Powered by Circles

We often talk about our results, namely, how we produce small group experiences with a strong feeling of connection, breakthrough, and high engagement via our platform and method – The Circl.es System.   At this point in our evolution as an organization,  we are pleased to be empowering organizations, communities and schools to leverage what we’ve built to realize impact and engagement by scaling up Circles to connect individuals in meaningful ways. 

For the past few years, we have been delivering small group experiences, combined with service, which we’ve called “managed service” and someday soon, we will offer Circl.es as a software as a service (SaaS) platform for purchase.

Recently, we created “Powered by Circles”, a model with only a bit of hand-holding and a lower price-point. This is a step on our way to creating a more pure SaaS offering, and it has confirmed that clients can benefit from the Circl.es system and platform on their own.

Here are some recent stories:

Jodie McLean, the CEO of EDENS, a progressive, community-oriented real estate development organization, learned about Circl.es at a global digital seminar managed by the Circl.es team. There, she experienced the power of the small group, inclusive circle, and contacted Circl.es for her organization’s one-day Values-based Leadership Summit.  

EDENS’s culture is one based on close relationships, authenticity and inclusion, so it was critical to create an experience – not just a meeting. The vision was for the entire organization to connect in a psychologically safe space to show up for, and care for, each other.

The Circl.es team provided design consultation and administrative training to the EDENS project team. In just a few hours, a group of EDENS employees were equipped to moderate two sessions for 20 circles, engaging 200 employees in all. The Circles experience was rated 8.7/10 and 9.7 for facilitation. EDENS will continue to use the platform for recurring Circles and another organization-wide gathering. They are now empowered to design, facilitate and manage this experience independently. 

Pablo Cerdera, the Director of Restorative Practice at Wharton, experimented with the Circles platform for several months before considering how he might leverage it within his institution. When in-person instruction was cancelled and 600+ new students had to be introduced to one another virtually, he turned to Circl.es. 


While Pablo had a process in mind, Circles Design Lead, Jonathan Hefter, helped him hone it for a virtual experience that would scale. Together, they trained approximately 50 students on the New Student Orientation Team to become Circles facilitators, in one session. The Circles Ops Team helped set up smooth onboarding and supported the event behind the scenes, proactively heading off issues and fielding only 3 support calls for 600 people. The New Student Orientation Team went on to welcome new Wharton students to their Fall 2020 class in simultaneous Circle sessions, and participants rated the experience 8.69/10, with a 9.72 facilitator score. 

Andy Bailey and his business coaching firm, Petra Coach, has a tradition of running EO-style forums. Andy had a vision of engaging the executives of Petra Coach’s client organizations in forum groups on Circl.es. With 200 companies in their community, they saw a chance to organize forums by executive roles, beyond CEOs. Petra’s coaches are skilled facilitators with their own forum process, but were challenged to imagine a path to scaling up to hundreds of forums. Circl.es gave them a smooth operational process and a way to guarantee consistency and quality of experience. With just a few hours of setup and training, they launched a scalable forum group experience for their clients.


Powered by Circles is a path for an organization looking to acquire the expertise necessary to design, facilitate and manage your own virtual Circles experiences.

Our services focus on three processes that are essential to success:

Design. Powered by Circles starts with a client’s vision for how to run a session. The Circl.es System and design team helps effectively translate that to virtual delivery at scale. They point out how to leverage the best features of the platform. And in the process, transfer some experience and wisdom so clients design future programs on their own. The Circl.es Design Lead shares sample agendas, makes design recommendations based on best practices and passes along valuable expertise to empower the client to design future experiences independently.

Facilitation. The Circl.es Video Space features provide ‘training wheels’ for facilitation.  To scale, very often organizations and communities rely on staff or member facilitators, many of whom are leading in this way for the first time. Powered by Circles includes a Digital Facilitation Handbook, communication templates, delivery of a sample session and a Train-the-Trainer program. While many clients have experienced facilitators or their own process, the Circles System and team helps quickly translate this for virtual, and at scale.

Management.  For several years, the Circl.es Operations Team has been setting up, managing and measuring large implementations of Circles. It takes some work to scale intimacy. Powered by Circles can efficiently train you to use features we’ve built into the platform, and to avoid the many mistakes we’ve made. Still, we’ve noticed that some clients prefer us to handle the logistics and administration of programs so they can focus on design and facilitation, or perhaps their long list of other jobs. Either way is fine; the Circl.es team can continue to provide outsourced support, or transfer this capability to a client team leveraging our platform. 

Ready to try Circl.es in your own organization?

Powered by Circles allows us to get this high quality experience out into the world at a much lower price point. The cost varies according to the number of users/month and services provided – all aimed at empowering organizations to successfully scale human connection, virtually.

The Circl.es Team is excited to take this step toward helping more of the world connect in a meaningful way. If you are interested, we’d love to share our scoping and pricing model in more detail. You can get in touch here.

Connection Without Campus: Circl.es Helps Wharton, Harvard and the Aspen Institute Replace the Irreplaceable

connection without campus

We miss campuses! The smell of crisp fall air, sparkling new school supplies and the smiles of friends we missed all summer. This isn’t just nostalgia; the campus is a powerful setting that energizes learning.

An almost seismic sense of expectation emanates from a college campus. That is the true elixir of youth: the grand, the glorious, the magnificent hopes and dreams because all things – all things – are yet possible.” – Carolyn Hart

We mourn the loss of campuses for our children, but also for our grown-up selves. Some of the best ideas flow from formal offsite gatherings with colleagues, or informal dinners shared with peers.

Bolstered by a true sense of urgency and ingenuity, the instructors at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard Business School and The Aspen Institute, turned to Circl.es to create an online space that feels as connected as meeting face-to-face. The answer, in part, was a unique virtual setting. But they also did things differently, designing inclusive interactions and using a process for engaging in small groups… circles instead of rows. 

The Wharton School of Business

The Wharton School of Business is one of the nation’s top business programs. With 600+ incoming freshmen, they needed a way to welcome and orient new students that felt as genuine as the on-campus experience.  

Circl.es is a system to create intentional, inclusive and authentic dialogue.  Wharton’s goal was to instill a sense of belonging and connection for new students, who would not be able to establish community in an in-person environment. They married restorative practices with Circl.es technology to run 54 small group sessions in one day, welcoming approximately 600 new students and fostering a sense of community among them, even without setting foot on campus.

Each group was run by a Circl.es-trained facilitator (50+ upperclassmen leaders), with incoming students joining from all over the world. Circl.es gave these students a wonderful opportunity to join others, and find positive connections in a time when they may have been feeling vulnerable and unsure. As one student put it…

“It was my first encounter with my cohort leaders and other classmates. It felt great to finally open up and hear what everyone is thinking about the upcoming semester.”

Wharton Circles Participant

Circl.es allowed Wharton students to hold space for each other and engage in restorative practices to support all new students, and ensure their year got off to a great start.  

Harvard Business School

During the Owner/President Management (OPM) program at Harvard Business School, top executives look to expand their business knowledge, leadership skills and the overall value of their companies. Building peer relationships is a central part of the value proposition. When on campus, the program deliberately houses eight students together in a specially configured “living group.”

Living groups share their most personal experiences, both from business and life, as part of the program, so connection with others is key. HBS didn’t replace this by trying to simulate late-night dorm interactions. Instead, they wove small group work into the online course curriculum. This occurred in pre-program Circles, where students’ connections before beginning their coursework provided a ‘running start’ to their OPM experience. 

Once the program was underway, Circles provided the space for students to engage in case prep work, small group breakout sessions, pitch/innovation competitions and project work in a way that organically strengthened these connections. The space even provided opportunity for the more informal & social aspects of the experience. An HBS Circles participant noted that trust was established after just two sessions. It was also said that…

Circles did the job that the bar, dorm and cafe used to do.” – Chad Gordon, OPM Program Lead

By encouraging authentic virtual conversations, Circl.es transformed working sessions into opportunities for real connection and relationship-building. 

The Aspen Institute

The Resnick Aspen Action Forum (RAAF) traditionally took place in Aspen, at one of the most stunning campus settings in the world. Without this asset, the team needed a new approach to ensure the 2020 seminar was as impactful online as it had been in person.

Because Circl.es allows people from all over the world to connect deeply, the seemingly insurmountable drawback of losing their campus actually turned into a benefit for RAAF; more leaders from around the world participated in 2020 than ever before.

One of the event leaders called Circl.es “The Great Equalizer” because people couldn’t see how everyone else arrived. They just logged in. The Circl.es platform provided the space for Aspen’s signature form of text-based dialogue with a cohort of Fellows from around the world.  Over the course of the 3-day event, Fellows joined with their cohort, led by an Aspen Moderator for 90 minutes each day, and found points of connection with like-minded leaders they might have otherwise never encountered.  

Within their Circles, everyone was given an equal voice in the dialogue. In the end, by ensuring inclusion and fostering intentional discussion, the Circles seminars garnered rave reviews, such as… 

Every single member of the group expressed gratitude, value, and a desire to meet again.” – Aspen Circle Participant

Creating Connection

For Wharton, Harvard Business School and the Aspen Institute, losing use of their campuses brought major challenges around delivering the high-quality education for which they are known. By teaming with Circl.es, they discovered a new path: intentional conversations that facilitate inclusive dialogue.

The world has shifted, and we know that we must strive to discover new ways of connecting.  It’s not about a precise replication of the in-person meeting experience. No one can virtually reproduce a cool autumn breeze or the breaking in of new books. However, by keeping their eyes on the essential goal of human connection, these three institutions forged new ground in the Fall of 2020, by delivering world-class instruction with the power of intentional, small group Circles. They found a way to deliver connection without the campus.

Breaking Out

Can an online learning event be as engaging as a live one, or even more engaging? Online learning is notorious for distracted multitaskers and high drop out rates.

The secret, according to experts, is breakout groups. I’d point you to

How do you provide consistently high-quality breakout sessions? What’s the best way to structure them to stay on point? How do you ensure they’re facilitated well without professional facilitators in each room? How do you keep tabs on progress when you can’t walk around a room and visit tables?

There are challenges, but virtual breakouts offer at least four big opportunities:

Deeper Learning. Doesn’t learning happen best in small groups? The practice of learning in “Circles, Not Rows” has been our inspiration for years. In circles, people open up, reveal their real challenges and let in new ideas. Most adults learn better when having a dialogue about a current need. When sharing experiences, they learn better and the effects last longer. This is why Circle-style learning is so beloved by members of

Valuable Relationships. One of the worst aspects of moving online is that you lose the hallway, elevator, lunch or bar conversations where relationships are built. But with proper structure, the participants of a small group can connect even more quickly and meaningfully than when they make table-talk. This leads to meaningful relationships. If you keep the groups together, they form lasting bonds, sharing networks and helping each other outside the training world. As our friend Andy Billings from Electronic Arts quipped, “We spend time choosing the best presents (content) but participants just want to play with the boxes (relationships).”

Sustained Learning. What motivates participants to continue to practice learnings over time? Teams. People will show up for each other all day long before helping themselves. The Stanford research cited above shows it (16x more likely to complete a course than alone!), as does our experience. And all-of-a-sudden, the learning isn’t building-constrained. Go from a huge room of people meeting once, to small, intense groups meeting over time. Reinvest the saved travel time. Take advantage of peer accountability to drive sustained attention to a topic, and to support follow-through, which we know is required for behavior to change. If you do a good job framing the small group, and creating a dynamic of helping each other, they will stay together.

Teaming Skills. Take advantage of the team “dojo” to teach teaming skills in a safe place. Give participants turns at facilitating as part of the learning experience, and provide feedback to facilitators. Show how good meeting structure works. People can experience the power of psychological safety and vulnerability, and how to create it. Participants experience the effectiveness of team accountability, and how inclusion puts a plethora of diverse ideas on the table. Another one of our sayings: if you learn in teams, you’ll learn to lead teams that learn. Learning programs can play a crucial role in organizations struggling to improve collaboration by making team-based learning central to their approach.

The traditional “classroom” mode of presenting content to rows of individuals is a hard habit to break. Even our video conference tools are built more for presentations than conversations – one person is big by default with the others off screen, able to hide. And the closeness of Circles can produce uncomfortable conversations that some resist. Yet Learning & Development (L&D) professionals are no strangers to making people a little uncomfortable, for their own good, yes?

We believe that human connection is the magic ingredient in developing workers and leaders. Here’s how to put human connection front and center, and create an awesome event:

  • Small groups
  • Structured conversations
  • Facilitation
  • Intentional setting

Small Groups. Having people experience the entire learning journey in circles is the best way to translate live rooms to online rooms.

  • Form Circles of 4-9 people before or at the start. Be deliberate about Circle creation. Turn the time saved by travel into a brief meeting to
  • Restructure the session to go to breakouts 2-3 times while together. Have teams report out in between.
  • Have the Circle continue. Setting up 2-5 short sessions after the workshop will keep attention on topic and focus on its real-life applications, multiplying your returns. Once the connection is built, the gravitational pull of helping each other will keep the Circle coming back to attend these sessions.
    (We see over 80% attendance in our corporate Circle programs, even after 6 sessions).
  • Regroup. Why not gather again in 90 days, for an hour, and report out? What’s a learning journey without a final exam or performance? It’ll keep focus and give a real sense of closure.

Structured Conversations. It isn’t enough to let the small group just “talk.” Simple structures multiply the productivity of the group. We use the term “agenda” – but not as in a list of things to talk about, as in guidelines for how to run the conversation. For example:

  • Advance-plan questions or prompts for discussion.
  • Equal talk time. Use facilitation tricks like random order and a timer.
  • Reflection. 60 seconds to think after a question feels weird at first, but shortens and deepens responses, allowing everyone to be present to hear each other.
  • Meeting openings. Use a prompt to prime the topic and engage emotions, right away.
  • Meeting close. Make sure to integrate the discussion into action items, or learnings that you can report out.

There are many other structures that you can use when creating your agenda. A Circle fosters inclusive conversations, psychological safety, and peer accountability. The trick is to take the cognitive load off the newly formed group by providing them one clear choice. Over time, these structures are internalized and the conversation gets more organic.

laptop impactful facilitator

Facilitation. Wouldn’t it be powerful to have a facilitator in every breakout? Having a clear and thoughtful structure makes it possible for a motivated amateur to facilitate. One way to motivate them is to make facilitation part of the learning journey itself – this is a skill most professionals value.

I don’t want to undersell the value of experienced, skilled facilitation (as an exceptional example and shout-out, check out

“Offsite” Setting. L&D leaders go to great pains to locate live learning sessions in appropriate settings. It boosts learning when you take people out of their day-to-day mindset, fast. Isn’t it even more important to do that online? Think beyond the squares: use music, images, and strong openings to set a mood of openness and wonder, conducive to learning. Tech chaos can have the opposite effect.

circle session

And now the commercial – Circles is a gang of people with a process and platform for engaging, small group learning. We make it easy to design sessions, form small groups and measure how they do. We provide a purposeful setting, scalability, and professional service, powered by our technology. We can work with any major video conference provider for large sessions, and enhance the experience with Breakout Circles™️ that keep going.

Case Study Results: Millennium Forum

Do Circles work?

Hard data is hard to get. And then there’s the question: What outcomes are we looking for?

We’re proud of our partner, Millennium Forum. They run an amazing Circles program for K-12 teachers. Their research partners and team have helped them design ways to measure and learn from outcomes.

First, some context…

In general, we talk about three categories of outcomes:

• Educational. Circles make it easier to sustain and apply learning, extending programs like manager training.

• Social. Participants get close. They help and support each other in ways that transcend any particular topics.

• Cultural. A circles experience shifts you to be more inclusive, vulnerable, and accountable. Diversity becomes a strength.

Each Circles program and partner emphasizes different outcomes. Millennium’s “Theory of Change” focuses on the second and third categories. By taking care of each other, educators will take better care of their classrooms.

Their latest mid-year results show real success:

What about you?

Do you suspect similar outcomes from your Circles programs, only haven’t measured them? Are these high scores for helping teachers help students analogous to helping managers help employees?

Case Study: Adding Depth of Communication in a Fast-Paced Environment through Peer Learning

Managers at a growing national company operated within a fast-paced environment, where intense workflows often limited interaction opportunities. The company sought to cultivate a sense of unity among its managerial workforce, and to increase connectedness with the company culture and vision.

After careful consideration, Circles peer learning emerged as the best option to achieve the following objectives:

  • Building relationships
    – unite diverse department managers through engaging, in-depth discussions.
  • Conscientious leadership
    – create high-performing leaders that drive company culture and values.
  • Individual growth
    – promote an environment of continued learning and self-improvement.

Through Circles peer learning, participants deepened connections through meaningful conversations involving vulnerability, leadership principles and the power of story. A balanced culture of a unified collective and individual growth emerged through the Circles experience.

Circles supported facilitators to create a psychologically safe and inclusive space in which every member felt visible and valued. The experience was carried forward beyond the structure of Circles peer learning, and was developed as a company-wide practice focused on meaningful engagement.

Access the complete case study

Case Study: Cementing Leadership Development through Peer Learning

A world-leading food processing and packaging company runs an annual leadership development program for high-potential employees. The four-month international program aims to address individual leadership challenges to help participants transition into executive roles within five years.

After three iterations of the program, the company decided to try a complementary approach; one that would continue to keep participants engaged after the program, encourage ongoing networking with their peers and inspire them to continue the sessions themselves after the four month program. After some analysis, it became clear that peer learning circles might meet these objectives.

The goals of the circles were:

  • Engagement
    ​ – increase engagement beyond the leadership development program.
  • Relationships
    ​ – sustain meaningful relationships with peers for improved team performance.
  • Self-direction
    ​ – encourage self-directed sessions for continued learning and support.

With the peer learning circles, participants were encouraged to share both organizational ​and​ personal challenges – adding a new depth to the sessions. Building upon existing trust between the participants formed during the initial program, these sessions created a safe space for open and honest discussion, gently addressing specific challenges, and strengthening the team as a whole.

As a result, not only did participants deepen connections with their peers and build a trusted support system, they also understood the power of peer circles and committed to continuing the process beyond the program.

Download the complete case study

It’s Never Been Easier To Join A Study Group

 

Study Groups Can Change Lives, Fast. – Daralee Barbera, GAMA International

In the lead up to LAMP 2018, nearly twenty leaders from across the financial services industry went through a four part training to become experts in online coaching. The group included names like Bob Bacigalupi, Thomasina Skipper, Sina Azari, and Lisa Kelenic. The training was all part of a new program called GAMA Circles which takes the power of study groups and adds expert facilitation, training, and technology to make it easier than ever for GAMA members to develop, practice and apply new leadership skills. 

Study groups have long been one of the most effective tools for leadership development in the GAMA community. They are confidential spaces where leaders can get support on the most pressing issues facing their business. As Bob Savage of Savage & Associates has said, 

“If I had any great ideas during the time I ran my operation, eighty-five percent of them came from my study groups. Any time you get with true leaders, the excitement in the room is so great. You leave the study group with more ideas than you can implement and a new belief in the religion of the business.”

Study groups have a phenomenal impact on their members’ personal and professional growth. Some of the benefits include:

  • Professional development
  • Field management support
  • A personal Board of Directors
  • Personal development
  • Motivation and support
  • Industry big picture

While Study Groups have traditionally occurred in person, once or twice a year, the GAMA Circles program utilizes technology to allow participants to get the benefits from study groups on a monthly basis. Additionally, the inclusion of facilitators and coaches will speed up the effectiveness of each group and ensure each participant receives the maximum impact of the opportunity. If you are interested in joining a GAMA Circle, you can learn more here. The program will be kicking off this summer and will include ~100 of the top producers in the industry. 

Don’t miss this unique chance!

Is Your Team Having Conversations, or Sitting Through Presentations?

people at a team meeting They may not have the wow factor of Guy Kawasaki evangelizing the heck out of Apple products on stage, but why should we be having conversations instead of giving presentations?

The Presentation Problem

We’ve all sat through dozens, if not hundreds, of presentations. That’s all well and good, but are we really getting the most out of a team if one person -the presenter- is treated like the fountain of all knowledge?

It’s easier to rally around one person’s ideas, so business leaders have traditionally been put on a pedestal. Brilliant public speakers too. Think a Guy Kawasaki, or Tony Robbins. The focus is on being magnetic, having a stage presence and, more often than not, selling a product or persona.

There is, of course, a time and a place for this, but if we want to learn from the work, and life, experience of others, there are better methods that have been proven to be more effective.

If we’re emulating people trying to have huge reach and mass appeal, like the Kawasaki’s and Robbins’ of the world, when our objective is communicating in a meeting with a small group, we may be missing the mark.

Focus On The Message

Of course it’s understandable that we want to show our best selves when we give a presentation. However, chasing that wow factor in our presentations can actually have the opposite effect, completely derailing their effectiveness and leaving us back at square one.

John Coleman, writing for HBR, has revealed the side effects of having “that tendency [in presentations] to want to save key findings for the last moment and then reveal them, expecting a satisfying moment of awe”. This is something he characterized as “the great unveil”. Withholding information to increase that wow factor, Coleman says, would actually lead to “one sided expositions” and “anemic conversations.”

Worst of all though, as Coleman puts it, they would “miss problems, or solutions that had already been tried and failed”, and if someone pointed these out to the presenters “in the middle of [the] presentation, [they’d] end up distracted and confused.” By focusing too much on giving a killer presentation they completely failed to get gain any value from the input of others. Their message inevitably fell on deaf ears.

But how do we make the message our main focus?

A “punchline first” form of communication, as Coleman calls it, can take us far. That means starting the presentation with an executive summary of key conclusions. Your counterparts can study them and keep them in mind throughout the presentation meaning everyone’s efforts will be aimed at testing these conclusions and finding solutions. No energy will be spent on taking up new ideas. Additionally, you’ll be opening the floor and making the most of group intelligence, which is, unsurprisingly, much more reliable than putting all of the burden on the presenter.

Have A Structured Conversation

“Inevitably, when I engage well with an audience, it feels much more like a two-way conversation. When I fail to engage, I realize I’ve fallen back into the presentation trap.”

George Bradt nailed it on the head in his Forbes article. There’s a way we can really drive home this idea of conversations over presentations and it doesn’t mean throwing your q cards out the window. Having a purposefully structured conversation can get everyone engaged on the topic and create an environment that is inclusive and collaborative.

You can do this in a number of ways. Firstly, disperse responsibility for key parts of the presentation. A good way to start is by assigning roles such as timekeeper and note taker, and most importantly, having a facilitator to run things. Doing this will start proceedings on the right foot and lead to an inclusive discussion instead of a static presentation.

We can also take Coleman’s “punchline first” approach even further by having required reading before meetings. Once again this will get everyone involved,

If we really want to get to the route of an issue, we also have to get rid of the notion that we somehow “own” the solution.

John Coleman’s team discovered this through trial and error:

“When we created a perfect solution in isolation and made it “ours” to present, we ignored the fact that each individual needed to arrive at the conclusions independently to really understand it, to believe in it, and to be willing to work hard to execute it.”

Conversations allow us to feel invested in each other’s stories instead of feeling like we’re being talked at or spoon-fed advice. Our meetings, and workshops, at Circles encourage conversation over presentation and storytelling over advice giving.

This reverses the focus. Kawasaki and Robbins are geniuses at having a mass reach and wide appeal, but depending on our situation, trying to copy that style is likely to have our focus in the wrong place. While they reach a huge amount of people, turning those presentations into conversations will let you be reached by a huge amount of people.

Seeking those different perspectives opens you up to a constant source of learning opportunities.

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.

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.

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