Strategy

Stories, Rituals and Return to Work

First, let’s not call it “return to work,” because people have been working, albeit not in the office. Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about how they’ll return to the office.

Depending on where you live and work, your company or organization may be preparing to return to work in the office. Various studies and articles are tracking how companies are managing this transition after employees have worked at home for up to a year. On the other hand, some companies are rethinking work altogether. Tech companies got a lot of media attention last year when they announced work-from-home wherever-whenever-forever policies. While some companies and employees have embraced work-from-home, others are actively planning a hybrid approach. Few believe that fully staffed offices will return any time soon.

Preparations are complex, as business leaders have to manage risk with considerations ranging from vaccination requirements to mask policies. They also have to address questions of costs. Should employees receive additional stipends to cover at-home technology and home office set-ups? Do companies need to lease so much space in downtown high rise buildings or suburban office parks? Policies and procedures need to address productivity, IT security, company culture and communications.

Why is a communications advisor talking about rituals?

Communication is much more than a collection of words and images. Experiences are also powerful ways to communicate, to create community and to support organizational culture and team cohesion. Special events, celebrations and rituals can all be part of a comprehensive communication strategy. In fact, they work particularly well in change management and communications.

Rituals can go a long way to helping organizations find cohesion in a common, albeit difficult, experience of transition.

Here is an example. We have worked with clients that have moved entire workforces — thousands of people — into new facilities. The former facilities were often historic and many employees had worked in them for decades. They had routines and patterns, from the person they always saw in the hallway to a favorite spot for lunch. We knew we needed to give them an opportunity to recognize the loss of their familiar grounds, and to provide some closure to that phase of their careers.

So before they packed their offices and prepared for the move, we distributed thick black markers and let them write on the walls of a main corridor. They wrote love letters to the building, notes of gratitude to their co-workers with whom they shared the space. They shared memories. and some even drew pictures. Some even printed photos and taped them to the walls. It became a memory wall, and a way to recognize the moment of transition with appropriate sadness, melancholy and gratitude.

Recognizing the Human Factor in Return-to-Work

Employees may feel ambivalent about returning to the office. They feel tension between longing for the camaraderie of working with colleagues in person and being hesitant to return due to safety concerns. We’ll take a wild guess and suggest that no one misses a long commute in heavy traffic. A study by Gartner showed the majority of employees would prefer to continue working from home for the foreseeable future.

However your company emerges from the last year, it is important that leaders recognize this moment of transition at the human level. Plans to return should go well beyond the pure logistics of how to schedule conference rooms or space out desks in open plan office environments. 

Mental health experts have been documenting the negative emotional impact of COVID-19. One study highlighted that “many are working from home with high levels of anxiety, personal challenges, conflicting priorities, economic strains and various other challenges. Stress levels are high, fatigue has set-in and we are all experiencing some level or form of COVID anxiety.” Wise leaders will recognize the isolation, loss and grief among employees, and prepare for it. 

The Role of Ritual

Rituals help us process our transitions by helping us make sense of our experiences. They are often tied to major life transitions such as births, baptisms, weddings, holidays and funerals. But they can be effective tools to recognize, honor and make sense of other types of transitions. Return to work is an optimal opportunity to help employees make this transition by recognizing their experiences of the past year and prepare them to move forward into this new world of work.

Rituals mark passages and cycles, provide a mechanism to give thanks or ask for protection. Mostly, it allows people to tell and hold their story. A ritual creates a meaningful experience that connects people to stories. 

Guiding Principles for Designing Rituals

Many rituals evolve over time. In this case, you will be designing a ritual from scratch. These are some of the important principles to consider:

Focus on people

No need to get too caught up in the trappings of symbols and ceremony. Keeping it simple, and focusing on the people and their experience.

Allow discomfort

This has been an incredibly uncomfortable year for many people. A workplace ritual should give people permission to hold that discomfort. This is no time for toxic positivity.

Engage the senses

Consider things like tastes, smells, touch, sight and sounds in the ritual. Some of these senses can evoke memories and stories. 

Listen and pay attention

Note how people move through the ritual and see what emerges. Adjust as necessary to ensure that it’s a meaningful experience.

Anchor feelings

Go beyond thoughts and ideas, and try to connect the ritual to emotions. It should reflect your organization’s values.

Make it beautiful

Details matter. Think about how you can make this a beautiful experience for the people who participate.

Transitions often fail because people do not properly go through three critical phases — endings, the middle or liminal period, and the new beginning. Last year, offices closed quickly and unceremoniously in response to an unknown, invisible threat. People were left on their own, at home, to make sense of what was happening.

Now wise leaders have an opportunity to help them transition into the next phase of work, whatever that might be. Rituals help people process all these phases into a story they can hold and internalize.

Cover photo by Ivana Matijevac on Unsplash

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