Manager Enablement in a Virtual World

Merakey works to empower communities with innovative care and education solutions. Like many organizations, they weathered pandemic realities like high turnover and virtually onboarding new recruits. Alex Markey, who’s worked in Merakey operations since 2012, has noticed how easily today’s hybrid and remote teams become disjointed and siloed. In an effort to fight workplace disconnection, she and other managers stepped away from their day-to-day responsibilities and joined a four-session Women’s Leadership CircleSpace program. Her response: “I trust that group of leaders now. I learned more about them as people through the sessions, and I feel like in the future, when a workplace issue comes up, we can pick up the phone and talk it through.”

Manager Enablement in Circles

Ali Bolick leads Merakey’s enterprise-wide learning team, and was the first at Merakey to discover CircleSpace. In the midst of rolling out a new manager training program, she joined a one-off session, immediately noticing the psychological safety. “People can be themselves in CircleSpace–they are not afraid to share.” Captivated by her experience, she shifted the remaining new manager program sessions into CircleSpace. The completely redesigned Merakey New Manager Training now incorporates peer circles, providing space to practice, apply and sustain concepts and behaviors. “We’re providing safe spaces for people to be themselves.”

By design, CircleSpace creates unique, trusting team spaces. Ali enjoyed how structured elements like sparks kept meaningful conversations flowing. Betty Boyd, another Merakey leader and participant, described the experience as a unique place to let down one’s guard. “My personality is a bit hesitant and shy–in circles, the small size of the group feels safe, and the features give me time to think before responding.” Alex says she felt calmed by the experience. “Guided by the music and the thinking time, there’s less pressure and more space to think.” 

Facilitation also enhanced the group’s experience. Merakey opted for pro-facilitation provided by Certified Guide Katy Becker. Participants raved about her, sharing “Katy helped us feel comfortable. She led by example and modeled vulnerability, leaving space for us without rushing us.”

Developing Merakey CircleLeaders

Merakey also sent five of their own team members through a three-session CircleLeader training. One of them, Kristen Smith, is now a Merakey CircleLeader, empowered to design and deliver circles sessions independently. Kristen felt the main takeaways of her CircleLeader training included personal growth, enhanced leadership abilities, and empowerment to help build healthy communities. “I walked away from my cohort having experienced firsthand that truly authentic human connection is achievable in a virtual hybrid workplace.”

Every participant gave the Women’s Leadership Circles glowing feedback. Betty has been with Merakey for 35 years in different capacities, and reflected: “I’ve worked with some of these women for many years, and never had a chance to know them on this level. I have a whole new appreciation of who they are and would like to stay connected and check in.” She also said the group encouraged her to start a book she’s been wanting to write. Alex felt inspired by the group to focus on self-care, vowing to make more time for herself. Participants were quick to point out that any actionable items arose gently and organically. As Alex shared: “When it came to accountability, there was no pressure to report out or meet goals. Yet the experience still created a desire for taking steps towards growth.” The women left strategizing how to stay connected with one another–even Katy, the Certified Guide. “By the last session, we were so deeply connected that I wish we could keep meeting. I miss you all already.”

Scaling Trusting Teams at Merakey

Ali’s team began brainstorming how to scale circles throughout Merakey. “In the end, we want to deliver our mission and values internally and externally, and Circles helps us do that.” She’s working with the Circles team to identify where else to apply the Circles magic, asking questions like: What’s not being said? What’s being swept under the rug? How can we create safe spaces for accountability? Ideas for next steps include:

  • Manager Enablement: Fully customizing a program for new managers that will involve team building, DEI, recruiting, and e-learning on a variety of other topics.
  • Executive Sponsorship: Working with the executive team to decide what Merakey teams need, then curating a program.
  • Cross-functional team trust: Gathering peers across departments in circles to foster team trust, bust silos and build relationships.

Today’s companies must solve problems they didn’t have before the pandemic, replacing the mortar between the bricks, the (human) connective tissue that bonds their organization. The solution involves carving out intentional time to come together and attend to relational team dynamics. Circles helps dispersed teams create a cadence of building trust in safe, unique safe spaces. As Ali summarizes so well: “Authentic connection is lacking in the virtual world. Circles recreates the water cooler.”

Are you interested in trying Circles yourself, or with your team? Check out our newest experience, The Team Table. The first session is on us!

Four Key Elements to Building Team Trust

20 years ago, Colleen Moen was looking for a career change, and Starbucks Coffee Company hired her–not knowing she was five months pregnant. She says it was the first time she worked for a company that actually lived out the values they had written on the wall.

“Starbucks treated me like a human who mattered more than my work. Ever since then, what has sustained me in my career is finding organizations that align with my values.”

After Starbucks, she invested her Learning & Development career at some of Washington State’s leading companies, including Nordstrom and REI. Colleen recently connected with us through a women’s leadership circle, where we discovered our shared interest in supporting thriving teams. We wanted to shine a spotlight on Colleen and her best practices for building trust on teams throughout her career.

Four Ways to Build Trust on Teams

Structured groups foster team trust. In Colleen’s experience: “Sometimes, we hesitate to put structure in place, but it’s essential for building trust in safe environments.” She recommends focusing on four key elements: group size, norms, icebreakers and facilitation.

  1. Keep Teams Small.

Based on a cohort learning approach, Colleen suggests aiming for no more than 6-8 group members per team. “As a learning professional, I know that keeping teams small is best.” A group needs just enough members for diversity and to account for absentees, and if a team is too large it loses a sense of intimacy and connection. She also realizes the tension between theory and practice, recalling times she’s settled for groups of ten. But as a general rule, when it comes to team size, she’s found capping groups at 8 people produces the best results.

  1. Normalize Group Behaviors, for Safety.

Creating and agreeing to group norms helps participants safely collaborate. One of Colleen’s best practices involves allowing teams to create their own norms, guiding the process and providing examples when needed. She emphasizes norms as especially important for tough conversations predicated on trust, and frames up those conversations strategically: “Today, we’re going to discuss a difficult topic…and here are norms for how we’re going to behave together.” Suggested norms include listening, asking questions without making assumptions, not talking over each other, and raising hands to take turns speaking. Norms act as guardrails, helping ensure a safer environment for deeper conversations.

  1. Take Baby Steps Towards Trust: Use Icebreakers.

Team members feel safer taking vulnerable risks in small groups with established norms, and icebreakers allow them to share snippets of themselves, building trust with each share. As Colleen says, “We don’t want to try and force trust–because you can’t–but even simply asking ‘how are you feeling today?’ and staying fully present for the answer can go a long way towards building team trust.” By taking small risks in a safe environment each session, team trust grows over time.

  1. Train Facilitators–for Their Sake & the Team’s.

As a trained facilitator, Colleen values facilitation as a skill, not only because it contributes to small group trust, but because it doubles as a leadership development tool.

When she built and supported BIPOC mentoring at Nordstrom from the ground up, she ensured each cohort of 6-8 had two BIPOC leaders trained to guide their group. “We gave those leaders facilitation training, because that’s a huge skill: being able to hold space, ask questions, pull out a challenge, and feel comfortable asking ‘what are we NOT saying right now.’” A facilitator modeling and inviting vulnerability can unlock transparency for others in the group. Colleen uses verbiage like this: “I noticed you haven’t shared–would you like to share anything? It’s fine if not, I just wanted to make space for you.” A trained facilitator pulls the other key elements of group size, norms & icebreakers together, creating the ideal environment for maximizing team trust. 

Vulnerability Scales Culture

With the right structure in place, facilitators invite teams into vulnerability and trust session by session. How can leaders scale that trust throughout an organization, transforming culture? 

Ultimately, top-down vulnerability forms a company’s culture–leaders have to see transparency modeled at the very top. In Colleen’s experience, “That’s often the missing piece. You can offer the best program around culture, but if I leave my team and it’s not reinforced in the greater company environment, then it won’t stick.”

She suggests beginning with onboarding, especially with the move to hybrid work. “My own most recent onboarding experience was virtual, and a very difficult experience. But what if you had new hires in circles with an executive leader present from day one? If you can get leaders to open up with recruits, that changes the culture.”

In the end, everyone wants to work and lead in a trusting organizational culture where humans come first, like Colleen’s initial experience at Starbucks. Modern managers need innovative solutions to keep their hybrid teams connected. We’re working on it!