Why Rituals Are the Secret to a Successful Distributed Workplace (and How to Create Them)

Humans are creatures of habit whether we want to admit it or not. In the ongoing shift from office-centric work culture to distributed workplaces, managers are doing their best to build virtual offices for team members, recreating the techniques they are used to through digital tools.

Conference rooms are replaced by Zoom links, achievements are celebrated on a Trello card instead of the breakroom whiteboard, and quick notes for coworkers are shared in a Slack DM rather than whispered over a cubicle wall. It’s all there… or is it?

There’s something missing from many virtual office environments that can make or break a team, and it’s something that humans have engaged in since we were scribbling rocks on cave walls: Rituals. In a virtual office environment where teams are scattered across cities, states, or even time zones, it can be exhausting to keep everyone aligned and feeling connected to one another. It’s in these moments where rituals among entire teams or between individual team members can make those connections feel more natural. 

Rituals are so innate to our human experience that they emerge organically. In an office environment, small groups gather throughout the day to make coffee, get some fresh air, or take an afternoon walk. Teams organize potlucks, support each other during difficult times, and celebrate big moments.

One-off activities become habits, and soon become workplace rituals ingrained in the culture. This happens easily when teammates work physically alongside one another, but require additional effort for remote or hybrid teams. However, the payoff in team morale and the feeling of belonging is irreplaceable.

Team members need a sense of belonging to feel comfortable. They want to know that their work matters not only to their manager but to their coworkers. Nobody wants to feel like they’re not pulling their weight, and when a team is firing on all cylinders, every individual feels like they have a role to play and are vital to the success and happiness of their peers. It’s in rituals, both large and small, that team members gain that sense of camaraderie while feeling both supported and valued.

For managers that want their team members to feel connected to one another, there’s a space between not trying at all (bad) and trying too hard (almost just as bad) that you’ll have to navigate. It can seem daunting, but there are some simple steps you can take that will go a long way.

1. Create virtual “water coolers.”

In a physical office, the break room or kitchen is often where the action is. Create a virtual break room– a Slack channel dedicated to off-topic chatter is a great starting point– where team members can have casual conversations without worrying that they’re distracting others who are focusing on a task.

At my workplace Range, for example, we have a #coffeecooler channel, a hat-tip to a verbal slip up one of our founders made during a conference panel a few years back. Finding common ground with coworkers through similar interests and humor immediately makes a team feel more like a family, whether in-person or remote.

2. Celebrate important milestones.

Just because a team is distributed doesn’t mean it can’t formally welcome new people or use the classic office excuses to take a break, have a laugh, and eat some good food.

When I was Head of Engineering at Medium I looked forward to our FAM (Friday Afternoon Meetings) as we used them as an opportunity to celebrate anniversaries, introduce new team members, and high-five over new product launches. Now at Range, we have a remote-friendly take on that formula called Recap where we use a combination of Zoom, Range, and FigJam to enjoy similar rituals.

3. Practice gratitude.

Speaking of those Recap meetings, one of the most important things that we include is a gratitude session. As we go through our day-to-day workflows, the efforts of others aren’t always recognized in the way we’d like.

Setting aside time to express gratitude is great because you can let your teammates know that they had a positive impact on you and your work, and by the same token, you learn how you made someone’s day a bit better when you might not have realized it. Giving gratitude is as valuable to the giver as the receiver; gratitude has clear health benefits, helps people cope with stress, and means you will build stronger relationships.

4. Place trust in your team.

One of the worst things a person can feel is that they aren’t trusted. Limiting or, even worse, eliminating private communication between team members, strict clock-watching, and other forms of “Managerzilla” behavior are guaranteed to dump cold water on any ritual-building happening on a team.

A Zoom call that runs long because the group gets caught up chatting about sports, movies, or their favorite flavor of ice cream should be cherished, not punished. Or consider when a Slack channel gets derailed with music recommendations and YouTube videos, it can be an opportunity to blow off steam and close the stress cycle.

When the work resumes, happy team members will be doing better work and more of it. On the other hand, scolding the team for “wasting” time will win you an entire afternoon of very little progress.

5. Don’t force it.

It’s important not to be heavy-handed when trying to facilitate ritual and team-building opportunities. Demanding that every team member participates in every activity can be a recipe for resentment. Everyone has their own speed, so let them warm up to new rituals and team habits when they’re ready. And remember, just because you don’t see a ritual playing out in front of your eyes doesn’t mean it’s not happening. If the same person disappears for a half hour every afternoon at the same time, they may be engaging in their own personal work time ritual like mediation or chatting with a friend. Recognizing those moments and respecting them goes a long way.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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