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The Best Rituals to Build Strong Remote Teams

Virtual rituals are a powerful way to build team culture. They are not the cure to all remote problems, but definitely should be part of your playbook.

By Gustavo Razzetti

February 24, 2021

Rituals are an effective way to build a remote team culture. Keeping culture alive while working from home has been challenging for most leaders. Virtual meetings have taken the magic away from their teams.

Working from home has disrupted people's routines, adding endless meetings, digital miscommunication, and isolation to an already busy life. Team rituals are not the cure to all problems related to remote work, but they can bring back connectedness and belonging.

Keep reading for top tips and ideas from various companies using virtual rituals to build strong remote teams.

What Are Rituals and Why Do They Matter for Virtual Teams?

Most people confuse having fun as a team with a ritual. While team rituals can be fun, their purpose is to change behavior, not just bring joy. That's the crucial difference between an event such as a happy hour and a team ritual.

Working from home feels strange; people miss connecting with their colleagues and feeling part of a team. You probably miss that experience, too: the casual interactions, daily routines, being able to read the room, and the feeling of belonging.

Our work on workplace culture has always leveraged the power of team rituals to drive change. In the past year, we've been applying our team ritual design expertise to help remote teams create their own.

Many people have asked me to put together a list of simple rituals that teams can experiment with. Before sharing the examples, let's clarify what we really mean by a team ritual.

Rituals are symbolic shared experiences that strengthen bonding, morale, culture, communication, and a sense of belonging. Through repetition, they help reinforce positive behaviors and emotions. Team rituals are unique to each company or team culture – they won't make sense to you if you aren’t part of it.

Five characteristics define a team ritual, as I explained in this article about how to design successful team rituals:

1. Rituals require a trigger to get started

2. Rituals have a clear flow: beginning, middle, and end

3. Rituals make people feel better

4. Rituals occur with a particular frequency

5. Rituals play a symbolic, transformational role

Although distributed teams have challenges of their own, the approach to designing virtual rituals is the same. However, the when and how to use team rituals is slightly different.

Remote team rituals can occur in real-time or be asynchronous – people can participate simultaneously or at a different time. They can help create the emotional connection that's missing in a remote environment or improve the way the team works.

In this piece, I will share virtual team rituals to:

1. Get to know team members

2. Celebrate Culture, People, and Projects

3. Promote Wellbeing  

4. Increase Belonging  

5. Improve Virtual Meetings

1. Rituals to Get to Know Your Remote Team Members

Start recurring meetings with a quick question or activities to get to know each other better, especially people with whom you don't usually interact with.

Two truths and a lie: This popular game has become a go-to play for many remote teams to get to know members better. Each team member must tell three things about themselves – two are real, but one is not. People must guess which is which. This activity not only helps discover surprising facts about your colleagues, but also develops vulnerability and empathy.

Ask personal questions: What is your most treasured memory? Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest? What do you value most in a friendship? Personal, open questions create strong bonding, uncovering surprising insights about your colleagues. Use these 36 questions that turn strangers into friends.

Share the pain: Nothing makes a team stronger than dealing with hardship together. According to professors Martine Hass and Mark Mortensen, sharing the pain is the secret sauce for high-performing virtual teams. David Burkus suggests considering different time zones and contexts, so everyone has a few convenient meetings and a few late nights or early mornings.  

Build cohorts: Being part of a group makes it easier to go through experiences such as onboarding. Create group experiences where everyone can support each other. Miro onboards remote employees in cohorts to help build strong relationships. This approach allows people to feel welcome while learning about the company culture, history, and strategy, as well as familiarizing themselves with their colleagues.

Host a weekly bonfire: Every Wednesday, Hotjar employees gather around a virtual bonfire to catch up, talk about interesting topics, and discuss growth opportunities. This 60-minute, non-mandatory meeting sometimes includes special guests from outside the company.

People talk about the challenges of working remotely, life-work balance, crazy traditions from different countries, or what effective leadership looks like. Treating this gathering as a bonfire creates an intimate and open atmosphere that doesn't happen in regular meetings – that's a critical element of effective rituals.

2. Rituals to Celebrate Culture, People, and Projects

Team rituals are perfect for recognizing people or celebrating the beginning and end of projects. Rites of passage bring culture to life.

Rituals of Acclamation: Celebrating each other is critical for team members to feel acknowledged. Make time to thank everyone for the efforts and accomplishments – authentic expressions of gratitude and recognition really pay off. Invite everyone to express gratitude for their colleagues. You can also encourage people to show appreciation by using the "What I like about you is that…" going one by one.

"Unsung Hero" of the week/ month: Have the team vote and nominate one team member who has gone the extra mile, especially those who did so without bragging about it. For example, the shy person who contributed the most, or someone who did something beyond their comfort zone. A "thank you" note on Slack or an email signed by the entire team could do, although some people also award a gift or monetary reward.

Graduation ceremonies: Welcoming new team members is a critical celebration for every team, especially when people work remotely. Create a small virtual ceremony where new hires can introduce themselves and get to know their colleagues. Create a team map where everyone's profile is available.

Have a celebration song: Music brings people together, especially when it comes to celebrating smalls wins. Acknowledging accomplishments builds confidence and momentum. Unfortunately, teams working remotely are too busy to pay attention. One team I consulted with plays "We are the champions" by Queen at the beginning of their weekly Zoom call to announce quick wins.

Send a welcome package:  The fact that people work from home doesn't mean they can't still get some nice gifts from their new employer. Cupcakes hold significance to Dropbox – its fifth core value is a picture of a flying cupcake, representing delight. Every new employee receives an unlabeled box with a recipe and ingredients to bake their own.

Recover from losses: Rituals can also provide emotional support when your team goes through turmoil – resilience is developed by realizing that you faced adversity but "I'm Still Standing" (as Elton John's song reminds us). You can play music, have a virtual toast, or simply have a virtual huddle. A team I worked with wrote what went wrong on a piece of paper and then burned it to exorcise the group. You can recreate that on MURAL or use a GIF.

Celebrate your values: In his new book, David Burkus shares an example of a team that created a series of virtual backgrounds with their values. Before each meeting, members reflected on the value that meant the most to them at that moment, like "be bold" or "innovate." Rituals are simpler ways to celebrate what your company stands for.

Celebrate Loudly: Smalls wins deserve everyone's attention – they are the foundation for bigger accomplishments. At Kuli Kuli, wins are celebrated immediately — and loudly. Anyone can take a moment to recognize team achievements by banging a giant gong. We have a team that uses a recorded video of a gong to do the same, but virtually.

3. Virtual Rituals to Promote Wellbeing

Check-in Round: This practice has become ubiquitous in a virtual scenario. Teams are realizing that they need to connect with each other before jumping into the work. Unlike icebreakers, check-in rounds are about understanding the emotional state of your colleagues.

Give each member one or two minutes to share "What's got your attention?" The rest of the participants should pay attention without interruptions or making it about them (avoid the "that happens to me too."). Connecting with the mindsets and emotions everyone brings to the meeting increases focus and attention, as well as removes individual anxieties.

Body Stretch: During our full-day virtual workshops, we include not only breaks, but also activities to recharge as well as take care of participants' wellbeing. People love a guided body stretch facilitated by one of our coaches that reconnects them with their bodies. We spend so much time sitting in front of a computer that we forget to take care of ourselves.

Short meditation: You can practice a guided meditation with your team members to help them slow down and increase mindfulness. People don't need to be experts to practice if you have someone who can guide the experience ¬– you can also use one from YouTube. We were amazed to see that something we used to include in in-person workshops successfully translated onto Zoom.

Breathing exercise: Similar to the body stretch, but shorter and focusing just on breathing awareness. You can connect the experience with a particular goal like "A breath for strengthening collaboration and presence."

Set time limits: At Slack, people must check out at 6 pm. Most surprisingly, employees cannot use Slack after hours or during the weekend. The company wants people to play hard and then "go home."

Virtual coffee chats: You can schedule daily or weekly breaks to get the team together to grab a virtual coffee (or tea). The coffee itself is an excuse to remind people to take a break, chat with each other, and recharge their batteries. You can also organize 1-1 coffee chats, using apps like Donut to randomly pair different members. Besides taking a break, this is a great way to increase connections and empathy.

4.Rituals to Increase Belonging in Remote Teams

Culture is what we do repeatedly – the particular way of doing things together increases belonging and trust among virtual teams.

Create a collaborative playlist: Nothing brings us together – or sets apart – like music. Define different themes and have each colleague recommend a song to build a playlist that not only represents personal preferences, but also creates a shared identity

Collective connections: Synchronicity is a magical thing that deepens ties. Unfortunately, virtual meetings have eliminated opportunities to move together and be in sync. Play "Name Tag" – one person at a time points at someone's picture (everyone must have their Zoom in gallery view) and calls their name. That person has to tag someone else and so on. This ritual helps people familiarize themselves with each other, especially when launching a new cohort.

Host a Book Club: I worked with many teams who used to have a monthly gathering to discuss books but stopped doing so when the pandemic hit. Reading and discussing books as a group fosters a learning mindset and welcomes unique perspectives – everyone reads the same book but observes different things. Reading together drives bonding and rewires your brain.

Meet my pet: Who doesn't love pets? Even if you don't have one, they are fun and tell us a lot about our coworkers. Last week, as I was wrapping a full-day Masterclass, everyone started showing their pets. It was a spontaneous act that brought the cohort together. People felt so connected during the workshop that they wanted to share something personal.

Hosting a weekly "bring your pet to Zoom" event can bring to light our furry teammates.

.gif Battles: This is a fun way to bring everyone's competitive spirit to life. Gifs are also a great way to share emotions in a remote, distant workplace. The game consists of four rounds, each with a different theme. Participants must share a .gif for each topic; the most voted one wins the round.

Copy this Trello board template and invite your teammates to join it. (Click on the "How it works" card to see full instructions for the game.) – courtesy of Atlassian.

Show-And-Tell: Many teams used to practice this at the office, but stopped doing so when they went fully-remote. You can host this before a meeting or on a special occasion, like wrapping up a Friday. Ask people to share a story, giving everyone 3-5 minutes. It could be a home décor piece from their home office, a song they composed, something they painted, or a picture from a vacation.

Recreate in-person rituals: Zappos sent a herb garden kit to its employees to recreate an in-person ritual that people were missing. The company has the Llamaste Garden, where all the produce was shared by everyone. Now teams share how their home garden is growing as well as what they cooked. Although people are 'isolated,' sharing recreates the communal experience of the physical garden.

Virtual Teams Contests: Subcultures are powerful because the smaller the group, the bigger the sense of belonging. Creating competitions between various teams from the same company reinforces belonging, but also breaks down silos. Organize cross-company contests for "Best Team Photo," "Coolest team pet," or "Best team virtual background," to name a few. Offering a prize, like a rewards card, so that the team can have a virtual coffee together is always welcomed.

Coffee & Learn: Similar to a lunch and learn, but shorter and done virtually. Hold regular coffee and learn, giving people turns to share something they are good at or something they learned recently. Mix skill or business-related content with personal stuff. Creativity comes from unexpected places; don't limit learning to technical content.

Entertainment Slack Channel: Who needs yet another Slack channel, right? However, having a specific open and safe space to talk about movies, weekend plans, TV shows, or what people ate last night recreates watercooler conversation. It also ensures specific project channels are kept more kosher. You can include hobbies and personal activities as well.

5. Team Rituals to Improve Virtual Meetings

Well-designed team rituals can help improve participation, one nudge at a time. Rituals can be fun, but they’re anything but silly. You can design team rituals to enhance collaboration and productivity, too.

Call-out Interruptions: One of the most annoying and harmful practices during a meeting is people talking over each other or a few controlling the conversation. Interruptions have skyrocketed in virtual environments – this ritual can increase awareness and ensure all voices are heard.

Timeboxing is critical – you can set up a phone alarm to let people know when their turn is over. Most importantly, create visual cues to help quiet people call out interrupters or loud voices. We've been using a scissor with many teams – participants can put it in front of their camera to tell someone to cut it out. Also, a blah-blah-blah card works marvels, too.

Blah Blah Blah Card by dotank

Incorporate Silence: Making space for people to reflect on a document or  thing before they talk helps increase participation among quiet people. You can also add intervals where people stay silent as everyone processes what has been said or shared. Another practice is to have people complete something on MURAL individually, then everyone compares results and discusses. Holding the silence by design is a powerful ritual; it reinforces trust and makes room for everybody to be actively present.

Your goal of the day: Most teams try to accomplish everything and end up achieving nothing. Cadence drives momentum: choose the critical goal of the day and focus on making it happen. Invite your team to a 10-minute huddle every morning. After setting priorities, have each member share their "one must-get done thing." Capture all goals on Trello,  MURAL, or Google Docs; each person should check theirs once they’ve completed their goal of the day.

Run a sparring session: This structured way to get feedback comes from Atlassian's playbook. Just as martial artists or boxers don't train alone, a sparring session with your colleagues will improve your game. Share your work and get quick, honest feedback in a safe setting, from the diverse perspectives of your colleagues.

Check out how to facilitate a sparring session and figure out what you need to polish or what's already working.

Have a phrase to close your meetings: In the drama series Hill Street Blues, sergeant Esterhaus closed every morning roll call by advising officers and detectives, "Let's be careful out there." This phrase reminds everyone of maintaining a careful balance between serving their citizens and dealing with hostile criminals.

One of our clients wraps up their weekly meetings with everyone saying "Onward and upwards" to move on and focus on the future. We close many workshops with the "Fail fast, fail smart" to encourage people to immediately start implementing the experiments they developed during the session.

Share a high and a low: Wrapping up a meeting is crucial. Unfortunately, most people rush to the next Zoom call without closure. For workshops or collaborative sessions, I invite every participant to share "a high and a low." We capture all in two columns in MURAL so people can go back to them, reflect on what drives everyone, and identify areas of opportunities.

Design detention: This ritual kindly shared by Alastair Simpson helps remote teams overcome constant interruptions. Teams need quality time and focus to tackle wicked problems. Design detentions are partial or full days where teams get together in the same (virtual) space to work without interruptions. Emails, Slack, meetings, and 1:1s are all banned. You can practice this once per week or twice a month.

Facilitate a closing round: Before the group leaves a video call, each person takes a turn sharing a phrase about how they're feeling regarding the work completed during the meeting. There's no room for comments or feedback; people just listen to what everybody has to say. Similar to the high and lows, this provides closure to the meeting, ensuring everyone has reflected and shared how they feel.

Move into action: Analysis-paralysis is even more pervasive when working remotely. I worked with an executive team made up of smart people, but who had failed to launch. We created a ritual called "On Air" – when anyone acknowledges that the team was spiraling and not making decisions, they would turn on an "on-air" sign. Like on a podcast or radio show, it reminds people that it's time to stop talking and go live.

The Power of Rituals for Remote Teams

Virtual rituals are a powerful way to build team culture. They are not the cure to all the challenges of working from home, but should definitely be part of your company's playbook.

Rituals are symbolic shared practices that reinforce belonging and culture. They share team behavior, one nudge at-a-time.

Designing team rituals starts by identifying the challenge you want to solve. Try some of the ones I shared above but, most importantly, create your own – even if it only means customizing existing rituals.

If you want to learn how to design team rituals for your virtual team, reach out or join our Fearless Culture Program.

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