Why a Team Retreat Brings You More Than Just “Philosophical Wank”

Wait. What? Did he just say philosophical wank? Yes, exactly.

One of my colleagues, who we shall call Franko for now, came up with the term during one of our meetings. His decidedly British remark can be translated in any number of other ways; philosophical jargon, nonsense, patois, you name it. Our last team offsite was so fruitful, Franko had said, and we had to make sure our next one was going to be even better. The key was not to get sidetracked by the nonsense.

At Circles we work as a distributed team. It makes us understand the value of spending time together, and the fact that face time is essential for us to have a productive and successful team dynamic.

But what are the challenges virtual teams have to deal with? And how can face-to-face get-togethers help a team overcome those challenges? Here, I’ll discuss these questions, as well as offering up some of my own experience working as part of a virtual team at Circles.

1 – The challenges of working as a distributed/virtual team

The dynamics within a distributed or remote team are very surprisingly different when compared to a team that meets in an office on a daily basis. It’s hard to imagine until you’ve made the jump yourself. While having a remote team has many advantages, you will also be challenged to overcome the lack of proper communication that leads to decision making in a traditional office setting. More specifically, working around different time zones, dealing with different cultures and/or languages, and a lack of water cooler conversations are just a few more examples of things that can leave you feeling a little directionless when you first begin.

To overcome these challenges, we need to understand the importance of establishing trust and identity within a team, and solving the problems related to these factors, which are categorized as being technical and organizational (Kimble, 2011). Technical problems occur because, “relying solely on online communication tends to inhibit participation and the creation of trust and the sense of mutual responsibility that characterizes teamwork”. These problems can be solved by finding the right tools to support the needs of a virtual team. On the flipside, organizational problems are “fundamentally rooted in the ways in which people work and are managed”. These problems are solved by finding the right organizational fit or employee characteristics, culture and leadership.

As many authors have already discussed the solutions for overcoming these problems in detail, I’m not going to discuss all of them here. Instead, I will focus on one solution, regular face-to-face meetings for virtual teams, and will illustrate this using what we do at Circles as an example.

2 – The advantages of meeting face to face

So let’s assume you are part of a virtual team. You are using the right tools to facilitate proper communication, you have clear values and norms, great leadership, a good team atmosphere.. Basically a well functioning team without any problems. In this scenario, is it still necessary to meet face to face with your colleagues every once in awhile?  YES.

Here are some reasons from a trusted source..

Dr. Joseph Mercola (2005) has looked extensively at the underlying reasons why we should always have face-to-face meetings:

In-person meetings allow your brain to synchronize with others

Real life interaction triggers the inclusion of “multimodal sensory information”. This includes nonverbal cues (facial expressions, gestures, etc.) and ‘turn taking behaviors’, which play a large role in our social interactions and reflect the level at which a person is involved in any given interaction. It was found that only during face-to-face meetings, are these “neural synchronizations” established. In other words, a great part of the way we communicate is nonverbal, and though conferencing tech is coming on in leaps and bounds, video calls are still somewhat limited in transmitting the nuances of this type of communication from one side of the globe to the other.

Source & extra reading: Neural Synchronization during Face-to-Face Communication.

Face-to-face meetings work better when creativity is needed

Various studies have found a relationship between established trust within a team, and creative output. When feeling comfortable, team members are more likely to speak up, bring forward new ideas, or think and discuss outside-of-the-box ideas they would have feared having shot down otherwise. More in-person meetings leads to more trust, which subsequently leads to more creativity.

Google give a great example, cited by Newsweek’s Geoff Colvin (link below). The search giant invite employees to have free gourmet lunches at the company’s cafeterias. By doing this, Google is encouraging its employees to meet (new) colleagues, build trust, and stimulate creativity. They even measured the optimal queue waiting time for encouraging people to interact (it’s four minutes).

Source & extra reading: The creative power of meeting eyeball to eyeball

Source & extra reading: Measuring social capital in creative teams through sociometric sensors

So, physical proximity positively impacts collaboration, communication and decision making. The two factors mentioned above ensure team members feel part of their team, that they will help new hires ‘understand’ and clarify their position in the team. All of this boosts team morale and productivity while helping generate new ideas from within the team.

It’s great to know research is proving we need to keep seeing each other’s faces. But how often should we do so?

3 – Deciding on the right amount of face-to-face time

We’ve had a look at why it’s important to have face-to-face meetings when working in a virtual team. But what determines the right amount of f2f meetings? And what other team or company characteristics influence the necessity or frequency of face-to-face meetings?

Unfortunately there is not much research yet on this topic, so answering these questions with hard data is difficult. However, companies by their very nature are centers for diverse working dynamics, personality types and cultures. Different teams, as well as the people within these teams, will have different capacities for adapting to remote work. So, while some virtual teams will need no, or very little, face-to-face time, other teams will need to meet on a more frequent basis. There’s no real one size fits all solution. What we are dealing with is a wide-ranging spectrum. A team’s position on this spectrum can be determined by several factors, which I have identified as the following:

Stage of the company

When you are in the process of setting up a new venture it is important to build rapport with your colleagues, create a common goal, and set a clear strategy. So a team is likely to want to start off meeting in person more frequently at the beginning, before gradually decreasing this frequency over time.

Performance of the company & Clarity of tasks/roles: stability

When business is going well, when employees are clear about their roles and responsibilities or  when it’s possible to power through until the next big milestone (strategy update, acquisition, new market entry, etc.), organizing face-to-face meetings frequently might be unnecessary. However, if some employees are unclear about their role, or the chosen strategic path does not turn out to be as fruitful as was anticipated, a face-to-face meeting may be needed asap.

Interdependence

Additionally, the degree to which you depend on the work of your colleagues will have an impact on the importance and frequency of meeting face to face. Whereas some teams work in silos, and merely give weekly (or even monthly) updates about their work, other teams work closely together and collaborate on a frequent basis. When the output of a team’s work is not just a sum of its parts but a dynamic whole that involves learning and development as part of the process, having  face-to-face meetings more often is even more important.

Company culture & leadership style

As mentioned before, meeting face-to-face can enhance the establishment of trust among team members. As trust can be seen as an indirect outcome of company culture (hierarchical, flat, teal, etc.) and leadership style (strict, loose, etc.), which are often mediated by factors such as psychological safety, teams that lack a mutual sense of trust will clearly be in more need of frequent face-to-face meetings.

Location

Most obviously, location will also influence the frequency with which a team is able to meet in person. The amount of team members working from different locations as well as the distance that needs to be covered will have an impact.

Finally, it’s important to mention that most factors above are related to one another. For example, for a company that just started, the relative costs of getting the team together will be higher, so the location will play a bigger role in determining the frequency of face-to-face team meetings.

4 – How we do face-to-face time at Circles

Face-to-face at Circles

There’s a reason all of this is important to me, and it’s that I work as part of a virtual team. I used to be based in Barcelona and currently live in Santiago, Chile while most of our team at Circles is based in New York. So we’re part of this learning process. Face-to-face meetings have been a crucial part of my personal journey within the company.

I joined Circles a bit less than a year ago and was told from the beginning it was no ‘ordinary’ company. “We are a start up following the teal ideology and we value proactivity and openness”, René, one of the founding team members, told me during the interview process.

Fair enough, I thought. I knew a bit about Teal, the ideas intrigued me, and after I had a call with Dan, the owner of Circles, I decided to go for it.

Coming from a big multinational into a start up with a team of 7 was quite a change.

Although I started to understand working culture better day by day, I think it took me at least a month to feel comfortable in my role. By comfortable I mean that I  started to realize what was expected of me and began delivering on that expectation by fully understanding how I was supposed to go about doing this.

Still, my biggest challenge was finding my voice within the team. I think I experienced the typical struggles of a new hire in a remote team. You don’t ‘really know’ your colleagues, and they don’t ‘really know’ you, simply because you have never met in person. In a more traditional work setup the first step is meeting your colleagues, so that situation can certainly be isolating.

This all changed after my first team offsite, which was about 3 months after I started working at Circles. It was the first time I got to understand what the importance of face-to-face time is, and what it can do to team dynamics. It felt like it was the first time I was able to properly introduce myself, and this introduction was needed to gain the trust of my colleagues. This introduction did not only include a simple, “Hi, what’s up? How are you?”, but a weekend of fun and 2 days of hard work where they got to meet the real me.

After the offsite I felt more of a part of the team, I interacted more with my colleagues, was asked more often for input and could more easily ask someone else for a favor. I guess the neural synchronization (helped by a few Gin and Tonics) did its job…

The spectrum at Circles

All in all I think we currently found the right spot on that “face-to-face spectrum”. We’re a young company, so we’re still prone to geeking out on that “philosophical wank”. We’re still asking the big questions, but what we’ve really realized is that we need our team offsites and face-to-face time to help us make the important strategic decisions. The more we know each other, the better we work together. Ultimately, it’s essential to balance the benefit of increased work flexibility with a structure based around seeing each other on a regular basis.

Even though distance between team members makes it harder to get the entire team together often, Dan’s wish is to have an off site 6 times a year. Having that preset rhythm allows us to work in sprints wherein we all have a clearly defined set of tasks that need to be finished before the next offsite. In between off sites, we try to overcome the challenges of a virtual team like many others: communication tools, office hours, organizational norms… yep, we’ve been through it all.

With each offsite Circles is getting more effective (engaging less in philosophical wank and more in discussing actionable ideas). The next Circles offsite will be in a week. Time for some serious work, eyeballing & karaoke.

Circles Advisor Update: Learning and The Road Ahead

Dear Advisors:

It has been a long time since I shared an update!

I’m more determined than ever to make Circles happen. It might even help stitch the fabric of the country back together. An online language teacher I worked with reminded me of the Yoda quote, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. And hate leads to suffering.” We know that ignorance and lack of familiarity can lead to fear.

What if we matched “reds” and “blues” together – not to talk about politics, but to work on and discuss common interests? Can face-to-face video bridge rural and urban when physical distance makes it impossible to be together? Would team-directed learning be an attractive option for some of the 2/3 left out of the higher education system? Can Circles help build empathy?

What we’re learning

Circles 4 -11 are running, with ten more coming behind them. Our merry band of part-timers is evolving towards being a founding team. We just spent 10 days together including two colleagues based in Barcelona and San Francisco. We’re getting a better idea of what we need to build.

We need speed. Launch to live is critical. We need to shorten the first email to first meeting interval if the business model will work.

Are the learners learning to learn? We’ve taken “The Meta Journey” and turned it into “The Learning Experience.” At its most fundamental, this is about encouraging self-directed learning, making peer groups accessible, and forwarding the “circles not rows” movement. More about all of that in an upcoming blog post. Here’s a cartoon that gives an overview of the experience.

Guides. We developed guide training and several guides have participated. We are learning a ton. The next step: a “launch guide” model in which the guide is only present for the first few meetings showing the learners how to guide each other. “I do, we do, you do.” This requires some interface work on the video meeting platform. We’ll start testing in a few weeks.

Video technology. Most of our meetings run without major issues now, but it is still not good enough. There are two dimensions to our core video technology: WebRTC vs. a native app; and using a service provider vs. building it ourselves. We continue to research possible partners and platforms.

User Interface. We’ve accumulated a backlog of features to build on the video meeting platform. Now that we have a couple more developers on the team, it will be exciting to roll these out into the current trials. Here’s a recent iteration of the new UX design we’re building upon:

The road ahead

More Test Circles. We need one more revision to all our key components: sorting/onboarding, the process, and the interfaces. Then we need to do about 10 more tests before we crystalize the plan.

Then, a jump. We started with 4 circles, now we are tracking about 15 circles, and next we’ll drive to 100+ circles. The shortest path to 100 circles is focus. And the most obvious, where the idea has already been socialized, is entrepreneurs. So that will be the theme for our first push. Can we recruit over 1,000 entrepreneurs from around the globe to pay and participate in Circles v1? The goal is for a small team to pull this off by next summer with our current technology.

Technology. We have two clear technology priorities. The first is an immersive video meeting experience, tailor-fit for this use-case. The second is onboarding quickly. We need to be able to recruit peers, match and spin up peer groups fast and at scale. We’re piecing together tools that will help us automate marketing, configuring surveys, sorting and communicating with prospective learners. After we get familiar with available tools, we’ll decide what we should build ourselves.

Team. I’ve received some lucky breaks and the team is coming together. We’ve got a small group of generalists who are figuring out how to divide the work and work together. As the strategy becomes clearer, our needs become clear. We still need a couple more core participants before we’re ready to take the next step up. But the biggest variable is that everyone, especially me, are still only working on this part time. I think our productivity will more than double if we moved to full time.

I would love to hear from you with any questions or ideas.

8 Signs You Just Had A Great Meeting

team What feeling do meetings transmit in your workplace? Sadly, when we ask a colleague how the day’s meeting went, we’re so often met with an apprehensive shrug or a sigh. Meetings just .. happen, right?

While we hope -for the sake of your sanity- you and your colleagues aren’t quite so jaded, the truth is that so many organizations are lacking an actual language for discussing how their meetings went. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about something we aren’t used to measuring in any discernible way.

According to a recent study carried out in the UK, we spend on average, a mind boggling 4 years of accumulated time throughout our careers in meetings. So it’s time we learn to communicate effectively what went well and what can be improved.

Here are a few tips to help you assess if you just had a great meeting rather than one that just … happened.

Were there clear outcomes?

It’s surprising how many times meetings end and people walk out unclear on what was actually achieved by said meeting. This kind of outcome is no outcome at all, and it can lead to meeting-dread within your organization.

Patrick Lencioni takes on the air of a Surgeon General describing a terrible disease when he writes about the effects of bad meetings in his book, Death by Meeting. They “generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism”, he argues.

The way to ensure clear outcomes is by having a purpose for the meeting, facilitating it effectively and making sure there is a clearly set out agenda, all things we delve into below.

Did everyone get a word in…

As lead guide at Circles, Jonathan Hefter puts it, “you know you’ve had a good meeting when no one’s held back.” However, it can be tricky knowing when this is the case. Are cultural norms holding someone back? Maybe a Brit’s being too polite, an American too loud? Stereotypes aside, it’s difficult to know if everyone has said everything they wanted to.

While we can’t speak for someone in a meeting, what we can do is create a comfortable environment. See someone in the corner being particularly quiet? Could be because they’re using that time to think. They may have a brilliant idea, so ask them! In Circles online meetings we use a timer to allow everyone their turn to speak. Participants tell us it has really made them up their game when they know they’re going to be called on.

Without destroying momentum?

Everyone getting their say is great, but moderation is the key. There are important questions for the facilitator to think about at any given time. Why is the meeting grinding to a halt? Is it going off topic? Are people there who can’t add anything, causing them to nervously waffle for the sake of appearance (the bike-shed effect)?

Having a good facilitator is a key ingredient to a great meeting. They shouldn’t just be seen as someone who calls the shots. In fact, at times they could be there purely to facilitate, with no real stakes in the outcome of the meeting (aside from it being effective). What a facilitator needs, is the ability to step in if someone is going off topic. Also important is a deft hand at dispelling tension within a meeting, while also knowing when it’s useful to dive into head first (see below). A great meeting needs a great facilitator, someone who is a great handler of team dynamics.

Was there a healthy amount of conflict?

Many of the skills mentioned below are transferable with another profession, theatre. A movie or theatre director has to oversee a team and often deals with clashing personalities. In this vein, Patrick Lencioni says his cure for boring meetings is to allow drama to come to the fore. A facilitator should treat a meeting like they were overseeing the set of a Shakespeare adaptation. His suggestion is to replace “agendas and decorum with passion and conflict.” Doing so results in an atmosphere that compels people to get involved. It makes them feel part of a narrative that they can influence, rather than sitting there checking items off a list.

As Lencioni puts it, “the good news, [is that] there are plenty of issues at every meeting that have the potential for productive, relevant conflict.” The bad news? This style may not be for every team and can descend into chaos, much like the final act of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Was there a clear agenda?

Having an agenda doesn’t have to mean avoiding conflict. In fact, an agenda could be geared towards allowing time for airing tensions in a productive way. We use protocols to make sure meetings are carried out effectively and address important issues. Rather than just having objectives telling you what to address at any given time, protocols address the process itself giving the meeting clarity. Is something really holding part of the team back? Let’s pick it apart and really dig into the problem.

A great meeting is one where people feel safe bringing their tensions to the table. Our lead guide, Jonathan Hefter, who has facilitated his fair share of meetings, says you should “notice where the real tensions are, and welcome them.” It means you’ve created a space where people don’t feel they have to hold back. A purposeful agenda can allow a canny facilitator to do just that!

Did your meeting create other meetings?

It might sound diabolical. Coming out of a meeting to realize that, as a result of attending, you now have three more meetings on the agenda! But this is actually a sign that things went to plan. As Jonathan Hefter puts it, “don’t spend time on a money issue when it’s clearly more suited for the monthly finance meeting.”

Ian Fisher, who ran meetings as assistant editor at the New York Times for two years, used to employ a specific tactic when topics were brought up that were better suited to another meeting; he’d pretend he was a talk show host.  “I called myself Regis.” He explained to Fast Company. “Say what you want, but he knew when it was time to go to the commercial.”

Is the style a good fit for your company?

Some of the advice in this article is contradictory.

“Have a tightly knit and action packed agenda.”

“No, throw your agenda out the window and magic will happen!”

The fact is that a casual peruse through your social media timelines will instantly hit you with a barrage of contradictory information and advice, it’s enough to put anyone’s head into a spin! The only answer to this is in the real world and it’s called implementation. Try out agenda’s, try out no agenda’s. What gives your team the best results?

It ended on time

Much like a blog post, a meeting shouldn’t overstay its welcome. That means it’s gone off topic and people’s attention spans are waning. See this happening and it may be best to cut things short and leave the issue at hand for the next team meeting when people are coming in refreshed… so with that, I bid you farewell!

The Meta Journey Draft

This is an early draft design of a learning journey, our first one. All learners will take this journey. Below is an outline of each drop, exploration topics for the first three meetings, and the ongoing drumbeat of topics intended to develop learning skill. Unlike the other journeys, we will spend 15 minutes visiting Meta at the start of every Circles session.

Imagine that each drop is injected into a particular circle’s WhatsApp discussion, every day or so. When someone responds to a question, it may or may not spur ongoing discussion. The meeting exploration process is outlined here.

This needs a ton of work. I’m looking forward to the input of the real experts advising us that have experience designing learning journeys.

A. Pre-kickoff drops (a “drop” is short content or a reflection injected into chat) B. Orientation to Learning to Learn: paper, podcast and/or movie (20 minutes) C. Kickoff Exploration: Committing D. 6 drops E. Meeting One Exploration: Visualizing Goals F. 6 drops G. Meeting Two Exploration: Beginner’s Mind H. Follow-up Drops and Meeting opener topics for all next meetings

A. Pre-kickoff drops

1. Joke. My ideal learning experience. This is what we’re trying to build:

2. What we’re interested in is “skills acquisition.” Let’s take wide definition of a skill. Being honest is a skill. Showing up for work on time is a skill. Collecting an inventory of people to delegate to (plumbers, accountants, you name it) is a skill. Creating, welding, meditating, using Evernote to track stuff – skills.

I’m not against learning facts. I agree with David Brook’s op-ed that “The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom are based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy.” But can’t we afford to spend less energy on teaching facts now? They are widely available. And the world is too wide and dynamic for a teacher or employer to keep up with important facts. Maybe if we can back off a little on shoving facts down the collective gullet, people will go after the facts they care about, and build lasting skill while doing it.

Another way to look at it all is “Knowledge is the capacity to act.”

Q:  What is the quadratic equation (don’t cheat)? – answers sent around the circle Q2: What skills do you want to learn? – answers sent around the circle, noted by guide

3. Some messed up stuff. We have some less-than-optimal beliefs, habits, and practices about learning.

Gandhi – Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever.

Graduating. The past tense word “educated,” stunts growth. It prevents people from paying attention to maintaining important skills.  Worse, adult education has a light stigma, a tinge of the remedial, a waft of seekers and weirdos. Life-long learning sounds like retirees taking art history classes.  Most people go after degrees for any reason except to learn stuff.

Q: What do you do to learn, now? How many hours out of about 600/month do you  spend learning? What activities exactly are you counting as learning?

4. Some messed up stuff. We have some less-than-optimal beliefs, habits, and practices about learning.

Teaching.  Minerva founder Ben Nelson did a one-week wine exploration of Argentina guided by an expert, and a similar one-week tour of Chile that he had to research and organize himself.  Two years later, Ben remembers barrels about Chilean wine and only drops about Argentinian wine. We need a new word – our old expectations of a teacher are obsolete. The subject matter can now be decoupled from the teacher. People can stop waiting around for someone to shove information into their heads. We do need people to help us learn, but in very different roles than we are used to. When learners own their learning, it sticks. I like the saying “There is no teaching, only learning.”  Socrates knew this, Maria Montessori knew this, and recently a whole battery of “learning scientists” have rediscovered it.

Q: Are you a good teacher? Do you wanna be? Why?

5. Some messed up stuff. We have some less-than-optimal beliefs, habits, and practices about learning.

Classes. In the 1800s, we lifted our education model from the Prussians. It efficiently marched people through material in a defined interval of time, called a class. All higher education in the US runs on this system, and usually uses units called credit-hours. Think 12-week courses, then a test. If you score 70%, you pass, get your credits, and move on.  Formal corporate training generally seems to copy this idea. Why doesn’t a course end whenever a learner gets to 100%? Then there would be no gaps in their understanding of the material, and learners can move on confidently. People learn at different speeds – maybe some can finish faster? Courses need to be structured with the goal of achieving competency or mastery, not just logging the hours. This would be a huge mindset and institutional change.

6. Some messed up stuff. We have some less-than-optimal beliefs, habits, and practices about learning.

Tests. Sal Khan of Khan academy has a riff on how our test-driven schools are messed up. Tests take a snapshot and don’t measure how well you will retain the information. They randomly discriminate against those that happened not to study the subset of the subject on the test. And they punish failure, one of the best ways to learn. He’s talking about summative assessments, which measure what you learned AFTER a class. Formative assessments – little pop quizzes and teachers that use the socratic method and so forth, which help you figure out what you are missing while you are learning, and get you to interact and wrestle with the material, are helpful.

7. Some messed up stuff. We have some less-than-optimal beliefs, habits, and practices about learning.

The way we organize knowledge in school – math, science, english, etc. – is another vestigial artifact. The problem exists in corporate training as well, where, except at the level of “leadership training” we tend to organize around roles – “sales training.” Yet research by Daniel Goleman and others shows that more than two-thirds of success is related to “softer” factors. How can we work on the pieces underneath the technical skills?

B. The Framework Paper, Podcast, Movie

The main “chunk” of content in this journey (so has to be awesome) This should take 20 minutes to review We’ve posted an initial design for this

C. Kickoff Exploration: Commitment

Discussion question. Group picks one to start with. A leader prepares, opens in depth.

  • Life is busy. How do you keep a commitment? What has worked and where have you failed?
  • Do you help anyone else in your life keep a commitment?
  • Do you make New Year’s resolutions?
  • What commitment are you prepared to make to this Circle? (guide can put some examples on screen).

D. Next Drops – mostly around goals and visualization

Draft coming very soon…

8. Art of Learning: Entity vs. Incremental Excerpt (1-2) pages 9. 10. 11. 11. 13.

E. Exploration Two: Goals

  • Share your most important three goals right now in vivid detail?
  • How will you know if they are completed? Measure progress?
  • Do you have all the skills you need to complete the goal? What skills might help?
  • What are your personal goals for this Circle?

F. Next Drops – mostly around Flow

14. Quotes from Art of Learning 15. More from Art of Learning 16.Ted Talk:

G. Exploration Three – Beginner’s mind

  • Describe your feelings starting Circles?
  • Do you have all the help you need? What stops you from getting help?
  • Are you competing with anyone in the Circle right now?
  • What are three things you can work on to become a better listener?

H. Follow-up Drops and Meeting opener topics for all next meetings

Draft coming very soon…

In a world of physical distance, circles facilitate authentic human connection.

In a circle, 3-12 participants contribute equally, share openly, and push each other to act.

We spent years with academics and practitioners, honing best practices and building a technology platform. Our circles have helped scale peer learning, sustain manager and leadership development, move live training online, onboard new employees, support career development, teach collaboration, and build community.

We’ve been grateful for the support and the referrals from our large corporate partners, schools, and communities who have been hiring us to help design, facilitate and manage Circles programs.

In order to keep up with the interest in our system and technology, please help us understand your needs by answering a few questions.



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