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The Future of Employee Coaching Is Now

August 25, 2021 Learning and Development
Dani Johnson cofounder and principal analyst RedThread Research
By Dani Johnson, Sana Lall-Trail

Everyone needs a coach. You might suspect an athlete like tennis superstar Serena Williams or 7-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady made this comment, but it was actually Bill Gates.

As the former Microsoft boss turned philanthropist said in a 2013 TED talk: "Coaches provide valuable feedback, so they can help anyone improve their performance, not just top-tier athletes."

As a practice, coaching isn’t new. It’s been around at least since the time of Socrates. But recently, there's renewed buzz about the practice. The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced our need for human connection as well as for more directed personal feedback.

At our analyst firm, RedThread Research, our initial research on coaching, which included both pre- and post-pandemic sources, found that coaching plays a strong role in both employee development and employee experience. Three key coaching trends emerged from that research:

  • More coaching for more people.
  • Coaching for well-being.
  • Tech-enabled coaching.

More Coaching for More People

More organizations are offering more coaching to more employees. Once reserved for top leadership or those with several behavioral challenges, organizations now realize that there are benefits to offering coaching more broadly. How much more broadly?

Coaching appears to be moving further down in the organization to encompass more groups, including new hires, cohort learning groups, sales groups, employees at key transition points such as first-time managers, and groups focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB), among others.

To accommodate the uptick in demand, organizations are thinking about coaching differently. Coaching used to be defined as a one-to-one relationship, where one person gives feedback and guidance to the other. Today, however, we’re seeing organizations offer several other versions, such as:

  • Coaching on demand: Employees have access to a coach whose expertise they can leverage as needed.
  • Managers as coaches: Managers are trained as coaches to help employees perform better and navigate their careers.
  • Peers as coaches: Peers pair up and ask each other a series of questions designed to bring clarity to challenges they may both be facing.
  • Reverse mentoring and coaching: Younger employees provide more experienced employees with viewpoints and insights that help them lead better.
  • Coaching circles: Employees facing similar challenges meet to talk through issues and receive feedback and advice from the group.
  • AI coaching: Technology helps employees become aware of certain behaviors and provides feedback to correct those behaviors.

These different configurations make coaching more cost effective, thereby helping leaders make a business case for more coaching. Several leaders in our research said they hope to offer coaching to anyone in their organization who wants and can benefit from it.

Related Article: 4 Ways to Focus Employee Learning

Coaching for Well-Being

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, well-being became a greater priority in many organizations as employees working from home faced additional stressors. This transition further pushed leaders to see the employee as a whole person, rather than just as a performer.

In response, coaching took on the additional role of improving employee well-being during this stressful time. In fact, one study conducted among 20 managers across industries found that coaching significantly improved clients’ well-being and performance over the course of a few weeks during the pandemic.

Organizations and vendors alike see a place for coaching in well-being. For some organizations, this includes nudges and hints from technology to reduce stress and take care of yourself. For other organizations, this includes providing access to several new kinds of coaches: financial coaches, wellness coaches, fitness coaches, sleep coaches, and more.

Related Article: The Chief Well-Being Officer: the C-Suite's New Culture Warrior

Tech-Enabled Coaching

As the demand for coaching increases, so does the demand for technologies to help with coaching. Our current count of coaching and mentoring solution providers is now more than 60, and we have personally briefed more than 30 of them. The technology tends to fall into one of four categories:

  • External coaching: Platforms that match external professional coaches with internal employees.
  • Internal coaching: Platforms that structure coaching in a format designed for organizations, giving internal coaches, managers and even peers the chance to mentor each other.
  • AI coaching: Platforms that provide real-time data to employees about their behavior, as well as prompts or hints so they can improve in the moment.
  • Manager coaching: Platforms that provide employee performance and development dashboards to managers so they can better guide and coach employees.

The idea of a coaching platform appears to be key. Platforms allow organizations to rapidly source coaches, ensure some level of quality control, identify key trends in coaching happening within the organization, use nudges and reminders to reinforce targeted behaviors, and monitor progress toward goals.

There's much more to come in this arena, and we're just getting started with research and discussion on the future of coaching approaches and technology.

About the Authors

Dani Johnson is co-founder and principal analyst for RedThread Research, and has spent the majority of her career writing about, researching and consulting on human capital practices and technology.

Sana Lall-Trail is a research analyst at RedThread Research. Her primary work covers trends in learning and development, coaching and technology.


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