6th Jan 2021
3 Min Read

Harnessing the power of ritual in the remote world

Dr Alex Gapud
Dr Alex Gapud
Culture & Change

Rituals are powerful opportunities to build your organisation’s culture, but they’re often misunderstood. Cultural anthropologist Dr Alex Gapud explains how rituals can help your people feel more connected in a remote-first world.

I recently heard someone say that you can’t build culture through a screen. But that just doesn’t sit right with me. I think statements like this say more about what people think culture is, rather than any wisdom or truth.

Instead, I’d say organisational culture and values haven’t gone away because of the pandemic, but they have been tested and stretched, revealing some of the gaps and tensions between what we want to be and what we are.

While the remote revolution has brought its ups and downs with new ways of working, it hasn’t decimated the power of the ritual, with its ability to bond and build cohesion. Similar to every other cultural element, rituals haven’t disappeared in the virtual world, but they have shifted as people find new ways of building and cementing connection.

Rituals signal what’s important

Rituals are a vital dimension of your culture. They reveal both what your organisation strives to be and what it actually is. For example, Dropbox famously sends new recruits a build-your-own-cupcake kit to share and embody its core values. Starbucks has new hires taste coffee with their managers. Other companies find creative ways to publicly celebrate wins or colleagues’ success.

These moments are laden with the values and ideals of the organisation. Rituals can be a means of building transparency – for example, through business updates – or they can be used to build and solidify the team, perhaps via regular team lunches.

These acts signal how things are done around here and what’s important. They send the message to new hires while re-affirming those values to the veterans. They’re also a powerful way for new starters to learn social roles and practical hierarchies.

Rituals take high-level ideals and turn them into something felt and experienced. They’re a powerful way to put your values into practice in a memorable way, setting the tone for interactions with colleagues, customers and other stakeholders.

What makes a ritual?

To a cultural anthropologist, rituals involve core, basic elements:

  • They’re social – involving different people or groups. Think of the Anfield crowd singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, or congregations observing Passover or taking communion.
  • They’re about the group dynamic and affirming one’s membership in that group. This could be as formal as a company away day or as informal as a pub gathering with the same group of friends at the same time each week. What matters here is connecting with something bigger than ourselves.
  • They’re symbolic; infused with meaning. They’re not about the actions themselves (for example, standing up and singing a song or telling a story). What matters is singing that particular song or telling that specific story, together, in that moment.
  • They’re performed. Rituals involve participation, not simply watching.

Making ritual work for you

As we live our lives on those little boxes on Zoom, ritual can be useful to rally people together to help them feel more connected to both each other and the organisation.

Here are some questions to get you thinking about the power of ritual in your organisation:

  • With away days, AGMs and awards events now shifted into the virtual space, it’s time to rethink their whole format. You’re not paying for room hire or catering, so how can you spend that budget to transform the at-home experience? How can you foster the same level of engagement as a live event? What might people do together – albeit virtually – to create a memorable experience? Are there interactive games, activities, props or even songs you can incorporate into your event to evoke a sense of ritual and togetherness?
  • How are you bringing your core values to life – not just in words, but in actions? Ritual is most effective when people are actively involved. It also helps demonstrate your values internally, creating examples for people to refer to, both as a guide and as an experience to remember. This could be making time in the week to praise and celebrate employees; it could be gathering together regularly to share learnings or challenges. It doesn’t have to be overly complex.
  • What are you doing to onboard new employees and make them feel part of the organisation, especially if they’re starting remotely? Dropbox sends those cupcakes. Fintech Pleo uses LEGO bricks in its onboarding process. What’s important to you and how can you convey that in a simple ritual that all new starters go through? Onboarding is a powerful opportunity to use ritual to affirm your values and connect people to the organisation.

Do these issues sound familiar? Get in touch and let’s have a chat. At scarlettabbott, we use our scientific and practical expertise in understanding and diagnosing culture to help you leverage it and make it work for your people.

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