Courtesy Erica Keswin

We spoke this summer with author Priya Parker about how we should rethink gathering in the workplace as organizations return. A related consideration is how companies and teams can use rituals to raise morale and engagement, especially at a moment like now when retention and recruiting is more challenging.

Erica Keswin, a workplace strategist and executive coach, has investigated how companies use rituals and found that they can significantly boost collaboration and productivity. Earlier this year, Keswin published Rituals Roadmap, and since the pandemic started has been checking in with companies to see how their rituals have evolved. We spoke with her this week about what has worked for them, and what leaders should be doing now. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

What is a ritual, and what are examples of rituals that are really effective for companies?

Number one, a ritual is something to which we assign a certain amount of meaning and intention. Number two, a ritual is something that typically has a regular cadence, repetition. The third part is really interesting: A ritual is something that goes beyond its practical purpose. So if I am sitting here in my office and the lights go out and I light a candle, that’s not a ritual. But if I light a candle every day at six o’clock to signify the end of the workday and the beginning of my time at home with my kids, I’m not lighting that candle to see anything. There’s meaning and intention around it.

When I went out to senior leaders at companies and I started explaining what a ritual is, sometimes they still weren’t sure what their rituals are. So I came up with this magic question, where when asked the leader got the light bulb moment of, oh, that’s our ritual.

The magic question is to Marissa Andrada of Chipotle, for example: ‘When do employees at Chipotle feel most Chipotle-ish?’ Most connected? She said, we have many, but one is that Chipotle opens at 6:30 in the morning, and a whole group of associates come in and they’re chopping up the lettuce and making the guacamole and the doors open at 10:30am. So at 10:15am, they all sit down together and have a meal around the table.

How do you know something is a ritual? It would seem so crazy and weird if it didn’t happen; there would be a loss. It would feel like something was missing.

When I asked Joey, a co-founder at Allbirds, he told me something totally different. They have a ritual called ’40 at four.’ There was an employee who went to the doctor one day and he came back to the office and he was like, ‘Ugh, I’ve got to get my health in order. I am setting a goal for myself and I am going to do X amount of pushups between now and the end of the year.’ He took that number and he divided it by the number of days left in the year. And that came out to 40. So he said to some of the people in the office, ‘If I do 40 pushups a day for the rest of the year, I’m going to hit my goal and start to feel better and be on the track to success.’ He started doing them in the office pre-Covid. Instead of the coffee and a smoke break, the guy was dropping and giving everybody 40 pushups. The guy next to him joined, the woman down the hall joined, the receptionist walked over, didn’t do the pushups, but joined. It evolved and different people volunteered to lead it. Somebody did an RBG-themed one, wearing a robe and her glasses.

When do people feel most Allbirds-ish? Every day at four o’clock. You feel that sense of connection, belonging, and inclusion even if you’re not doing the pushups and that sense of purpose and values.

I talked to them during the pandemic and I was like, ‘you guys must miss each other at four o’clock every day.’ And they’re like, ‘We could not let this go. This is too much of who we are.’ People would volunteer, videotaping themselves at home doing pushups. They shared the videos with me. One woman was literally doing arm raises and squats while holding her cat and then she sent out a video and it had a little disclaimer that no domestic animals were hurt in the filming. It’s soft and it’s cheesy—but we all remember in the depths of this pandemic those things were really important to people to keep them feeling connected and remembering why they liked their colleagues.

Are there other examples where companies have evolved rituals for hybrid and flexible work arrangements?

Lunch at Udemy was the biggest thing. They had a huge cafeteria. And every other Thursday, the cafeteria wasn’t open, but they had something called ‘lunch roulette’ where you could opt in and, on the company dime, they would send you and five other people out for lunch. It was tied to their specific values around getting to know different people in different parts of the organization, because they knew that was good for development. Their whole business is around professional development. Fast forward a bit, I’m on the phone with them and I’m like, ‘Well, obviously no one is eating in the cafeteria.’

They said, ‘Yeah, but people really felt that they were missing a lot of these rituals. And so we got together with our HR team to brainstorm what we could do.’ They said, ‘Well, what about if we do lunch roulette. We’ll keep it in the same time zone so I’m not having breakfast while somebody else is having lunch and we’ll let people opt in and we’ll give them a gift card.’ I was very cynical, like ‘Oh, another Zoom, like shoot me.’ And they said, and I agree with this: ‘Not every Zoom is created equal.’ If you can be intentional around your rituals, around your meetings—around beginnings and endings, what I call ‘prime rituals real estate,’ like setting the tone in the beginning, how you end the meeting—it is possible to maintain some of that magic, even when people are remote.

Some companies are making work flexible, or asynchronous—which means that you might not be working the exact same hours as your team. Won’t it be a really big challenge for rituals if people are not only not in the same place, but not necessarily working the same hours?

Right now, it’s a buyer’s market. The employees are driving all of this. My guess is when the pendulum swings back and it’s a seller’s market, when the companies are driving, there will be more people in the office. That being said, what I’m seeing with asynchronous companies and teams is that you still can have rituals. You’re all working all different hours, but you know what, on Wednesday at 10am or whatever time is the best for your four different time zones, that one is mandatory and your camera needs to be on and you need to be in something other than a bathrobe.

The companies that don’t do that are going to lose people. We’re all working and asynchronous and life’s great. And I can take kids to wherever, I can do my 40 pushups in my office at home. But the minute somebody taps you on the shoulder and says, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you the exact same software engineer job and pay a little bit more, why don’t you come work for us?’ Well, why not? I’m not connected to any of these people. So that’s the issue, if they don’t get a sense of their own team, their own culture. It’s going to work differently for everybody, but I strongly believe that unless they’re okay having a revolving door, what’s going to keep me?

You’ve written about the importance of quality relationships with your colleagues. Amid the Great Resignation, it seems like a particularly high priority for managers to foster such relationships. What’s your advice for them?

In terms of tactical things, from the manager’s perspective you’ve got to build time to have one-on-ones. They don’t need to be every week for an hour. I actually think you can do them in much more bite-sized chunks. But you’ve got to be checking in one-on-one.

One ritual that a couple of leaders have shared is that everybody can go around the room—in person, remote, or hybrid—and share one word that describes how you’re showing up today. What that does for the manager is that it gives direct color commentary. So if you give a word or a phrase suggesting that there’s a tornado going on at home, it gives the manager the opportunity to then reconnect with that person later. It gives me an opportunity as your peer to say, ‘Let me help.’ Another CEO says they do a similar check in where people say whether they are red light, green light, yellow light.

The head of HR atDropbox shared that they designed a new management development program and a way for them to connect with employees. They told them to ask their people, ‘how are you really, really doing?’ Because if a manager says, ‘How are you doing?’ and you’re like, ‘does the person really care?’ you’re just often doing a box check. But this is ‘how are you really, really doing?’ and pausing. It shifts the conversation.

You can read a full transcript of our conversation, including discussion of how to design the days in the office when teams come together.

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