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  • The Rise of the Workplace Coach

hot air balloons “In this changing world of work, learning as a capability has to evolve and it has to be accessible, agile and flexible. Many interventions are now best delivered in the flow of work activity, not in a classroom. Digital technologies enable learning to be available anytime and anywhere with many also choosing to learn in their own time and often from their own sources of learning and knowledge. With the proliferation of rich, readily available online content, learning design is shifting from not just creation but to curation as well.” - Peter Cheese, CEO of CIPD

The desire to embrace digital technologies and access the wealth of online learning resources is high on everyone’s agenda, and as it should be. Beyond the work environment, we all continually learn in what the Open University calls “incidental” learning: “learning without needing to be taught, in ways that are instinctive, unplanned, immersive and, at times, unintentional.” Going forward, we must realize that millennials are now expecting this to become the norm in their work environment, with much of their work-related learning being achieved on the go. As learning and development (L&D) professionals, we need to help facilitate this more and more. 

However, even the most tech-savvy learner needs support from those who are more experienced and skilled in the subject matter. Learners still desire to be coached on how to better perform a skill within their work environment. This takes one-on-one time and often falls on line managers or internal trainers who are not necessarily subject matter experts and ill equipped to help the learner move beyond knowledge and understanding to skill and competency. 

The Rise of the Workplace Coach

There is a powerful, fresh realization emerging that the experience and skills required to coach peers exists within the workplace team. By selecting a subject matter expert from within the team and properly supporting them to gain effective coaching and feedback skills, they can become the complement to the ever-growing digital learning environment by creating a highly effective blended learning approach. The “workplace coach” does not need to give up their day job, but should be given due recognition, reward and time to support their colleagues in practical ways, coaching them through to competency. Why would any company not wish to replicate the best? 

Benefits to Coaching

Of course, there is nothing new about the concept of work-based champions, subject matter experts, mentors and managers who are trained in coaching and feedback skills. However, there are significant benefits to be realized by creating the role of the workplace coach. 

  • Learners are helped by someone they trust and respect.
  • The workplace coach feels honored to be selected and makes a genuine impact.
  • By giving the workplace coach training and support, they grow in confidence and are learning new skills to pass on their expertise more effectively.
  • Coaching is an excellent complement to digital learning and classroom training.
  • Coaching is extremely cost effective and provides just-in-time learning support.
  • Coaching in the workplace lends itself perfectly to the 70:20:10 model, and provides that often missing element of support within on-the-job learning (the 70 part).
  • Employee retention is improved.
  • Talent is developed at pace.

Additionally, the 2017 Workplace Learning Report, published by In-Learning Solutions, surveyed 500 L&D professionals across the U.S. and Canada and found that talent development is at the top of their agenda, with the highest need for skills in coaching (57 percent). We are all clearly on the same page here. 

Does It Work in Practice?

By way of example, a major bank in the U.K. applies the workplace coach principle to its graduate scheme – a training program for new recruits to receive relevant skills development and hands-on experience – with powerful effect. All 200 graduates are supported by an independent voluntary workplace coach who works closely with them throughout their graduate journey, providing them with one-on-one coaching and feedback to help them reach their potential. This role is separate to the graduate’s line manager on placement, who remains responsible for normal day-to-day performance management. The results are remarkable with many more graduates ready to be appointed into a substantive role toward the end of their program, and all the graduates are able to demonstrate much finer honed skills. 

This is a fresh learner-led approach that provides new employees with the ability to learn from experienced professionals while on the job, allowing for any skill gaps to be identified and resolved quickly and efficiently. 

Steps to Creating the Role of the Workplace Coach

When formalizing the role of the workplace coach, here are a few key steps organizations can use to get started. 

  • Select coaches: Identify the potential workplace coaches by team or department and invite them to take part in the project. Being chosen and asked to offer their skills to develop others can be seen as a privilege rather than an onerous addition to their workload, if asked in the right way. 
  • Create a coaching and feedback learning program: Select an appropriate coaching training program that will give your workplace coaches practical and effective support that they can benefit from. Train workplace coaches on the competencies and standards of good coaching. Don’t just rely on their expertise and expect them to be an effective coach. 
  • Design a recognition and reward scheme: Engagement and motivation are improved significantly with a good recognition and reward scheme. While it’s not all about money, but increasing productivity as a direct result of an employee’s coaching deserves recognition and reward in some practical way. 
  • Make time available for coaching: Ensure that employees have enough time to fulfil their coaching role. If coaches effectively transfer their skills, the pay-off is significant and multiplies the benefits to the team, the company and its customers. Invest by allowing them to have the time to do this. 
  • Keep coaches well-informed of new company developments: The added responsibility of coaching needs to be complemented by them having the “now story” on what’s happening in your company and the industry. Strategic messages and objectives should be built into the coaching the workplace coach delivers. 
  • Set clear goals and expectations: Ensure that workplace coaches are clear on what “great” looks like in terms of the competencies and behaviors expected from their learners. Learning to coach effectively is critical, but so is ensuring that coaches have a sound perspective on what their learners should gain in terms of learning outcomes as a result of their input. 
  • Ask coaches to provide input for performance reviews: Allow workplace coaches to share in performance assessments and reviews with line management. Given their level of involvement in the development of other employees, coaches should be trusted to provide input into performance reviews. Line managers should be encouraged to consider the coach’s views. 
  • Develop a coaching community forum: Sharing with fellow workplace coaches is important to keep best practices flowing, create fresh ideas and instill a sense of collective achievement. Create a community forum on your intranet or via social media to allow workplace coaches to communicate with each other. 
  • Communicate workplace coach assignments along with benefits. Inform learners of their access to their workplace coach and promote the benefits to them. Don’t leave it up to the workplace coach to make the first move with their learners. The department head should show their support for the development and promote its importance. Learners should feel enthused by the support they will be getting, so facilitate this to happen from the beginning. 

Conclusion

The future of learning is in the heart of the workplace. As organizations successfully shift from a totally trainer-led model to one that is learner-led with “workplace coach” support, they will reap the benefits of increased learner engagement, motivation and business performance. 

Perhaps this is the time to see the rise of the workplace coach. Why not pilot the concept within your L&D world and evaluate the benefits for yourself? 

Tim Hattersley is the learning and development director for Doran Scott Williams (DSW), a learning and development consultant firm for the financial services sector. 

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