The way we communicate at work is changing, and not entirely for the better. According to Harvard Business Review, our time spent in meetings has risen more than 50% over the past decade, and now encompasses 85% of our work lives. Voice and video call times have doubled while Instant Messenger traffic has gone up 65%.
At first glance these statistics may seem to point to an uptick in the kind of group collaboration business leaders want to see. In reality, all this time time spent together often harms our productivity and mental well-being — and doesn’t always lead to the kind of collective wisdom we might imagine it would. So, how do we return to a model of strong, cohesive team-building that actually enhances decision-making and promotes growth?
The answer, according to One House founder Sarah Berner, is as simple as it is elegant: Circles.
Circle work is a versatile and flexible approach to group communication that can be adapted to fit many different contexts and purposes. At a high level, it means creating space for people to come together, learn from new perspectives, and generate a broader, shared approach which ultimately leads to new and improved solutions. Circles facilitate an alternative to the volume-heavy communication methods so common in workplaces these days. Instead of wasting time and delivering few results, Berner argues that circles can cut through the noise, helping to bring us to a more inclusive understanding of any issue, and what needs to change.
“Circles can be implemented throughout numerous areas of an organization, depending on its needs and structure,” Berner told me. “F500 companies, and many other organizations, are beginning to rely on circles as a tool to optimize company culture and innovation efforts and, if or when needed, repair the culture and clean up a toxic work environment.”
Understanding The Circle
As One House’s founder, Berner keeps circles for a variety of game-changers, visionaries, mentors, and investors — creating and incubating supportive environments in which individuals and their communities can thrive. She does this by utilizing techniques that broaden perspectives and de-escalate conflict, all while getting to the truth of a matter.
Each circle focuses on six collectively agreed-upon guidelines that guarantee inclusivity and promote diversity. Circles work best when they’re made up of eight or nine individuals, so Berner recommends that larger organizations allocate time to small group sessions that run in a circle format. The topic can range from the mundane, such as excel spreadsheets, to the transformative — such as how to approach diversity, equity, and inclusion. Regardless of the topic, Berner says the circle’s format still promotes deep realizations and healing, also often fostering problem-solving, innovation, and solution implementation.
“The topic of a circle can be anything, so the organization can easily align a circle with specific values and culture to be helpful to everyone,” Berner noted. “It’s also essential that the circle be aligned with an authentic mission, particularly when the situation may be more emotional, or when the circle is serving as a vehicle to help rebuild.”
Circles In The Workplace
Implementation must start at the top, with executive leadership. By utilizing circles themselves, leaders can signal excitement about this new method while also fostering collaborative trust among themselves from the start.
“Circles are used for senior leadership at large organizations to ensure leaders stay connected, in tune with one another, and aware of the broadest perspective possible,” said Berner.
Buy-in from the top helps circles succeed, but circles also ensure that all voices are heard and integrated — making them a powerful tool for improving employee retention and loyalty. Circles can also offer opportunities for offsite bonding events, or ways to further engage consumers or clients.
It’s important to note that the circle format also contrasts with more traditionally patriarchal power structures or hierarchies, enabling a feminine power structure as well as a new approach to the way things have typically been done. As the workforce evolves, and leadership with it, it becomes important to consider how the way we communicate at work can reflect these changes.
“Gloria Steinem has utilized circles across her organizations for decades,” said Berner.
Creating Successful Circles
The key to implementing circles, Berner says, is proper training: “The fastest path to training employees is to create a circle for those individuals who would be ‘keepers.’ Circles are only as powerful as their keepers and participants.”
Training can take up to 10 hours and can be accomplished over two days, although Berner recommends a week-long period with ample time between training hours. “The main requirement is a commitment by leadership and the employees to attend and maintain consistent meeting times,” she explained.
Employee training is critical to circle success. As Berner notes, circles are not a band-aid mechanism and must have a clearly defined intention and purpose defined by leadership: “Circles are a simple construct, but they are an art, not a science. They therefore require attuned keepers who respect and can help maintain the circle guidelines.” This is particularly crucial for circles centered around sensitive topics, where emotions may run high.
Measuring Circle Success
With buy-in from leadership and employees trained as keepers, organizations can incorporate different ways of defining the success of their circles. Berner recommends anonymous employee surveys as the best way to track outcomes and identify room for improvement. The subject and intended result of the circle can also significantly influence how success is tracked.
“A DEI-oriented circle will have vastly different success metrics versus a circle aimed at innovating or targeted problem-solving,” Berner said.
Coming Full Circle
One House’s ultimate goal is to combine the tools circles provide with other helpful mechanisms, aiding in furthering solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. In the meantime, Berner is confident that organizations that implement circles will see a boost in employee wellbeing and morale, as well as benefiting from better collective decision-making.