I have long been passionate about the power of women coming together in closed, safe spaces – coaching or mentoring circles – where they could both learn from each other and contribute to the personal and professional growth of their peers. I have been facilitating such sessions for the past 10 years (well before ‘lean in’ circles were recognised, and Skype and Zoom came along). I love to see how these circles create wonderfully supportive and caring environments, how women blossom and how their confidence grows.
As with the rest of the workforce, I have had to face the challenge of moving away from face-to-face, to virtual learning platforms. Specifically, I was 4 months into 12month programs of both coaching and mentoring circles for women across the Australian Public Service, and nationally in the Department of Defence.
So when the mandatory shift to working-from-home stopped our face-to-face meetings, I knew we needed more than ever to find a way of continuing to connect.
I am the first to admit I was initially very sceptical about venturing into the online delivery of the circles. And the first to admit I was wrong! I can now say that video conferencing works extremely well for coaching and mentoring circles.
The inherent structure of the circles helps!
For those who have not experienced a coaching circle, you may be more familiar with the book club, where the structure is similar and really conducive to learning and collaboration.
There are clear phases to a coaching circle session: connecting (i.e. checking in), coaching (information & learning modules) and completing (i.e. sharing around learning themes and how the day went). The 4 stages below guide participants on what is expected so everyone has her own airspace:
- Individuals present a real-time issue or challenge
- Group collaborative inquiry helps her view her challenge through different lenses
- Solo time ensures the individual can reflect on her learning
- Group reinforcement and celebration of new insights and shifts in behaviour build both confidence and competence.
I’ve been delighted to find that this structure lends itself well to meetings over the web.
With so many women working remotely, I am seeing some worrisome trends. The boundaries between work and home have become blurred, with many women reporting that they cannot get away from work, there is no ‘downtime’ or ‘me-time’. At the same time, additional responsibilities for child-care, homeschooling and eldercare have, if anything, increased.
Women are drowning! I know from my own experience that having a home office requires a whole new set of rules and real boundaries need to be negotiated with the family. All of the participants have said that getting together to talk, learn and work through these issues and challenges has been extremely helpful, especially through periods of mandated isolation. The sessions have generated a much-needed sense of connection and solidarity in a time where the meaning of “relating” is being stretched into new territory.
Prerequisites for success
The majority of the coaching circles I am currently working with had met prior to the move to video conferencing. They had established a strong sense of trust and commitment to their circle. So I wasn’t concerned that we’d lose too much by going virtual.
What did surprise and delight me was that my new circles, which started in this virtual environment, have also responded positively. While it probably took a bit of extra sensitivity to build the trusting environment needed for people to feel comfortable, this was, in fact, a minor challenge, not a roadblock at all.
I realised that the same care is needed to set up a remote circle, as for a physical group.
I am still following my usual discipline of preparing each group for their coaching circle session and following-up with relevant articles and activities, all of which contribute to sustaining the momentum of learning and support in and around our time together.
Using Zoom Technology
As the facilitator/coach, I’ve found that I can still pick up the behavioural cues that good coaching depends on. The quality of the Zoom images is so good that I can easily observe reactions and the subtle moves people make when they reflect when they want to engage when they need help formulating a question, and so on (perhaps at times even more than in a physical setting).
I have also found that the “hand raise” and “chat” features in Zoom to be particularly useful when one of the participants wants to call attention to something important to them, either publicly or privately to me as the facilitator-coach or to another member of the group.
I am able to share my presentation on screen and utilise the whiteboard so that there is a strong visual reference to support the group in their work. I love the option to use breakout rooms to enable participants to share ideas and problem-solve in small group discussions, and I can dip in and out to provide input and help guide the conversations if needed.
The new norm
At the beginning, I included a frequent “quick check” on how we are doing in working through the new online medium. and have been able to make any adjustments needed to ensure everyone is taking full advantage of the process. As Zooming our sessions has become the new norm, I find frequent check-ins are no longer necessary and that participants are confident to raise issues without waiting for me to ask. Within the circle, there is a strong sense of shared responsibility for making the circles work.
I hope this is helpful! Please drop me a line if you’d like more information about working, collaborating and learning in this powerful virtual environment. Get in touch.
Take care and remember to be kind to yourself.