Before she joined the Zoom call, Bidisha Banerjee made sure she had a cup of water and an empty bowl next to her computer. She was joining an online ritual to mark the end of a year-long experiment in creating spiritual community remotely.
The cup represented the strong relationships that had held everyone together. The water, her spirit. She raised the cup to the camera — as did everyone else — and poured it into the empty bowl. This moment marked the completion of the year-long commitment, and the start of a new chapter.
The coronavirus has forced hundreds of thousands of people to work from home, often for the first time. Google instructed staff across North America to stay away from the office until early April. Amazon has introduced unlimited sick days to keep employees at home. And though remote work has long been seen as a luxury, many are quickly discovering that it might be overrated. As author Kevin Roose writes, “remote workers tend to take shorter breaks and fewer sick days than office-based ones, and in studies, many report finding it hard to separate their work from their home lives.”
Google’s recent internal research has concluded that, although remote teams are as productive as their in-person counterparts, connecting with colleagues becomes a significant challenge. It’s not enough to simply bring a laptop home and expect to maintain office camaraderie. The best remote teams are intentional about creating meaning-making rituals that sustain healthy relationships, make space for creative ideation, and support mental wellbeing.
Although the breakout of the coronavirus presents a new threat to workplace relationships, for many, the experience of social disconnection is not new. A 2018 Cigna study revealed that around two-in-five Americans (43%) say that their relationships are not meaningful, while more than half (56%) report sometimes or always feeling like the people around them are not necessarily with them.
Our research at Sacred Design Lab and Harvard Divinity School explores how people gather and make meaning amidst drastic declines in religious affiliation and the growing influence of digital technologies. Forty percent of Millennials describe themselves as non-religious, yet participation in ritual activity is growing; new moon circles, meditation groups, and conversation cards are all going mainstream.
In a pilot project led by my colleague Angie Thurston, we investigated whether community rituals could successfully translate onto Zoom. We were surprised by how well it worked.
In one ceremony, we invited the group to become present through a simple breathing ritual. Participants inhaled and exhaled together as three statements of welcome were read aloud.
“A breath for presence: to the richness of this moment.
A breath for community: to the love of those past and present.
A breath for commitment: to the decision that brings us here today.”
Then, one by one, each person stated their full name as a symbol of their presence — including middle, religious and non-English names. This simple litany transformed the digital space into one that felt sacred.
The purpose of these rituals is not to magically transform one thing into another. Ritual exists to help us remember that things are simply real. Ritual focuses our attention on the here and now and opens our awareness to those others around us. In a world of multitasking and never-ending to-do lists, ritual moments create structure and meaning, and give form to the stuff of our days.
And although the rituals from our research were oriented toward a deeper connection than most would expect to find at work, the principles behind them translate effectively into the current remote office reality.
Birthdays are a good place to start. Coworkers have long organized sweet treats to celebrate one another, but distance demands a different strategy. My team marks birthdays by setting up a conference call and dialing in the lucky person’s mother to spend some time extolling the gifts and joys of working with their offspring. In our close-knit team, this celebratory witness builds a personal connection with a colleague’s family, echoing an evening together at a holiday party. Elsewhere, the team at Sharehold celebrates birthdays by sending out gifts that have been suggested by colleagues and carefully recorded in a shared team gift list throughout the year.
But rituals aren’t just for special occasions. For the last two-and-a-half years, Marci Alboher and Stefanie Weiss, colleagues at Encore.org, have kept up a weekly Monday morning call. At 7:30 a.m., they set off to walk through their respective neighborhoods while talking on the phone. “I walk through the West Village and over the High Line while she walks through a park in Silver Spring, MD. We stick to it even when it’s raining!” explains Alboher. The first 15 minutes are spent catching up on their personal lives, making space for one another if they need support. Then, it’s onto debriefing the weekend’s news and brainstorming ideas. “I love our ritual walk because it gets us outside, it helps us exercise, and we talk about work that needs creative space.”
It’s that free-flowing creative conversation that gets lost in tightly scheduled blocks, and serendipity is the first thing to go when teams no longer share a physical space.
Melanie Kahl, a community strategist for Facebook, has recreated the natural side conversations that happen at the end of a meeting when a team disperses by scheduling 15 minutes after a call to catch up with someone she connected with. The team at the tech firm Invisible keeps a constant digital meeting room open that anyone can join whenever they feel the need to connect with others. Invisible product manager Chris Chavez describes it as an “ever-burning flame that creates a virtual quad between our individual meetings.”
But sometimes the most joyful remote working rituals are the simplest and the silliest. Kate Werning, host of the Healing Justice podcast, ensures regular dance party breaks midway through a long video-call and ever-more teams get together for a half-hour coffee-date on Zoom or a digital happy hour at the end of the week.
To be sure, there are myriad workers who cannot do their work remotely. And there are a multitude of benefits to being in-person — certainly when it comes to practicing rituals. Despite excellent video and audio technologies, it is still near-impossible to conjure the physical presence of someone through all five senses. We need real shoulders to cry on and human hands to hold. This week, 48 Italian mourners were charged for illegally attending a funeral during the coronavirus lockdown, and now face three months in prison. Clearly, in times of grief and our greatest human needs, nothing beats being physically together.
Though the global pandemic spread is both dangerous and disturbing, this moment of social realignment offers us a rare opportunity: to practice applying the power of ritual to our everyday actions, to make meaning out of what feels like just another digital meeting.
As Banerjee explains, “These rituals helped me have a sense of groundedness in the face of chaos.”
Rather than leave our workplace relationships — and what we create with them — to chance, this chaotic moment is a chance to connect with what, and who really matters.