With the majority of Americans ordered to stay at home, the COVID-19 crisis is disrupting our work routines, as well as our rituals—those behaviors that create connection and shared meaning, and also mark key transitions in our days.
Rituals happen whether you recognize them or not; for instance, there’s the in-person Monday morning meeting or Friday afternoon happy hour at the bar around the corner. Or, among the oldest, the handshake, which dates back 2,500 years to the ancient Greeks.
Recognizing the loss of these rituals—and the “jobs” they performed in our lives—allows us to discover and create new rituals to enhance our virtual lives and experience cohesion, even though we’re separated from our colleagues.
The ritualized commute
Take the daily commute, which most people probably never viewed as a ritual. Yet it marks the transition from personal life to the workplace and then back again. This calls for a new ritual to take over what had been the commute’s job of demarcating the start and end of the workday. Now, for example, perhaps at the end of the day, closing the laptop and hiding the workspace can signal the workday is over.
For working parents, instituting rituals to signal the start and end of the “school day” (and lunchtime and recess) can help create a structure for children engaged in remote learning. More important than the specific physical actions are the meanings assigned to these behaviors, particularly the social and emotional aspects.
Rituals connect us to a bigger picture of the true values of an organization or society. Engaging in them can improve our work (and other) relationships by turning ordinary moments into extraordinary experiences.
Here are some ways to create new rituals in the virtual workplace.
Maximize meeting time
In-person meetings usually start with small talk, a familiar ritual that forges and reinforces shared bonds. As remote employees shift to conference calls and Zoom meetings, casual conversation is often lost, and with it an important social connection among colleagues. One solution is to ritualize the start of meetings by devoting several minutes for the sole purpose of allowing people to talk about what’s going on in their lives. It needs to be structured—everybody knows what that first 5 or 10 minutes is used for—so the freeform “antistructure” of casual conversation can perform its job of bonding across social distances.
Be open to new ritual experiences
New rituals often emerge spontaneously. What seems fun in the moment suddenly takes on a much deeper meaning. For example, a fixture of the culture at design consultancy Ideo (where the coauthor of this post, David Schonthal, is a senior portfolio director) was the regular Monday lunch meeting everyone attended in person. When that gathering went virtual with dozens of people appearing in a separate “tile” on the screen, a ritualized sign-off occurred one day. Every participant waved at their webcams simultaneously and then disappeared from the screen, one by one. It was such a hit, the goodbye ritual is now performed and recorded every week, then distributed as a reminder of our shared time together until the next weekly meeting.
Put values into action
Rituals are essential for establishing and reinforcing values. Social distancing is an expression of the values of safety and caring for others. While this ritual involves sacrifice by each individual, its job is to promote the greater good.
Keep communities together
Many offices have a social side that serves to build camaraderie. Now, in the remote-working world, people are recreating such experiences with virtual happy hours and even virtual birthdays. Some are quite elaborate, such as the virtual happy hour with a featured drink that everyone prepares at the same time, as the designated host explains the history of it.
Rituals need to have a cost
For rituals to have meaning, they must carry a cost—a small sacrifice of some sort. (Ask anyone who has ever hosted a holiday dinner.) For virtual-world rituals, the cost is the effort and time involved. And that’s exactly what makes these experiences more meaningful. When people recognize the investment required to have a ritual, they are more likely to engage.
The loss of routine and a sense of normalcy can result in disconnection and amplify distance into isolation. By creating and discovering new rituals, we can foster a sense of community to help us cope in these disruptive, uncertain times.
David Schonthal and Loran Nordgren are professors at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Schonthal is also a senior portfolio director at Ideo.