Ask Alto : What are workplace rituals and can hybrid / remote teams still benefit?

February 02, 2023 Share this article:

Ask Alto

In his autobiography, Faf du Plessis, former South African cricket captain, describes a team ritual in which players throw protea flowers into a fire. The symbolism is rich: the team’s name is the Proteas, and the protea plant is known to need fire to release seeds and propagate. So, the team are refined through hardship, and are survivors.

The Proteas are not alone: sporting icons and teams all over the world have their rituals. Rituals are activities, events, or routines that are performed repeatedly, usually in a specific context and often for a specific purpose: think of the Christian ritual of going to church every Sunday, or the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

Workplace rituals abound too: from someone celebrating Friday by buying lunch instead of eating a home-made sandwich to a team’s coffee break, and from birthday rituals (cake for everyone!) to full-on corporate rituals like annual award ceremonies.

Why are they important?

Communal activities – which rituals often are – function to foster a sense of community among employees. Workplace rituals can help to create a sense of routine and familiarity, foster stronger relationships among team members, and boost employee morale and engagement. In a manufacturing environment, for instance, a “safety moment” at the start of every shift is a powerful way to make sure that everyone has safety top of mind.

They can be problematic

Workplace rituals are an aspect of company culture, and embody company values. As executive coach Scott Brown points out, the leader who eats lunch at her desk every day sends a powerful message about the value the company puts on work-life balance.

It’s possible that workplace rituals can exclude people: after-work drinks are not something people who don’t drink alcohol might want to attend. And the annual company picnic to which children are invited might be alienating to employees who don’t have children.

Rituals that demand involvement outside of work hours can also backfire. People who are burnt out might bristle at the thought of giving any more of themselves to companies that they feel over-work and under-value them, says Ezra Bookman, founder of Ritualist, a creative studio specialising in the design of secular ritual.

Bryan Hancock, McKinsey and Company partner, says that when workers resist a ritual, for whatever reason, leaders need to take a step back and ask themselves if the ritual really is communal. “If a ritual isn’t landing for the broader community, (the leader has) more work to do – maybe on the ritual, but maybe on the underlying connectivity, purpose, and sense of meaning.”

How to make meaning virtually?

That sense of underlying connectivity can be even more challenging to foster in the post-pandemic world of remote and hybrid work, where teams may struggle to find a common rhythm, or to establish rituals that are inclusive and meaningful for everyone involved. Here are some things to consider when creating meaningful rituals, no matter where a team is situated:

Identify which rituals work best for your team. This may involve some trial and error, as what works for one team may not work for another. Some examples of workplace rituals that work well for hybrid and remote teams include virtual coffee breaks, regular check-ins and virtual team-building exercises.

Get feedback from the team: Regularly ask for feedback from the team about the effectiveness of workplace rituals, and make changes based on their feedback.

Celebrate milestones and successes: Celebrate team successes and milestones, even if they’re remote. A check-in to ask people what they are proud of in their week can go a long way to making people feel valued.

Make rituals inclusive and accessible: do the research to make sure that a gathering accommodates people in different time zones.

Align rituals with company goals and values: Rituals need to with a team’s shared purpose and with broader aims. For example, if a company prioritises learning, regular skills-based “coffee conversations” could be a valuable way of sharing knowledge.

Be flexible: Be open to changing workplace rituals as needed to ensure that they continue to be relevant and meaningful.

Examples of workplace rituals for remote or hybrid workers (or for teams that work in different geographic locations:

  • Have a musical colleague perform live at every staff-wide meeting.
  • Have team members share photos of their lives at least once a week – consider a theme: “messy desks” or “view from my window”.
  • Have a small gift delivered to employee’s homes on their birthday.
  • Start recurring meetings with icebreakers: for instance, ask each person to share their favourite piece of advice.
  • Create a book club – a recurring event to chat about recent books
  • Create a virtual break room, for instance a Slack channel dedicated to off-topic chatter.