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This Stanford-designed system will help you navigate the workplace after COVID-19

Creating rituals and practices will keep employees engaged and happy no matter where they’re working from.

This Stanford-designed system will help you navigate the workplace after COVID-19
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It’s been more than a year since the majority of office workers went remote. People have scrambled to adjust and keep both their work and home lives afloat. Sorry, you’re on mute! Hold on a minute, my camera’s not working. Never mind that, my kindergartner is invading the room. Can you see my screen?

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One year of working this way has revealed the shortcomings of our existing tools and practices. But it’s also an opportunity to rethink our practices from the ground up. What actually works for us? How did we end up like this?

Companies are already starting to discuss a post-pandemic future in which remote work is much more prevalent. But the reality will likely be hybrid, with some employees working mostly remotely, some working largely from the office, and some doing both. This creates a number of challenges but also the opportunity to redefine work. Companies should leverage rituals to prepare themselves for this hybrid future.

Ann Swidler’s seminal work, Culture in Action, states that people use culture as a tool kit in unsettling times, which COVID-19 certainly is. Being intentional about creating cultural practices like habits, routines, rituals, and stories can help redefine work as we move into a new normal.

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How can we be more intentional about these culture practices? At Stanford d.school, we’ve been using a human-centered design approach to creating rituals. We began with personal rituals, then shifted to work. Initially, these were designed for in-person work, but as COVID-19 forced people out of the office, we adapted them for remote work. These seven components are critical to creating an effective hybrid work environment.

Infuse equalizers into your meetings

Do you remember a time when you were the only one connecting to a meeting virtually? Having such a limited remote presence created an unfair advantage for the majority of people who were in the same physical space. This asymmetric participation will be exacerbated in the upcoming hybrid era. To create more equitable participation and distribution of power, you need equalizer meeting practices.

[Image: courtesy of the author]
For instance, everyone could connect from a screen instead of populating an office room. Teams can identify meeting spots in the office with interesting backgrounds. To make it more engaging, people can gather in pairs or trios and connect to the bigger meeting within these pods. Further, the meeting host should make a greater effort to engage remote participants by starting conversation rounds with them or asking questions that include them in the discussion. The role of meeting host can rotate between remote and in-person participants so that the weight is more balanced.

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Add care practices to your weekly team life

The pandemic showed us the hard way that well-being matters more than anything else. When we’re back in office, companies should instill practices that nurture a caring environment. This is as critical as the work that needs to be done. Such a mental shift isn’t easy, and companies will need to acknowledge that more “work” hours must be spent doing nontraditional activities.

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Here are a few ideas: Teams can set caring time blocks on their calendar for set activities. For example, the team can set Local Adventure days to hike or sightsee together while enjoying lunch. This can be extended to remote employees by offering them free lunch and suggesting a destination in their area. Adventure highlights from different locations can be shared when everyone returns.

Space is another strategy, and wellness rooms can be designed with more intentionality. For instance, we designed a wellness room in our workspace that has a forest ambience with a wall-to-wall forest mural, a diffuser, and comfortable seating for people to rejuvenate. Rather than seeing these activities as time away from the bottom line, companies need to understand how they play into employees’ overall mental health and productivity.

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Strengthen human connection with special-interest gatherings

Human connection is the bedrock of collaboration and getting things done. Jane Dutton coined the phrase “high-quality connection” to articulate why personal connections matter and how they can pave a way for high-performing teams. Research also shows that people’s efficiency increases when they know each other personally and have relationships that go beyond the workplace. This will become more challenging in a hybrid work environment, so it’s even more important for team leads to initiate gatherings that give employees the opportunity to connect.

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Here are a couple of ideas for special-interest gatherings, where team leads can initiate high-quality connection rituals for people to discover their shared goals, interests, and histories. For instance, randomly assign people in pairs and ask them to find a commonality between themselves in two minutes. Once they’re back from their conversation, ask people to share some highlights. This can also take the approach of a “Meet’n Three,” which Ideo Chicago employed, using a bot to randomize three-person groups with a little bit of intention. The bot mixes people with different ranks, disciplines, and locations to create the opportunity for serendipitous encounters and creative connections.

Dial emotions up and down to manage energy

People have limited energy that shifts throughout the day and during the week. Hybrid work will make it harder to recognize the signs of wear and tear on a team or if someone is feeling burnout. Team leads need to be proactive in providing energizer activities.

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If you notice that everyone is dragging by noon on a Thursday, you could block off an hour in everyone’s schedule for them to do the physical activity of their choice. To refresh a drained group, lead a guided breathing exercise. If your remote participants are able to, have a walking meeting where everyone walks and attends an audio-only meeting.

Create mental spaces for collaboration

When people work together, they need to develop a common understanding so that there’s clarity on the work direction and tasks. Whiteboarding is a common practice to establish such a baseline during in-person meetings. In hybrid work, this will be a challenge. Team leads can use visual thinking practices and tools to facilitate effective collaboration.

There are a number of virtual tools that lend themselves to this; once the tool is set up, team members can work on tasks together. Team hosts can warm people up to this way of working by encouraging them to include personal touches like adding a photo to the tool and telling the story behind it. Companies who are less visually oriented can leverage online office tools that allow real-time collaboration (such as Google Slides or Microsoft Office). We also see some companies like SYPartners launching SimCity-type virtual offices where people can create rooms and virtual whiteboards for their colleagues to visit and collaborate asynchronously.

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Recognize people’s loss and grief

Microsoft’s most recent report mentions that one in six employees has cried with a colleague during the pandemic. People’s losses are on a spectrum, from being isolated from friends and family to losing loved ones. Recognizing the loss helps people acknowledge their emotions and assures them that it’s okay to grieve.

Team leads can support this by organizing something like a wake party, where people share stories of their loss and acknowledge each other. They could also create a mini garden in the office and let people pick a plant and commemorate their loss.

Send cues for belonging

Daniel Coyle talks about the importance of belonging cues in creating a healthy culture, which makes people feel psychologically safe. When a significant percentage of employees are remote, there are very few things to help them feel that sense of belonging in the company they work for. When a new employee joins remotely, the need for cues is exacerbated, as people lack the in-person cues of the office environment. Team leads and executives need to get creative in finding and expressing belonging cues to their remote workers with the company’s communications, practices, and policies.

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They can also be more intentional with recognition by doing things like creating a public display of appreciation ritual where everyone gets the chance to appreciate another colleague during a weekly meeting. There can be a calendar where everyone adds days that are significant to them, like a birthday or a celebration from a different tradition.

Hybrid work will be a significant change for many people. Creating healthy, positive, productive environments when employees are scattered across the globe will be a challenge and will require strategic thinking and creative solutions. Focusing on equity, well-being, human connection, energy, and collaboration will be critical in order for companies to build intentional culture practices and adapt to this new normal.

Kursat Ozenc is a lecturer at Stanford d.school and a design director at SAP Labs; some of these rituals were adapted from his books, Rituals for Virtual Meetings: Creative Ways to Engage People and Strengthen Relationships and Rituals for Work: 50 Ways to Create Engagement, Shared Purpose, and a Culture That Can Adapt to Change.