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Virtual Coaching Takes Off

Scalable technology platforms can help expand access to coaching.

An illustration of a person with a headset and graphs.

When human resource leaders at Salesforce wanted to give their people managers more support and guidance during the most stress-filled days of the pandemic, one of the first tools they turned to was virtual coaching. 

Like leaders in many organizations, those at Salesforce, a San Francisco-based provider of customer relationship management software, found themselves having to take on new responsibilities. In addition to managing the productivity and performance of their direct reports, managers were helping employees navigate mental health issues such as fears surrounding COVID-19 and feelings of isolation that emerged from working remotely.

Salesforce turned to experts available on the virtual coaching platform of provider BetterUp to deliver video-based sessions that helped managers in engineering, sales and other departments cope with challenges created by the pandemic.

“We know that people don’t leave companies, they leave managers, so we have to nurture and inspire our people managers with the skills needed to run balanced and high-performing teams,” says Angela McKenna, executive vice president of employee success at Salesforce. “That need came into sharper focus over the past couple of years, with employees around the globe moving to remote work. Managers were no longer responsible just for productivity but served as a lifeline to employees working from home.”

Salesforce was already using BetterUp’s coaching platform for general leadership development needs when the pandemic hit. The challenges presented by the public health crisis convinced HR leaders to start using a new division of the company, called BetterUp Care, to access behavior-change experts who could help managers address problems caused by stress and anxiety.

“The partnership evolved to help us tackle the unique challenges our leaders face today,” McKenna says, “from understanding and addressing mental health to helping managers navigate difficult personal situations.”

A Fast-Growing Trend

The use of virtual coaching from external providers was on the rise even before the pandemic began. A study by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) found that the number of coach practitioners around the world grew by 33 percent between 2015 and 2020. The number of leaders and managers in organizations who used coaching services rose by an estimated 46 percent over the same period. 

Even though coach practitioners were already shifting away from in-person to virtual coaching, the pandemic provided added impetus for the transition. The ICF study found that the proportion of coaches in 2020 saying they “frequently” or “always” used an audio-video platform doubled to 48 percent from 24 percent in previous studies. A more recent ICF global snapshot survey found that 87 percent of coaches believe virtual coaching will continue at a higher rate beyond the pandemic.

The number of vendors providing virtual coaching services has also grown over the last few years, with some specializing in areas such as employee well-being or traditional leadership development. The scalability, convenience and generally lower cost of online coaching can appeal to human resource leaders looking to bring coaching’s benefits to workers below the senior leadership level.

“Human resources and learning departments used to look at coaching as a very high-end, expensive problem-solving tool for executives having trouble in certain areas,” says Josh Bersin, an HR industry analyst and CEO of the Josh Bersin Academy in Oakland, Calif. “But these scalable platforms have opened up virtual coaching opportunities to many more employees in the organization.”

Patricia Overland, director of coaching at the Center for Creative Leadership, a global leadership development firm in Greensboro, N.C., says a confluence of factors has driven the use of virtual coaching to new heights.

“When there’s a disruptor like COVID-19, it causes people to seek out more connection,” Overland says. “Being isolated during the pandemic drove people to want to connect to other human beings, and good coaches were able to help people better navigate the new experiences and new emotions they were having.”

The ability to quickly connect to an external coach from the convenience of a home office or while on the road also has helped spur the growth of virtual coaching. Global and regional organizations, in particular, find Web-based video chat appealing, given the cost and time commitment necessary to bring employees together for in-person leadership development.

According to ICF, coaches around the globe increased their use of audio-video platforms to deliver their services by 83 percent during the pandemic, while in-person coaching sessions decreased by 82 percent.

“While coaching was becoming more democratized even before the pandemic,” Overland says, “the use of technology-based platforms has taken it to another level of possibility and opened it up to a broader group of employees.”

‘We know that people don’t leave companies, they leave managers, so we have to nurture and inspire our people managers with the skills needed to run balanced and high-performing teams.’

Artificial Intelligence as Matchmaker

One of the calling cards of virtual coaching platforms is their professed ability to use artificial intelligence to match employees with the right coaches.

Cameron Yarbrough, co-founder and CEO of Torch, a virtual coaching provider in San Francisco, says his company’s platform uses AI to match its 6,000 coaches with clients’ employees based on comprehensive personality assessments.

“The two assessments are matched based on similar personality attributes, and the client then gets a choice of three different coaches,” Yarbrough says. “They can study the bios of those three choices and then pick the one they like the best.” Yarbrough claims Torch has a 93 percent success rate in matching coaches to employees.

BetterUp also uses AI-based matching. It first asks employees to take a “whole-person” assessment and answer a series of questions to determine their learning and development needs. Those findings are then fed into an algorithm that recommends the amount of coaching, specific coaches and additional curated digital content for each coachee.

Bersin says matching algorithms used by coaching vendors have grown more sophisticated and reliable over time.

“The algorithms are more accurate because the AI has more data to learn from, given the large numbers of matches happening on these platforms every day,” he says. “With the amount of research and resources going into AI, you have to believe these tools will just grow more intelligent over time.”

But not all coaching experts are sold on AI-based matching capabilities. While Overland acknowledges that the technology can have efficiencies when used at scale, she says finding the often-elusive chemistry required for a successful coach/coachee relationship can’t always be left to algorithms. 

“The jury is still out, for example, on whether you want a coach who lines up with you or is different in background or life experience,” Overland says. “Some people need a coach who is very different from them to shake them out of current ways of thinking.”

Overland gives the example of a white male executive she knows who requested a Black woman as his coach. 

“He wanted someone with a completely different set of life experiences,” Overland says. “It was a brilliant thing to do, and they ended up having a long and fruitful coaching relationship that helped him grow as a CEO. Could AI have created that same match? Given the capabilities it has today, I don’t think so.”

‘One of our biggest challenges was getting people together in person for high-quality leadership development. We didn’t have a mechanism to deliver content at scale that would go beyond e-learning or webinars.’

Specialized Coaching

As the virtual coaching industry has evolved, some vendors have carved out niches in areas of growing demand, such as mental health support or leadership development for midlevel and front-line managers. Other providers, such as Humu, offer “nudge-based” technologies that give managers automated suggestions to help improve their leadership skills in areas that include giving performance feedback or recognition. 

Lyra and Spring Health are two vendors that focus on mental health support. Both employ licensed therapists to deliver video therapy sessions and personalized digital tools to employees dealing with stress, anxiety or more serious mental health conditions. Providing such support to employees in the privacy of their own homes can appeal to those concerned about the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues.

BetterUp Care also is dedicated solely to employee well-being, with particular attention paid to issues such as parenting, nutrition and sleep. “We found a larger and larger proportion of coaching conversations that were originally designed to be about talent development ended up having a focus on managing stress, anxiety and burnout during the pandemic,” says Omar Dawood, president of BetterUp Care, in explaining why the new unit was created.

Some HR executives have found value in integrating virtual coaching into their leadership development programs. Rich Deal, executive vice president and chief HR officer for FICO, an analytics software company based in San Jose, Calif., partnered with Torch to deliver leadership coaching and mentoring to FICO employees spread across 30 countries.

“One of our biggest challenges was getting people together in person for high-quality leadership development,” Deal says. “We didn’t have a mechanism to deliver content at scale that would go beyond e-learning or webinars.”

Deal uses Torch coaching for the top quartile of high-potential people managers in his company. Each of those managers goes through a 360-degree evaluation to identify specific development needs and is then paired with a Torch coach through the vendor’s AI-driven matching process. The coaching engagements typically last six months, and FICO leaders spend two hours per month, on average, with their coaches.

Torch also offers a separate mentoring solution that Deal found valuable for the company’s software engineers, data scientists and other technical professionals, many of whom manage others in dotted-line relationships. Deal says offering these employees mentoring—a more informal relationship than coaching in which experiences, insights and connections are shared between mentor and mentee—not only builds leadership skills but also sends an important message at a time when many talented workers are leaving companies for what they believe are greener pastures.

“We want to let people know we care about their development and future in the organization,” Deal says.

Being able to scale mentoring using an external platform such as Torch also helped overcome problems encountered by the company when it attempted to create a similar internal mentoring program, he says.

 “We tried to create an internal mentoring program a few times but weren’t able to get it off the ground because of the lack of available mentors and administrative challenges,” Deal says. “It was never scalable for us.”  

Dave Zielinski is a ­freelance business writer based in Minneapolis.

Illustration by Michael Korfhage for HR Magazine.

Why It's Important to Vet Coaching Vendors

Experts say the explosive growth of online coaching requires that HR professionals carefully vet external coaching providers. The goal is to confirm that coaches have the necessary training and experience to perform the often-challenging and high-stakes task of advising others in making decisions about their work or personal lives.

One concern is the lack of regulations ensuring that business coaches are accredited or certified. When a vendor claims its coaches are certified, it’s important to know who bestowed those credentials and what the certification process entailed, says Patricia Overland, director of coaching at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. 

“Was the certification done by a respected organization, like the International Coaching Federation [ICF] or an equivalent group outside of the United States?” Overland asks. “The challenge around vetting is there currently are no regulations around someone calling themselves a coach, so you need to vet coaching organizations closely to ensure there is proven, demonstrated competence.”

Most vendors explain on their websites how their virtual coaches are chosen, but experts suggest conducting further due diligence. A spokesperson for coaching provider BetterUp says its minimum requirements for a coach include earning the ICF’s associate certified coach (ACC) credential, logging a minimum of 500 hours of coaching experience, and working five or more years at the vice president level in an organization.

Torch, another provider, says its coaches must hold a certification from an ICF-accredited coach training program. It also prioritizes hiring coaches with business leadership experience, and a majority of its coaches hold bachelor’s or graduate degrees in business, psychology or a related field.

Overland says the decision to use external rather than internal coaches should not be based solely on coach availability or technology-facilitated convenience. It also should rest on the level of trust in the organization.

Employees can be reluctant to share intimate details about their work or personal lives with an internal coach who may, for example, have a relationship with the employee’s boss. Some internal coaches also can have a stronger desire to serve an organizational agenda than to meet the unique coaching needs of individuals, Overland says. —D.Z.


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