Rituals, Norms and Other Ways to Build a Healthy Work Culture
Thinking about what “work family” means—and your own role within it.
What does it mean to feel so close to your teammates that you consider them family? Can the idea of “family” translate into the workplace… and should it?
A great “work family” can help you understand who you are as a person and what you need as a professional. They’re a gut check, and they can provide a feeling of equality between colleagues at various levels. It’s a place where the lines of communication are open (and encouraged), especially for difficult discussions. There’s a mutual respect and vulnerability between colleagues, managers, and direct reports.
But could it backfire? A familial work environment can create an illusion of closeness and complete honesty. It can disguise abuse and make it unrecognizable. It can encourage a group mindset where assumptions are drawn and cliques or silos can form. It can cause you to feel guilty when you have to make decisions that are best for you, like speaking up or moving on. It can manipulate you and hurt you.
What a Healthy Team and a Happy Family Have in Common
Brian Boyer came up with a theory for what he believes is a general framework of happy teams. It is composed of four major parts: rituals (what we do every day), roles (trusting each other to do their jobs), goals (a shared vision), and norms (a collection of rules and boundaries).
The following is all based on a session that Boyer and I co-ran at SRCCON:POWER last year. Our discussion focused mostly on things we thought we could do in our everyday lives to make way for a healthy, familial team. Cue: rituals and norms.
It’s easy to get lost in the quick cycles of our jobs and forget about taking care of ourselves and others. That’s where rituals come in handy. Creating a series of things you do every day (or weekly or every time a certain event happens), eventually becomes ingrained and gives structure to what often slips through the cracks.
What does this look like and why is this useful? Let’s think about birthdays. As someone pointed out, everyone has one—and only one—which means everyone is equally rich in birthdays. A birthday celebration could be big, where you decorate desks, go out for team lunch and sing. It could also be a card and a baked good. So, big or small, every time someone has a birthday, the team celebrates in some form. That’s a ritual.
Another example is having a weekly scheduled team lunch. Consider reserving a conference room for A Very Important Meeting and whoever has time can use the space to eat with their teammates.
Here are other rituals people in our SRCCON session thought about:
Morning non-work talk
Scrum or other meeting for periodic “what I’m working on” updates
Scheduled team lunches
Iteration reviews (weekly updates on the progress of a project)
OKR reviews (weekly updates on progress towards team goals)
Show and tell (This could be a skill share, a place where you share what’s piqued your interest lately, a space for critique, etc.)
Celebration of work accomplishments
“What you’re grateful for” meeting
“What sucked” space / complain days
Team outings (Bowling! Karaoke! But remember, these can quickly become non-inclusive. Not everybody likes karaoke. Not everybody can undertake the same physical activity. And, of course, not everybody drinks alcohol.)
On the occasion
On-boarding/off-boarding celebrations (i.e. team lunch when a new member joins or on someone’s last day)
Team health tracker or competition
Good things jar (with a monthly reading!)
With all good ideas come do’s and don’ts. When trying to implement rituals, keep in mind why you’re doing this: to create a more cohesive team. That means operating said rituals in a way that’s beneficial and inclusive to all. Cue norms.
Rituals are a good start, but implementing ideas for rituals without a structure and a set of shared principles means that things could easily fall apart. Norms, like rules, help colleagues have a collective experience through communal responsibilities.
What’s the difference between norms and rules? Rules set boundaries and have explicit consequences, while norms create expectations. Norms are created collectively and can evolve collectively, too. So while rules are set by someone in a position of power and are more concrete, to make a cohesive team you have to be able to establish a collection of norms that people agree upon (often implicitly) because they, too, want to be part of something happy and functional.
Norms and rituals can go hand-in-hand—norms can create the right atmosphere for a ritual to take hold in a positive way. For example, an important norm that goes along with certain kinds of rituals is to always invite but never force participation. Maybe you and a couple of teammates go out to coffee every afternoon. Chances are, other people on the team would love coffee, too, and would also love an invite. It’s worthwhile to drop a line in Slack asking if anyone else would want to join you. Why should you promote this as a norm? It can be a vicious cycle to add a person or two to the outing and make it exclusive again, closing the space for new folks to join the ritual.
Just remember, it’s most helpful if your norms are explicitly stated. Implicit norms happen in group settings all the time, and can be exclusive or unhealthy. Try establishing norms as a team, and keep them out in the open—on the wall, pinned in your Slack, etc.
Other ritual-based norms
Think outside the box on team outings, keeping in mind that all of them should not be centered around alcohol.
Respect and be aware of all the cultures on your team.
Avoid practices that tend to highlight those who are the “loudest” by making meetings like show and tells center around other people’s work and not the person who is presenting.
Celebrate everyone, remembering the person often organizing everyone else’s celebrations—and when celebrating people, make sure to do so how they wish to be celebrated.
One person should not always be the organizer (or the baker or the team cheerleader, etc.).
Share the work! For example, in meetings, take turns as the notetaker—frequently, one person always gets stuck with this job: the youngest woman in the group.
Even more often, norms lend themselves to parts of the job that are more work-centric rather than social.
Here are other norms people in our SRCCON session thought about:
Assume good intentions
Follow the rules
Set explicit expectations and preferences
Don’t typecast (i.e. the youngest person on the team should not automatically be elected to run social media accounts or the person who uses technology in their work should not become IT support)
Give developers bylines
Make explicit standards for bylines vs. contribution lines
Always have a plan for what to do if things start going south
Celebration should come from the team, not just from the top down. Additionally, the burden of cost, planning and throwing a celebration shouldn’t fall on an individual. If someone brings treats, consider helping clean up or volunteering to organize the next event.
Highlight good behavior and values as much as bylines or other traditional contributions
Practice “Shine Theory.” For me to be able to shine, you have to shine.
Encourage teammates, especially those who are not generally recognized for their accomplishments, to boast about their work. If a teammate often brags about their work, encourage them to acknowledge their actions.
The youngest woman does not take notes.
Meetings should not be held without an agenda or if not everyone is prepared.
The person who is asked a question gets time and space to answer.
Rotate roles: If someone takes notes one meeting, have someone else do it the following time.
Talk 1/nth of the time; End meetings with an “open door” to allow those who weren’t able to speak up to do so.
Avoid any “well actually…” statements; don’t interrupt.
Respect people’s time, in and outside of work
Avoid messaging when someone is not in the office or online
Don’t contact after hours—try sending a delayed response instead.
Don’t respond to emails after hours to set a good example
Take and encourage others to use sick days when they are needed
Take and encourage others to use vacation days
Do not shame someone over their health or the amount of sick days they’ve taken
Mental health days count as sick days.
Know What You Need
A key piece of advice I received regarding workplace happiness was to do my best to make the environment what I needed it to be. For me, that meant surrounding myself with colleagues who know and care about one another outside of the confines of our company. I’ve always valued having a close, personal working relationship with my colleagues because it builds trust, fosters greater collaboration and, in times of adversity, trauma or distress, allows for a level of comfort.
What’s most important to remember is that every situation is different. For me, starting a new job on the Washington Post graphics team last June meant that I also started my own ritual of celebrating my teammates’ birthdays, which wasn’t done before I joined. I write a card, and I bake their favorite sweet treat. At first, I had to find out birthdays by word of mouth. A year later, it’s expanded into a team list of birthdays and a small collective of birthday bakers. (Another example of why being explicit is better than not.)
What works for my team might not work for yours. What you’d like in a workspace may be different than what the person beside you likes. That’s all okay! Defining or shifting office culture is a lot of small steps that eventually create a bigger picture, and I hope this list provides a good place to start.
Brittany Mayes is a graphics reporter for The Washington Post. Before joining The Post, she worked at NPR on the visuals team where she began as an intern and was later hired as a news applications developer. Her passions include structure and process, diversity and inclusivity, education and mentorship. She’s a 2016 alumna of the University of North Carolina and the New York Times Student Journalism Institute.