Looking into the future of workplace coaching

Blog posts

21 Nov 2023

Alison Carter

Alison Carter, Principal Research Fellow

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Last week I was invited as guest speaker on the ‘Future of Coaching’ to a group of 15 HR, OD and Development leads who came from a wide variety of company sizes, types, and sectors/industries. What a splendid example of peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and collaborative problem-solving, you can view the recording here. My previous virtual event was joined by over 1,000 attendees. At a time when virtual ‘information-giving’ conferences are getting bigger and bigger, because the technology enables it, it was a useful reminder of how much mutual learning can be generated from the sparks of facilitated ‘conversation-based’ formats.

In preparing for the session, I reflected on the past and present of coaching as well as the future. My coaching research journey started in 2001 when I set up IES' coaching research programme after publishing one of the first exploratory studies in the UK into the executive coaching process. The study found coaching in the UK was for elite groups, e.g. top leaders and future talent. The purpose was primarily developmental or to combat ‘loneliness at the top.’ In the 20+ years since, IES has conducted further research and evaluation studies on introducing coaching capability; methods for coaching evaluation; the impact of coaching on employee engagement and wellbeing; barriers to successful outcomes from coaching; mindfulness; change-ready change-capable teams; virtual coaching and, more recently, the impact of networking, peer to peer and experiential methods in leadership development provision. 

I have witnessed an explosion in coaching spend and number of coaches, the introduction of internal coaching models and manager-as-coach philosophy, accreditation of coach training and supervision, and an increasing body of evidence that workplace coaching can work, and demonstrating how it works. Today there are numerous purposes in utilising a coaching approach including support for employee wellbeing, career development, team working, disadvantaged groups, returners as well as for personal and leadership development. Coaching still supports CEOs but this is a tiny percentage of overall activity nowadays.

But poor coaching has spread, as well as good practice. This may in part explain the results from an international survey of almost 300 industry professionals from 34 countries who had been coached, which IES conducted jointly with James Cook University in Australia. 89% of coachees reported that their coaching was effective and 11% reported their coaching was of limited effectiveness. It was common for coachees to have experienced barriers along the way, which may have derailed the coaching process. The study found that three of these barrier categories may be predictive of coachee perceptions of limited coaching effectiveness: difficulties with a coach; coaching relationships and overall coaching experience. If you want to increase the effectiveness of coaching provided in your organisation take a look at this infographic which summarises the learning from the first four papers in the coaching effectiveness research collection

What’s my take of the big challenges in coaching right now? Recent research and my own experience suggest there are two key questions for organisations to reflect on now.

Firstly, are we clear about ‘purpose’ ie are we clear why we are using coaching? Coaching is not the only people development method in town – are we sure it is the right solution in our context? What is the problem it is solving or the culture it is enabling? How do we ensure our coaching continues to serve our needs, as needs change?

Secondly, where is our evidence of ‘impact’ ie how are we measuring the results from our investment in coaching? Corporate Research Forum research in 2023 found only 44% of survey respondents were evaluating the effectiveness of their coaching, so you are not alone if you are struggling with this. If you are clear on the purpose, it makes it a lot easier, as you can focus your line of sight from your purpose to results.

And so, to the future. New innovations will continue to break down the barriers to workplace learning by making it personalised, real-world, and experiential. Coaching is a method which works by providing the time and space and support to help people cope with high levels of change. It makes sense to me that where workplace coaching is going will be shaped by where ‘work’ itself is going. So, it is the trends in work that we need to watch. Broadly I would categorise this in three ways: work (jobs); workplaces; and workers (and leaders).

First, let’s reflect on how the job/work of a leader is changing

Organisations need leaders who can manage change better, who can listen, give feedback, and problem-solve collaboratively. To support this, the content of leadership coaching is likely to change: more support for wellbeing; burnout prevention/recovery; more about state of mind/inner self/bringing authentic self as a leader; more team-based coaching; less about good leadership habits; less transactional coaching.  

Next let’s consider how the workplace is changing

Where, when, and how someone works has already changed with flexible working in the broadest sense here to stay for site-based workers as well as remote and home workers. The implications of this workplace transformation will be significant for the next generation of leaders but for coaches, we have already seen the acceleration of a shift to virtual/remote coaching. Will coaching practice similarly adapt to organisations’ increasing use of metaverse, AI and virtual reality? According to the trade press, car manufacturer BMW uses metaverse to relate to its next generations of consumers. Will coaches do the same?

Finally, let’s consider that workers are changing too

As jobs and workplaces change, the demands on employees also change. Where, when, and how people work will differ, but all are likely to be more time poor with hectic schedules. This means more demand on coaches to achieve results in shorter and shorter sessions and find ways to extend the benefits of coaching between and well beyond ‘sessions’. As is the trend, the need for personal branding at work will most likely accelerate, which means coaches helping people be clear about their point of view and what they uniquely bring to their organisation and its customers. Expect to see greater use of coaching as a whole-workforce development tool and widening access to many more staff and non-staff populations. It will not just be elite groups anymore.

In summary, I am not expecting the end of workplace coaching, demand will continue to be high and the method of delivery and the scope of audience will continue to evolve. I would urge coaches and employers to resolve today’s two big coaching challenges before increasing its use:

Purpose – be clear why coaching is being used in your context

Impact – ensure you will know if it is being effective.

Once these two challenges have been met, employers can have greater confidence in their coaching investment decisions. I see exciting possibilities ahead for all experiential learning methods but especially so for workplace coaching - as the time and space for reflection and problem-solving it provides will be ever more needed.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.