Breaking Apart To Feel Together: How Circl.es Helped EDENS

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How does a company dedicated to building community achieve this among its own employees? 

It’s a question that EDENS, a retail real estate owner, operator, and developer, has set out to answer. For more than 50 years, EDENS’ mission has been “to enrich communities,” said Caroline Davis, EDENS’ Vice President of Employee Engagement. “Peoples’ quality of life is higher when they are able to interact in a place that adds value and meaning to their life.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, put EDENS’ work to the test when communal interaction in public became a health risk, and stay-at-home orders were legally mandated. This was as much a challenge to EDENS’ internal sense of community as it was to its business. 

As with so many other companies that went remote in March 2020, EDENS found this change “radically shifted the way we interacted with each other,” as Davis put it, including a “level of fatigue” with standard video platforms used for meetings. “That piece of feeling truly connected was missing,” Davis added. 

This physical disconnection also made the equity and inclusion work EDENS had already committed to that much harder. This was most starkly clear over the summer when EDENS hosted an all-staff meeting to discuss Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The entire team used a standard virtual platform in which many people kept their cameras off. Consequently, the conversation failed to reach a desirable level of authenticity and emotional safety, according to Davis.

EDENS CEO Jodie McLean remembered a platform she had used previously that could help her employees connect. After using Circl.es at the Aspen Institute Resnick Aspen Action Forum in her capacity as a Liberty Fellow, McLean decided in October last year to purposely build an opportunity for EDENS to use the platform.

“I’ve never partnered with another vendor who felt more integrated and more supportive than Circl.es”

Circl.es joined forces with EDENS to facilitate a value-based inclusive leadership summit with content inspired by the curriculum the Aspen Institute had created. The process included helping with the logistical challenge of forming groups in the platform and ensuring all groups had consistent experiences. “I’ve never partnered with another vendor who felt more integrated and more supportive than Circl.es,” Davis added. “They felt like an extension of us, and it was incredible.”

Circl.es was game-changing for EDENS for a few key reasons. 

First, rather than convening a 200-person staff in a single virtual space, employees were broken up into smaller groups — circles — that allowed each member to have “true equity” as Davis described it. Circl.es accomplished this by keeping all group members on camera and placing them each in individual, equal-sized circles, within a larger circle. Rather than reinforce a hierarchy that sometimes happens in a corporate setting, Circl.es created a space in which every employee had an equal voice — in which they were able to talk to each other rather than talked to. 

“Circl.es’ features helped conversations feel less awkward and more authentic,” Davis noted. On other video platforms, participants tend to talk over and interrupt each other, mainly out of the lack of being able to perceive others’ body language or other subtle social cues. Circl.es eliminates this by allowing participants to raise their hands, sort participants into a set order in which to speak, and “making everyone feel like their voice was equally important,” said Davis. 

Participants’ ability to give other members in their circle a hug or lend support in the form of a “plus one” also helped facilitate a conversation that was “fluid but purposeful,” according to Davis — especially when it came to discussing difficult topics, like diversity and equity, which was the focus of the readings to which group members responded.

It turned out that breaking apart was exactly what was needed to help the company feel more together. 

Circl.es “gave us a chance to hear different perspectives from people who think differently than we do,” one employee reflected. Another shared that the platform “allowed for uncomfortable discussions in an intimate environment” and noted “it was easier to share this way.” 

In fact, in a post-discussion survey, while at least 50% of employees reported they did not initially want to come to the meeting, 90% reported that they loved the experience.

What’s more, the staff’s experiences with Circl.es had an immediate impact on how they interacted with each other. While reconvening for a debrief of the Circl.es experience in their normal video platform, employees were “incredibly active” in the chat box, which Davis noted had rarely happened in previous meetings.  Employees were “showing support and reaching out to each other and saying how much the day meant,” Davis continued.

Circl.es has since become such an integrated part of EDENS’ communications structure that it’s taken on its own vernacular. “We say, ‘This is something we should get into a circle and discuss’…it’s become this special place for people to meet that feels very safe,” Davis said. Most recently, EDENS used Circl.es to reconvene the same groups who met in October to discuss another Martin Luther King, Jr. piece, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” in February. Though it was a busy time for the company, “people made the time and felt really energized after the conversations,” Davis said. 

“We know when we connect with each other, we drive our engagement, which impacts our wellbeing at work,” Davis said. “It helps our productivity and that’s an investment that is well served.” 

Not only has Circl.es benefited employees by “elevating” the way they virtually met, but it also helped the company itself. “We know when we connect with each other, we drive our engagement, which impacts our wellbeing at work,” Davis said. “It helps our productivity and that’s an investment that is well served.” 

EDENS plans to use Circl.es well beyond the end of the pandemic, because, as Davis said, “EDENS employees now connect with the common language of gratitude for the conversations and connections they have with each other and the ability to be seen. I attribute that to Circl.es giving us the space and the place to do that.”

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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