very quickly, organizations recognized that managers and executives had to show up differently,” she said. “We were focusing a lot on how leaders are sustaining empathetic leadership. I was working with a lot of leaders who were feeling so drained, feeling like they were failing.”

“We were looking at how to be sure everybody is communicating with each other. In-person things had changed. Now that you lacked the ability to have a quick team meeting, how was the team going to communicate?”

In tandem with that, Vernon was also doing more team coaching. “We were looking at how to be sure everybody is communicating with each other. In-person things had changed. Now that you lacked the ability to have a quick team meeting, how was the team going to communicate?”

That transformation from executive to team coaching Vernon experienced has been mirrored at a much larger scale at Tata Consultancy Services, a global IT consulting business based in Mumbai, India, with about half a million global employees. In 2015, Tata hired a corps of external coaches to work with 150 of its executives. One challenge at that time was helping leaders get past the stigma of coaching as something that was used only for underperformers, according to Preeti D’mello, global head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Tata, and leader of the company’s coaching programs. “Before then, coaching was a remedial diagnostic, but the stance we took was that we would look at coaching as a developmental approach.”

As the leadership coaching program took off, it expanded its focus to include women and LGBTQ employees. And during the pandemic, Tata implemented a host of new coaching programs: multiweek group sessions on resilience, relationships, well-being and leadership, along with a pool of on-call coaches who worked anonymously with employees requesting support. According to D’mello, more than 30,000 employees across Tata have engaged in at least one of the programs.

That’s had benefits across the company’s culture, D’mello says. According to Tata’s internal research, more than 85% of participants in the overall coaching program report more comfort in their job role; 84% of leadership-coaching participants have stayed with the company; and 42% of women coaching participants report an “upward progression” in the job roles.

That success has motivated Tata to hire more internal coaches and develop an internal training program, certified by the ICF, to develop coaching skills among staff. Earlier this year, it certified 240 internal coaches, two-thirds of whom work with employees outside of leadership. That’s helped to create a culture where coaching is sought out rather than avoided. “Early on, when we told people they were nominated for the coaching program, they’d say, ‘Why me? Is there a problem?’” Dmello said. “Now there are people who volunteer to be coached.”

Fresh Challenges

Changes in leaders and the nature of the office during the pandemic also occurred in tandem with racial reckonings following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. In response, coaches have also been called on to help organizations address and improve workplace cultures around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

“Many leaders thought they had a good sense of what was needed from them, and then they realized they needed support so they could be out in front. What some are discovering in the process of doing the work is how much more there is to learn.”

Consultant and executive coach Sharon Newport says she’s seen an increase in demand for her coaching services on DEI, as more leaders recognize the need to change their cultures and bring biases to light. “Many leaders thought they had a good sense of what was needed from them, and then they realized they needed support so they could be out in front. What some are discovering in the process of doing the work is how much more there is to learn.”

And because employees have become more open about what they’d like to see out of their employers — benefits, workplace flexibility, public statements on hot-button topics — the tail end of the pandemic has introduced a new set of roles for coaches. As organizations have introduced return-to-office plans — and as employees have pushed back against them — coaches are asked to help guide organizations through that transition. Tata’s D’mello says she’s seen coaching conversations shift in that direction. “People are asking what it means for them,” she said. “‘Do I want to get onto public transport?’ ‘Do I want to be in a room full of people?’ ‘Do I want to attend meetings?’ There are many conversations at play.”

And even if the return to the office goes smoothly, there’s a new cultural dynamic to manage. “People who were hired during the pandemic, now they’re coming back to work. How are they going to feel included and get to know people?” asked consultant and coach Michael Feinson. “Because they’ve never met anyone in person, how do I handle that as a leader?”

Mook attributes that expansion of needs as one reason coaching has expanded as an industry, as ICF research shows that awareness of the profession has grown during the pandemic. Rather than attempt to resolve workplace challenges internally, more organizations are more comfortable reaching out for outsiders who can assist or provide internal training. “More people did learn or maybe took time to learn more about coaching, because it really delivered results for different kinds of work, different kinds of expectations for leadership and people really paying attention to their own well-being in the midst of the crisis,” she said.

In that regard, there’s not a “normal” to get back to. Awareness of leadership and workplace stressors are here to stay along, perhaps, with the mechanisms to address them. “We learned a lot of things about ourselves as people, as organizations, as teams,” Newport said.

“We learned what’s possible for the organization when it becomes more nimble, and what’s possible when we change our focus to be more inclusive. I think it would be a deep loss to pretend that we need to go back to normal when in fact we’ve learned a lot of important things that we need to carry with us.”

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