Exciting Updates to the Circles Video Space™

We’re feeling thankful for the valuable feedback we’ve received as we build and grow Circl.es into a world-class platform. Our team has been hard at work making improvements to the Circl.es Video Space™, and we’re excited to share some new features we think you’ll love. Check out the overview below.


Hide The Agenda

hide the agenda

With the click of a button, you can now hide the agenda in the Circl.es Video Space™. By reducing distractions, this option fosters a feeling of deep engagement. It also creates more space to share media and documents.



The Perfect Volume

We introduced a personal volume slider. When media or music is playing, everyone in the room can adjust their individual volume levels to suit their preferences. There is still a global volume control in the left-hand sidebar menu.



The Waiting Room

Quickly check that your camera and mic are working (and that your hair looks great!) before entering a session. Identifying any problems in advance minimizes the chance of disruption to your session! 


Facilitator Mode

facilitator mode

We’ve added a “Facilitator Mode” option to Circl.es. In this mode, a designated facilitator is the only person with full access to the room controls, such as advancing slides and sharing documents or media. Work with your Circl.es Program contact to learn more.

Enjoy exploring. We hope to see you in Circl.es soon!

From Inspiration to Connection: TED Meets Circl.es

In early 2020, TED.com launched a partnership with Circl.es. The Circl.es System™ offers a new way to engage with TED Talks, helping turn inspiration into  action, and routine conversation to meaningful connection, again and again. The Circl.es platform allows people to watch a TED Talk together online, enable a meaningful discussion afterward and then see what develops. 

Everybody has a favorite TED Talk. Whether it’s Ken Robinson’s ideas on creativity, Brene Brown’s deep dive into vulnerability, or the offbeat genius of Ze Frank, with over 2,600 videos and 11 billion views there seems to be a TED Talk for everyone. With that many views, you’d think we’d all be inspired to live our best lives, or at least finally getting around to turning our dreams into realities. However, for many people, inspiration isn’t enough. TED Talks are usually viewed alone, and it can be tough to find an outlet for the wonderful new energy and ideas they give us. Over time, that motivation tends to fade, and we’re back to where we started. 

Circl.es is a one-of-a-kind interface that facilitates conversation and connection…

“I notice that people really feel comfortable using this platform to share. It’s different to the other video call tools that we’ve been using. Circl.es allows us to replicate the actual experience of being together, sitting in a room and talking in a group.” – Stefania Bette, Host

TED Circle

And that feeling, that difference, is by design. Circl.es was built for collaborative peer learning. It’s about more than simply helping people talk online; Circl.es helps people have meaningful conversations online. After delivering program after program, Circl.es baked the best practices into software… the platform’s user-friendly features have been carefully curated to ensure everyone feels part of a productive, inclusive and authentic conversation. It’s unlike the common video call.  

Ting-Ya Liang, a TED Circles host in Taiwan, started hosting as a way of reconnecting with friends. In her experience as a moderator, she’s grateful for the deeper connections and in-depth conversations the platform helps create. She said,

“It’s like I’ve been able to get to know those people again, even after knowing them already for 5-10 years.” – Ting-Ya Liang, Host – Taiwan

It’s exactly that kind of deeper knowing that Alyssa Hampton, TED Circles Program Manager, envisions. In late 2019,  Alyssa found Circl.es, and saw in it a way for her community to connect more deeply. TED Circles did a 3-month pilot, and set up themed monthly content to guide the groups’ hosts. Circl.es provided the process, platform and people to enable the accessible, intentional dialogue that Alyssa wanted for the TED experience. Then, the Covid-19 pandemic forced people into isolation, and human connection became more important than ever before. Usage exploded.

Alyssa recalls how one participant described getting to know a coworker for the first time, even though they’d “known” each other on a surface level for years. So often, we regularly encounter someone without really knowing their amazing ideas or their powerful stories

In 2020, diversity and social justice came to the forefront of global focus. The topic of resilience was scheduled for a June TED Circles discussion, but one host decided to have the talk early. It turned out to be an intense and rewarding experience, deepening understanding and broadening perspectives. The Circl.es System™ provided a psychologically safe space to have the conversation, and the technology designed to foster depth of presence and sharing. 

TED Circles is not only helpful for reconnecting with friends or reaching a deeper level of conversational intimacy, but it could also lead to your next job opportunity. Hannes Gänzler, a host in Germany, credits the platform with helping people network into their next career move.

“It’s great because it sparks great conversations. Quite a few people that have met during TED Circles have then gone and gotten jobs because they have connected with the right people.” – Hannes Gänzler, Host – Germany

Through Circl.es, TED Talks became a shared journey for anyone who wants to grow. The transformational post-talk experience, once only afforded to those who gathered in-person, is accessible at scale. Whether showing up as a host or participant, every person can be part of a profound exchange of ideas and emotions. 

Even when a chosen video doesn’t resonate with everyone, because of deeper conversions that Circles generates, the discussion is still worth it.

“I hosted a session where a couple of people didn’t love the video that we watched, but the participants said at the end that even though they didn’t love what they watched, they still came away having had a great conversation and took something from it. – Jennie Zeiner, Host

It also affords participants the opportunity to discuss topics they might otherwise not engage with…

“I enjoy the fact that so many people get a chance to share their views on a subject that we might not get to discuss on a day to day basis. For example, this week’s topic was resilience – I would never call my friend and ask him how he feels about resilience, but the fact that there’s an actual team structure, talk, and takeaways as well as people sharing their own stories and experiences means that it really works. These sessions are expanding our community without us ever having met each other physically.” – Mukund Hari Nathan, Host – India

What started as a one-off conference turned into a global non-profit that continues to inspire audiences to open their minds to new ideas.

In 2012, Head of TED, Chris Anderson explained,

“It used to be 800 people getting together once a year; now it’s about a million people a day watching TED Talks online. When we first put up a few of the talks as an experiment, we got such impassioned responses that we decided to flip the organization on its head and think of ourselves not so much as a conference but as ‘ideas worth spreading.” – Chris Anderson, Head of TED

Anderson himself started hosting Circles in March. After his first conversation wrapped, he tweeted his reaction to his 1.5 million followers, “I loved this.” Clearly, TED Circles, and the Circl.es platform that enable it, are ideas he thinks are worth spreading.

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

Circl.es for Teams

I’m overdue for a Circl.es update.

Over the past three years, we’ve been building software for peer learning circles. Those of you that know the story know that this mission came from a personal place. My YPO and EO forums, Henry Crown Fellowship at Aspen, or even M5’s Battle of the Bands were the most impactful learning experiences I’ve had. The Circl.es team and I have been chasing the question, “Could everyone in the world grow in a peer circle?“ The software we built, with a new kind of virtual meeting space at its heart, helped launch and scale learning programs at schools like Harvard Business School and companies like Square and Bankers Life.

Along the way, though, we discovered something interesting. The practices that drive effective peer learning generally happen during powerful meetings. These practices foster more authentic communication, quickly build connection, and help people listen to each other. They gently push people to surface and address bigger issues than they might normally do.

Who else needs better listening, authentic communication, and to face big challenges head-on? Teams. I’m talking about modern teams – creative, agile, small groups – not the kind when subordinates follow orders. This kind of teamwork requires psychological safety, accountability, and engagement, just like peer learning. We’ve started to discover that peer learning practices in team meetings can produce breakthrough performance and a sense of connection. This kind of real, high-quality “collaboration” is in demand.

When we surveyed friends that are managers (many of you), almost everyone had an issue near the top of their priority list that required better teamwork. “I’m a bottleneck.” “I need better division of labor on my team.” “I’m worried about losing a key person.” “We don’t have enough resources to make plan.” “We need to innovate.” And so on.

Regular, small doses of peer learning practices injected into meetings boost teamwork.

This is a more durable way to build teamwork than implementing project management software to create accountability, creating yet another inbox with Slack or a trip to the ropes course. (you should consider those things too. I do love offsites.) If our hunch is right, it’s a way for teams to build better and better teamwork over time, while getting things done.

We’ve been testing on ourselves for months. Our team meetings, in the words of our skeptical CTO, became “so much better.” Last month, we ran a small pilot for 15 standing teams. Two had technical glitches, three didn’t get it, but about 10 of them loved it and wanted more. So, we’ve decided to expand into a larger pilot that starts this January. Can Circles be a platform that helps teams learn and practice techniques that build teamwork, meeting by meeting?

I know that my YPO forum and my Aspen seminars are the best meetings I attend. I know that I feel more connected to those peers than to many others in my life. Many of my fellow participants in these “Circles” programs, say that they bring practices from Forum or Aspen back to their companies that improve them as leaders. But I’ve seen most of my friend’s attempts to bring their experiences back to their teams be clumsy. If only this was easier …

In my experience, the best innovations are not pure invention, they are cross-pollination. In 2019, we will find out if our peer learning software can instill practices that transform work teams. Happy New Year!

Are you interested in an easy way to build real teamwork? I’ll be I’ll be talking more about the practices and how we’re enabling them in coming posts. If you are up for it, try Circles in one of your upcoming meetings. I’d love your feedback. And later in the year, we’ll invite you to a formal beta program.

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!

Becoming a B-Corp

Here’s a story about selling my previous business, M5 Networks.

Anyone that worked at M5 could see how living by a mission and values motivated us. The mission was not even particularly glamorous or unique, just simply getting customers to love us one by one. Measuring that gave us all real satisfaction. But there was always an undercurrent: Isn’t our real mission making money for shareholders?

By 2011 the market  we’d pioneered, cloud phones, was heating up. The team and I knew that we needed to go bigger or go home. In the course of putting together financing for our big growth plan, ShoreTel’s CEO asked me to lunch. This evolved into a buyout offer. We faced two options: take some more investment and play more hands at the table, or move on and cash out our chips.

I was surrounded by VPs and VCs. The VPs were relatively new, and were tempted by a quick payback. The VC’s had a 6-year itch and rationally were motivated to return capital. Their structure, our structure, meant I was surrounded by people who were tempted to sell. Once we started to explore the SHOR offer, I was surrounded by bankers and lawyers. Their incentive was to sell. I tell this story to any entrepreneur considering their exit. Before things go too far, go for a long lonely walk and make up your own mind. Once a deal is rolling, a lot of people around will be pushing for it. As we at Circles know, peer pressure is a thing.

After the successful sale, there was a certain sadness. A lot people felt that M5 had more good work to do. Some of our customers and staff felt that we’d let down our mission in the name of a juicy buyout offer. I’ve now had a chance to reflect on that tension.

I believe that business is the best structure for propagating a change in the world, and for-profit is the most likely structure to produce fast growth. So I’ve been looking for a way to set the right balance for Circles, the company (formally incorporated now as Circles Learning Labs, Inc.) I want employees, investors, customers all to be aligned around a better balance of growth, profit, and mission. I want us to be able to make balanced choices between applications that are lucrative – like corporate leaders – and ones that may be lower price like helping my friend Aditya create circles for the 5,000 school principals he works with in the toughest parts of India.

I get that one part of that is maintaining control, and leading with strength. Warren Buffet only reports once a year and does it his way because he’s an amazing leader. Some family businesses have this figured out and are the most long-term thinkers around. Kudos to Circles advisor Jeff Snipes who has helped a community of “enduring” companies with a long-term view called Tugboat Institute. I think I’m a clearer leader now, and I do have enough control to make these choices.

Another part is structural: things like compensation and options, the deal we cut with investors, or the way we measure our success. I’ll write more on those things as they crystalize for us.

Ultimately, though, I do believe in the power of peers. I want to be surrounded by people motivated by business as an instrument for social good. I want that kind of peer pressure. The Henry Crown fellowship has certainly been a positive force for me in that regard. Circles is my fellowship project.

Another famous HCF project was the B Corporation. Three fellows set out to create a corporate structure that made shareholders responsible for both share value and mission. Almost a decade later, they’ve created the Benefit Corporation structure in almost every state. There are about 2,000 B Corporations worldwide. They’ve added a stringent certification process layered on top of the legal requirement. And they’ve built a vibrant community so these entrepreneurs can help each other. Famous B corps now include Warby Parker, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Honest Tea, Kickstarter, and the list goes on.

So we’re going to be a B. But we are going to go one step farther. Since we’re a new company, we’ll elect to become a benefit corp, B Lab’s requirement to ensure considerations of stakeholder interests in our governance, which will allow us to be a Pending B Corp. After a year of performance above the bar for certification, we will try to meet the high standards to become a Certified B Corporation. Plus, the Circles team is excited about having an impact in helping this community, our new community. So we’re prioritizing launching circles for B corp leaders. We’ve just started calling around to make friends in our new community and gauging interest in B Corp Leadership Circles. It makes sense to us to help these leaders, help each other, help the world.

If you are a B Corp leader and this sounds like something you want to be a part of, you can

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.

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.

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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