Workforce Development

Using Rituals to Improve the Workplace

June 12, 2019  • Kursat Ozenc

Kursat Ozenc is a senior user experience designer at SAP Labs Palo Alto. He also teaches design at the Stanford He’s the author of Rituals for Work: 50 Ways to Create Engagement, Shared Purpose, and a Culture of Bottom-Up Innovation. In it, he writes about rituals and meaning-making. Ozenc will speak in the Aspen Ideas track In Search of Meaning.

We spoke with him about how rituals can make our work lives more meaningful.

Your book, Rituals for Work, explains how creative rituals can make our lives more meaningful — both at home and at work. Can you give an example of such a rewarding ritual?

Yes, one ritual in the book is called “The Small Moments Jar.” It helps teams build a healthy culture by instilling a habit of recognizing contributions of all shapes and sizes. When a teammate does something great – whether it’s helping out on a deadline, giving a great presentation, or bringing in fancy cupcakes – another teammate writes it down on a small slip of paper and puts it in a jar. The jar is emptied regularly, such as at the end of the weekly all-staff meeting.

The Small Moments Jar can be integrated into the team’s day-to-day routine, with a low threshold of what contributions can be recognized. The Jar should grow weekly, with all kinds of small appreciations. This is the back-stock of positive relationship moments that can then be drawn from to keep a team strong. A team can choose to hold a monthly ritual of reading through the jar’s notes.

Who are these rituals for?

These rituals are for people who want to improve their work lives. When we (myself and co-author Margaret Hagan) were working on the book, we approached it as a design project. We identified four personas. First, people who are hired to work on workplace culture. They might be part of operations or human resources. Operations staff run facilities. The HR department is responsible for keeping employees happy and engaged. The second persona is the manager. They lead a team or a project and know the life cycles, ups, and downs, of a team. They also know what it takes to build and maintain a team. The third persona is designers or coaches who work on organization and service design. They help improve or repair an organization’s culture. Our final persona is an informal leader who takes charge and is intentional about improving work-life. This persona is especially exciting. They are the hidden heroes of the workplace, and we want to hear their stories.

What are the ingredients for a good, impactful ritual?

A good ritual has certain ingredients and mechanics. Based on our research and experiments, we discovered the majority of rituals have three ingredients: intention, a contextual trigger, and a ritual flow (beginning, middle, and end). Intentionality makes or breaks a ritual. If you lose the intentionality, it will turn into a mindless and automatic routine. Ritual is always tied to a specific trigger in one’s schedule: before going to bed, Sunday morning, etc. Finally, a ritual has a script: beginning, middle, and end.

A good ritual has a je ne sais quoi quality that differentiates it from the mundane and the obvious. It involves a symbolic prop that helps people invest meaning. A ritual is flexible and evolves over time based on the needs of its participant.

Impactful rituals sync people so they feel a sense of togetherness and flow. To get to this synchronicity, some rituals rely on social technologies, such as sharing food, the use of masks and costumes, and the use of music. Meaningful rituals create emotional energy that moves and elevates people.

Why is play important to ritual? What kind of playful ritual might you recommend for a company that’s struggling with teamwork?

Two things come to mind: play encourages an experimentation mindset and play helps build trust.

Play, from an evolutionary perspective, is how we experiment with life. When children go out and play, they enact roles, break things, push boundaries, and learn new things. In ritual, play is important for the exact same reasons. In ritual, we can be someone else without baggage from the hassles of daily life. Famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz has an excellent quote on this. He says, in ritual, “the world as lived and the world as imagined, turn out to be the same world.” Ritual gives you a sandbox, a safe space to try out your new role.

Play also helps us establish trust. In one of our classes at the Stanford, we worked with a primatologist friend, Isabel Behncke. She studies the dynamics of play in bonobos apes. Bonobos apes use play to establish trust in their community by being vulnerable to each other. They leave themselves on their mate’s hands while hanging from a tall tree.

For teams struggling with teamwork, I suggest a creativity ritual, called “Design Mad Libs.” It is a quick and playful ritual game in which teams are challenged to imagine and build absurd things. The team is given an empty framework — a Madlib, with missing words — that they fill in with random words they draw from a stack of cards or from a hat. The team must work together to build, draw, or act out this new thing.

At the lab you helped create, The Ritual Design Lab at Stanford University, there’s a ritual design hotline. What happens when someone calls this?

This is actually one of our conceptual design pieces. There’s not an actual hotline per se. We wanted to explore the possibility of a new ritual advisor who would give ideas on meaning-making for people. It was also an attempt to reframe ritual as an urgent need for people suffering from loneliness or struggling with a lack of meaning in their lives. We were inspired by advice columnists and Martha Stewart who give suggestions on life matters. We are cooking up a new project based on this concept piece. It’s a text-based offering where people can sign up for receiving new ritual ideas. They can also text and receive ideas. We are in the prototyping phase for this project.

Are the new rituals you’re presenting stand-ins for ancient, religious rituals? Is there a problem with turning to a designer rather than a rabbi or priest?

Not exactly. We define our work in the realm of secular rituals. For us, rituals are strategies for people to navigate change, create meaning, and find purpose. That can mean small or large rituals, and they don’t necessarily have to replace older ones. It is understandable to think rituals and religion as natural pairs. That being said, a Pew Research study shows most of the millennials are unaffiliated, meaning they are not part of any organized religion. They find meaning in other places. In How We Gather, my friends Casper ter Kulie and Angie Thurston show how millennials are finding meaning in places like Crossfit and Soulcycle. As designers, we are neutral. We follow the human-centered design approach, which emphasizes empathy and meeting people where they are. Our goal is to open up conversations and creativity about creating rituals that work for people, not to prescribe particular rituals as the best ones for people to use.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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