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How Remote Team Rituals Can Improve Your Company Culture

Rituals are symbolic shared experiences that strengthen connections, communication, and a sense of belonging. Through repetition, they help reinforce desired beliefs and behaviors.

By Gustavo Razzetti

June 23, 2021

Frequently asked questions about team rituals – virtual and not

Successful organizations have been using team rituals to bring people together for many years. However, it took a global pandemic for most companies to discover the power of well-designed rituals.

There's a lot of confusion about rituals. Many people use the terms icebreakers, team building activities, and rituals interchangeably. Although these are connected, they are not the same.

In this article, I will share exactly what a team ritual is, their benefits, and when to use them. I'll also provide answers to the most frequent questions I get from participants of our Culture Design Masterclass (yes, we teach people how to design rituals, too).  

What Is a Team Ritual?

A ritual is a symbolic act that enables identity transformation, resulting in a change of behavior.

Frederick Pferdt, Chief Innovation Evangelist at Google, defines rituals as "tangible acts done routinely that carry value and meaning."

A ritual is a patterned, repetitive, and symbolic enactment of cultural belief or core values. Rituals increase social cohesion, aligning the belief system of the individual with that of the group. The more a belief system is enacted through ritual, the stronger it becomes.

According to IDEO's CEO Tim Brown, "Rituals create a constant nudging so that, over time, a culture learns to do something naturally and intuitively."

That's why a ritual requires repetition to create a real impact. The more the beliefs are enacted, the more natural and organic they become. It's for this reason that religious leaders encourage their members to participate regularly—for example, by coming to church every Sunday.

What Are the Key Characteristics of a Ritual?

Five characteristics define a team ritual, as I explained in a previous piece on how to design successful team rituals:

1. Rituals require a trigger

Different elements can trigger a ritual. For example, a specific date or moment: every Monday at 8 am or at the beginning of our weekly action meeting. Internal events (when a new hire joins our team or when we finish a project) or external events (when clients congratulate the team or our product receives an award) can also act as a trigger.

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

In cultural anthropology, a ritual is a journey in which one individual leaves one group or state to join another. Each rite of passage involves three clear steps: beginning, middle, and end.

The first part of the journey is the separation phase – for something to start, something else must first end. The second part is the transitional stage, called "liminal," where transformation and growth happen. Finally, the "incorporation" stage closes the cycle, welcoming the person or group to a new state.  

An example is Airbnb's human tunnel. New employees start their journey at the end of a tunnel made by all employees. The middle, crossing the tunnel, represents the transition from one state to another. Finally, they come out the other side. The passage makes them feel welcome while they transform from being a "new hire" to "one of us."

Rituals are short stories that bring our culture to life through small acts. Consider the beginning, middle, and end as the three parts of the storytelling arc: Exposition, Climax, and Denouement.  

3. Rituals transform people for the better

From creating a sense of belonging and increasing appreciation of small victories to reminding us of why we joined an organization, rituals change not only how we feel, but also our mindsets and behaviors.

When designing a ritual, it's crucial to outline the emotional reward: how do you want the team to feel after completing the ritual?

For example, at our Build a Fearless Culture program, we facilitate a ritual that's called "Why are you awesome?" Each participant gets their turn to humbly brag about themselves. After completing the ritual, everyone feels super positive and excited because they had their moment of glory. This ritual breaks through our perfectionist society. It gives people a space to reflect on their goodness and stop worrying about others' expectations.

4. Rituals occur with a particular frequency

Culture is what we repeatedly do. Team rituals help bring your company culture to life over and over by continually enacting a behavior that reminds your team members who they are, how they play, and why they want to work together.

The frequency of a ritual depends on its nature and trigger. Atlassian holds regularly scheduled weekly Slack Stand-Ups, but then their Brown Bag Sessions – informal learning meetings over lunch – occur whenever there's a need.

5. Rituals play a symbolic, transformational role

Unlike a Friday happy hour with our colleagues (a routine), rituals create deeper connections.

Not all rituals are as symbolic as others. However, most are very meaningful for the team members that are part of this collective experience.

For example, new employees at Google ("Nooglers") wear beanie hats with propellers on top. This ritual, which might feel ridiculous for outsiders, makes new hires feel part of an exclusive tribe.

What's The Difference Between Habits, Routines, and Rituals?

The three have something in common: repetition. They all include behaviors that we do on a regular basis. However, we practice habits and routines more often than rituals.

Two variables help explain the key difference between the three: Effort and Consciousness. As you can see in the chart below, rituals require the most of both.

Habits are small acts that we perform on a regular basis without thinking. Brushing your teeth is a perfect example. You probably do it at least twice a day, at the same time, without being aware. It's something that you learned when you were a kid and incorporated into your daily life.

Routines require more effort and awareness. For example, an exercise routine that involves changing your clothes, warming-up, exercising, stretching, taking a shower, etc. It involves more steps and elements, thus requiring more effort and consciousness.

Rituals require even more effort and consciousness. The devil is in the details. Rituals are not just about doing something, but about how you do it. It involves aligning a team, focusing more on the task at hand, and paying attention to others, among other things.

What Separates Team Rituals from Team Bonding Activities?

It's easy to confuse the terms "team building" and "teamwork." While both are vital to success, they are two distinct concepts. Team building focuses on the formation of groups, while teamwork concentrates on the function of groups.

Teambuilding activities increase connection, belonging, and cohesion. Teamwork goes to a deeper level. It includes promoting psychological safety, collaboration, and productivity. Actively building and developing teams is important to deal with changing dynamics – teams are flexible and members rotate continually. Amy Edmondson believes that teaming is essential to organizational learning – the effort requires developing both affective (feeling) and cognitive (thinking) skills.

While most people think of rituals as a way to create bonding and emotional connection, they're also very effective in developing teaming, not just team building.

Most icebreakers, like sharing what a colleague ate last night or a picture of their dog, are great to connect team members but are not rituals – they usually lack depth and are not performed frequently enough to become part of the culture. During the pandemic, many people started calling icebreakers rituals – although they feel similar, this undermines the power of well-designed team rituals.

For a client that was suffering from analysis-paralysis, we created a ritual called "On Air." When anyone notices that the team is spiraling and failing to 'land' on a decision, any member could turn on the "on-air" sign. Similar to what happens in a podcast or radio program, people must stop discussing things and run the show.

Are Agile Practices Rituals?

I've been getting this question a lot lately. Many agile coaches refer to check-in rounds, retrospectives, and other Agile practices as rituals.

There is a thin line that separates one from the other. Some team practices start as a ritual and, after some time, become part of the normal way of operating and lose their symbolism. What was originally a ritual ends up being a routine.

More than asking if one thing is a ritual or not, reflect on how the activity is practiced and connected to the culture. Is it something emotionally meaningful or practical, even if the team appreciates it? Is it a ritual or a routine?

Another important element to differentiate team practices from rituals is if they play a functional or emotional role. Team rituals are emotional by nature, while most methods focus on the cognitive side of culture – they are more functional.

When consulting with clients or running training programs, I use the following question as a rule of thumb: Is the nature of the act emotional or functional? When I created the Culture Design Canvas, I purposefully assigned team rituals to the right side – the emotional culture. If an activity or method that your team applies is mainly functional, then it's not a ritual.

Are Virtual Rituals Only Meant to Create Belonging?

Connecting people who were forced to work from home encouraged many teams to start using team rituals. However, creating emotional connections is just the tip of the iceberg.

Rituals are powerful because they create awareness of the mindsets and behaviors that we want to change. They do much more than creating belonging.

At Heiligenfeld, the "Who will ring the bell today?" ritual creates a pause when a meeting is going off track. When ground rules are not respected, the sound of the bell invites participants to reflect on their own behaviors. "Am I in service of the topic we are discussing? Am I adding value or being a distraction?" The meeting restarts with a more effective mindset.

Similarly, this basketball coach wants his team to always end practice on a positive note – with a shot made, not a shot missed. His "Slam Dunk" ritual makes players leave practice looking forward to winning the next match.

Rituals are perfect to call out bad behaviors in a non-threatening way. In our online workshops, we start playing with a pair of scissors when someone is stealing too much airtime from the rest. It's a friendly way to create awareness by leveraging a metaphor instead of having to tell people to "cut it out."

As anthropologist Clifford Geertz said, “The world as lived and the world as imagined, turn out to be the same world.” Ritual gives team a sandbox to play and experiment.

When Can I Use Rituals for Remote or Hybrid Teams?

Multiple team occasions are perfect for leveraging the power of team rituals.

We use different frameworks to help organizations identify opportunities and define when to use rituals for remote or hybrid teams.

Identify key moments along the employee life-cycle, like welcoming a new hire. The different stages of a project also offer great opportunities for rituals. You can celebrate the kick-off or the completion of any project – and everything in between.

Cultural tensions (specific emotions, mindsets, and behaviors that get in the way) can be addressed with team rituals. Most of the challenges of any cultural transformation could get some help from effective team rituals.

"The Small Moments Jar" is a simple way to recognize contributions of all sizes. It's excellent for cultures who suffer from perfectionism and forget to value daily accomplishments. When a teammate does something extraordinary – whether it's helping out on a deadline, learning a new skill, or bringing in fancy cupcakes – another teammate writes it down on a small piece of paper and puts it in a jar.

Companies need to leverage opportunities to keep culture alive despite the physical distance.

Hotjar holds weekly virtual bonfires that get employees together in an intimate and casual environment. People use this moment to catch up, discuss interesting topics, and share new ideas. Sometimes special guests join, and people can ask them anything while enjoying the warmth of a virtual fire.

Check out this article to leverage different frameworks and design good rituals. One word of caution, though. The fact that you can create a ritual for each of these moments doesn't mean that you have to. Be mindful and use rituals with moderation.

How to Use Rituals in Virtual Meetings?

You can begin or end a meeting more engaged, create transitions between topics, increase focus and participation, or build stronger human connections. Most importantly, virtual team rituals help create a shared culture despite the physical distance.

The Perspective Pause ritual is a great way to empathize before a meeting where conflicting views can affect team dynamics. Set up the right scenario and invite people to reflect in silence so that they can ask better questions and overcome prejudice.

Use the following questions as prompts:

- What would you guess are your colleagues' perspectives on this topic?

- Try to understand why people think the way they do – always assume good intent.

- What's your take on this topic? Why is yours different from others? What if you're not right?

- Treat each perspective – including yours – as a hypothesis. Write down questions to challenge or validate the different POVs.

Recreate in-person rituals into the virtual space. Zappos sent a herb garden kit to its employees to recreate an in-person ritual that people were missing. At the HQ, Zappos employees grew vegetables at the company garden and ate the produce together. The virtual kit recreates the collective experience – employees share their herb gardens and the food they cook with them, keeping the sense of community alive.  

What Defines an Effective Team Ritual?

When designing a ritual: don’t overthink it, just build the first thing you can, then move to more sophisticated versions later.” - Tim Brown

Focus on human-centered problems. Team rituals should be designed to solve actual cultural tensions or issues affecting your team. Rather than creating a ritual out of the blue, connect it with something that will make it valuable to your team.

As a reminder that OXO products must fit in hands of every shape and size, employees collect lost gloves that they find around the world and showcase them on a wall in their office.

Keep them short and sweet. The best rituals are simple. They don't need too many elements or explanations – the simpler, the merrier.

When you visit HR software company Gusto's office, you'll immediately notice that no one is wearing shoes. You'll actually be asked to remove yours, too. Gusto's founders were raised in no-shoes homes. Taking yours off is a sign of respect to the company's traditions. Most importantly, it's Gusto's way of making you feel at home.

Involving teammates in the design process is vital. On the one hand, having ownership will increase their openness to practice the ritual. On the other hand, successful rituals need to be authentic – employees don't want to adopt practices created by their boss in a vacuum.

Measure the effectiveness of rituals. Test different ritual ideas at an early stage and use feedback to improve them. Monitor whether rituals are helping drive the change you are looking for.

Only a few rituals are timeless. If a ritual helped cure one of your organization's cultural neurosis (such as perfectionism, procrastination, or lack of accountability), then it's time to let go of the ritual. Also, a ritual can quickly become repetitive and lose meaning, turning into a habit. If that's the case, try evolving certain aspects of it – or simply kill it.

Be ready to acknowledge when a ritual's time has passed.

What Tool Can I Use to Design Rituals?

The Team Ritual Canvas is the framework we apply to design effective team rituals. It's free to use. Download the template and review the facilitation guide here.

Wrapping Up – The Power of Team Rituals

Rituals are symbolic shared experiences that strengthen connections, communication, and a sense of belonging. Through repetition, they help reinforce desired beliefs and behaviors.

Team rituals are unique to each company or team culture – they only make sense to those who are part of the experience. Use the above examples as inspiration. Create your own rather than copy what worked for other organizations.

There are many opportunities to use well-designed team rituals. Use them mindfully and in moderation.

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