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 is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity:
You published this book about rituals and research what companies were doing in the office pre-pandemic and then you have gone back to some of those companies to understand how the rituals have evolved. What did you find?
When I was writing the book and beginning to understand what a ritual is, why are we even talking about rituals of work? What is the ROI? And was it just one more thing to do? There is an ROI and I took all the data and the science and created what I call the three Ps of rituals. The first P is they give us a sense of psychological safety and belonging, a sense of coming together. The second P is that rituals give us an opportunity to connect to purpose and to values. You add those two together and you get the third P, which is performance. You get that bump in performance.
There are many studies in the book. One that resonated the most with me found that when you do feel that sense at work that you can be you and have that sense of psychological safety, collaboration went up by as much as 47% and productivity went up by as much as 50%. So this is what rituals give us. This is why when we have them at work and they stick there is that magic. And that's why the subtitle in the book is 'how rituals transform everyday routines into magic.'
What is a ritual, and what are examples of rituals that are really effective for companies?
There's three parts to the definition of a ritual. 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. It could be something we do every week. It could be once a month. It could be once a year. It could be something we do every morning. 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.
That's the definition of a ritual. When I went out and I started explaining what a ritual is, talking about the ROI, and then saying to, for example, Marissa Andrada, the head of HR at Chipole, or a senior leader at LinkedIn and all the different companies that are in the book, one of the co-founders of Allbirds—I would explain it and 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. I'm going to tell you the question, and then I'm going to give you a couple of examples, and then I'll tell you how they changed during the pandemic.
The magic question is to Marissa, 'When do employees at Chipotle feel most Chipotle-ish?' Very high-tech, very technical. Most Allbirds-ish? Most connected? That question really seemed to resonate. When I asked it to Marissa, she said, we have many, but one is Chipotle opens at 6:30 in the morning, 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. (I don't know if you ever knew that so many people eat burritos at 10:30am, but they do.) So at 10:15am, they all sit down together and have a meal around the table (similar to the Spaghetti Project.) 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.
So that was one of her many answers to the question. When I asked Joey at Allbirds, he told me something totally different. They have a ritual called '40 at four.' The cool thing about rituals is that they can be top down. They can be bottom up. They can come from the inside out. They're best when aligned with values, but you're never quite sure what's actually going to stick. The story that Allbirds shared was that there was an employee, not one of the top people. He 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. And 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.' So 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. This organically grew and became a thing. 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. It goes back to the three Ps—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, 'oh my gosh, you guys must be so, so sad.' I had just handed in the book and I was able to put a lot of these new examples in the last chapter. And I'm like, 'you guys must miss each other at four o'clock every day.' And they're like, ‘You know what? 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 had this thick Australian accent. She 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?
There's ones that you couldn't do at home. And then people pivoted—like Allbirds was all online. Now there's a big issue around how do we figure out these rituals? Are there certain things that we only do on the one day we're in the office? Or, this is less of a ritual question, but when we have our team meeting, maybe one day a week, everybody, even if you're in the office, should call in from a different corner of the office to sort of democratize what they're feeling. Because I had a guy say to me the other day, 'I just had a meeting where I was home with a couple people in the office and I've never felt crappier. It was the worst day.'
Udemy is in the book and they had a ritual during the pandemic. Lunch at Udemy was the biggest thing. They had a huge cafeteria. Everybody went—and it wasn't one of these Google cafeterias where there's food all day. It was very intentional that it was only from 12pm to 1pm. What that did was everybody got in line, and you were shooting the breeze with the person in front of you.
They wanted it to have this communal feeling, and people didn't miss it. I got to go to the lunch once. 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.' Everybody went home.
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.' They can support their local takeout place and feel really good about that because during Covid we all did a lot of takeout and the goal is you just come on and you're having lunch. I was very cynical, like 'oh, another Zoom. When we're in the bowels of Covid—really?'.
If you were starting that new during the pandemic, I doubt it would have had that same kind of magic, but because it was a thing, a ritual and connected people. When I asked my magic question, that was something that jumped out. It was this reminder of what was before and just coming together with colleagues. It was a great way when there was a new person to bring them on, in a very organic and authentic way. I said, '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 in the book 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. It's going to swing back. 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. Where there's a will, there's a way.
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?
Nine out of 10 people leave because of their managers. They're leaving their manager and the managers are stressed more than ever, which is why we need to try to figure out ways and programs to help these managers. It's so multilayered, because even the people above the managers need to realize that when you look at a pie chart and what the managers need to take care of, that piece of it needs to be valued and compensated. When you look at the pie chart, maybe right now it's a lot more as a percentage than these other things. You really have to make sure that this is something that's important, starting at the top, and valued as a piece of their work.
In terms of tactical things, from the manager's perspective you've got to build time to have these 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. Rituals can really help with it. For example, if you're a manager and you're having your team meeting, and in the beginning of the pandemic, there were six minutes of a 60-minute meeting where we're spent checking in. Six months in, people were spending about half their meetings checking in. And now I always get the question, 'do I need to keep checking in?' Well, yes. You do, because this is not over and everything has changed. But you can't spend half the meeting doing it, or we're going to get nothing done.
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. You let your introverts know ahead of time that this is coming from an inclusivity perspective.
So the one-on-ones are really are critical. They're a time suck, but they are so critical. And people have taken less vacation, less time off than ever. So really make sure that you're on top of all of that from a mental health perspective. Some teams and full companies are saying, we're all closing on this day. Those kinds of things are really helping.
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.
Given the shift to hybrid work, how do you design a day in the office when you're bringing your team together?
What is the goal? If you're coming in once a month, what kind of actual work needs to get done? Whether it's once a week or once a month, is it more around team bonding? Is it more around personal and professional development? You need to figure out what the goal is so that you can design what success looks like. What I urge people not to do is to say, 'okay, let's just come in and do exactly what we were doing at home, but be in the office.' You say that these other things are really important—put your money where your mouth is and mean it.
Enough of this doing team bonding only after work. Only after 6pm, when first of all, we haven't been in the office in a year and a half and we're stressed enough leaving the house. Now we're running to take care of elderly parents and picking up kids, which we haven't done in a year and a half. It's a separate whole conversation, but from a diversity and inclusion perspective, not everything should be around drinking and about happy hour. I have people reaching out to me saying they just got out of rehab. So think about it through the values, think about it through honoring all those relationships, and working may not actually be the goal if you're coming in once a month. I would venture to say, it's actually not. You're not getting the big bang for your buck and the ROI. You want to get people to know each other because you're not bumping into each other at the water cooler.
Workplaces are where people encounter some of the greatest diversity in their lives. What are the implications of that in terms of the human relations at the office that you've studied?
I call my podcast 'Left to our Own Devices.' Left to our own devices, even in the office we're probably hanging out with people that are more like us. I'm hanging out, I'm going to synagogue with the people that are like me and my kids' friends' parents. If we're not intentional about how we connect with other people, we might find ourselves back with with the same kind of people. Whether that's through bringing together multiple ERGs or whether that's doing it through mentoring and professional development. I'm just not a believer that any of this happens organically as much as you might want it to.