How do you design a better workplace?
Author and consultant Erica Keswin suggests starting with successful rituals—group meals, a common-area message board, a newsletter. These can create feelings of belonging and purpose, which result in a sense of psychological safety: the ability to show one’s self without fear of negative consequences for self-image, status or career. And feeling safe can yield high performance, she says.
There is a physiological response when someone feels more connected, “when you can be you,” Keswin explains on NCSL’s “Our American States” podcast. When this happens at work, both collaboration and productivity increase by around 50%.
A ritual is more than mere habit: It has meaning and intention along with some type of regular cadence, and it goes beyond its practical purpose. Rituals don’t require a large budget or even a lot of time. And they definitely exist in a legislative environment.
“In our office, the idea that we are on a mission … brings us all together and drives us to perform at optimum levels,” says Martha Wigton, director of the Georgia House Budget and Research Office. “We capitalize on the inherent tension between chambers and our counterpart offices to heighten this sense of belonging and perfection.”
Wigton says psychological safety is more than belonging: “It is also the ability to accept occasional mistakes and allow someone else to support and balance you professionally without feeling incapable or minimized.” A firm believer in rituals, she has instituted several “designed to establish cohesiveness, foster gentle competitiveness to keep raising the bar, and recognize exceptional performance.”
In our office, the idea that we are on a mission … brings us all together and drives us to perform at optimum levels. —Martha Wigton, director of the Georgia House Budget and Research Office
Othni Lathram, director of Alabama’s Legislative Services Agency, and Natalie Mullis, who leads the Colorado Legislative Council, both acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining rituals during the legislative session, even as they emphasize the importance of purpose and cohesion.
“There is no doubt that we do our best work as a team and that purpose and belonging foster that,” Lathram says. For most state legislative staffers “a strong sense of purpose comes easily; it’s too hard a path if you don’t have that. The sense of belonging is harder,” as the work “can be isolating.” He plans regular agencywide training events, often with a group meal, to foster connection.
Mullis stresses the importance of both psychological safety and purpose to performance. “In the longest and craziest days of the session … knowing why your job is important not just to you individually, but to the people of the state in which you serve, is what makes the difference between being miserable and what I call ‘remembering to have fun.’”
Workplace consultant Gary Ware recommends looking to the gatherings “that happen often and can be elevated so people know they’re important.” Meeting rituals might include acknowledging people as they’re entering, playing background music and posing a fun question of the day. Or ask attendees to provide a “rose” (something going well), a “thorn” (something not going well) and a “bud” (an opportunity)—and lead by example. He and Keswin both recommend asking team members how they feel using a traffic light scale, with “green” meaning go, “yellow” meaning caution and “red” meaning stop. Responses offer an opportunity to connect and provide support.
“Last year, when staff were mostly working from home and the pandemic had eased somewhat, our policy and research team met biweekly in person for a team-building activity,” Mullis says. They did puzzles, had lunch, visited the botanic gardens, and tried to do something that built cohesion” when they weren’t seeing each other as frequently.
Joy Engelby, who leads the Applications Development team in the Missouri House, uses morning meetings to touch base with everyone about their projects as well as to learn what’s going on outside of work. She says she invites them to share “the life stories … the feel-good stuff.”
Because her team works in two locations in the Missouri Capitol, Engelby looks for opportunities to solidify their bond and create camaraderie. These events also help staff become aware of their colleagues’ projects and priorities, with the result that they’re “not so pigeonholed and we’re more involved with other team members.” Engelby has also found that when staff convene, it becomes a troubleshooting session. “We really bond over ‘this is our problem,’ and solution-storming … finding out what everyone thinks,” she says. The team members have a sense of purpose and feel like they belong. “It’s not just two people figuring it out.”
Break Bread Together
Group meals are a good idea, Lathram, with Alabama’s Legislative Services Agency, says. “If you can offer free food and a chance to catch up, folks will usually show up.”
Pre-pandemic, the clerk’s office in the Oregon House hosted barbecues for everyone in the building. Chief Clerk Tim Sekerak says it’s important to have time away from computers and ringing phones and to create a fun environment. He credits these informal gatherings with breaking down barriers and bringing together elected officials and staff—all for just a few hundred dollars per gathering.
Engelby also incorporates mealtime rituals when staff are in the building:
- “Tasty Tuesdays”: “Tuesdays are a bad session day,” she says. “We take turns bringing in lunch so there’s a reason to look forward to Tuesdays.”
- Session night dinners: Engelby arranges dinners for the rotating team of three IT staffers she supervises.
Play to Your Strengths
Lathram points out the importance of involving the whole team. Events “should be interactive. Everyone in the group has a perspective worth sharing that can teach the rest of us something,” he says.
Some of the Colorado Legislative Council’s rituals are job requirements, Mullis says. “We do our best to make it fun and create a positive energy around them. Others are optional, and we don’t give people who don’t participate a hard time, but we do try to make them a rewarding experience.”
Wigton, with Georgia’s House Budget and Research Office, suggests that it’s important to offer a variety of activities that “allow everyone to play to their strengths—some that emphasize book smarts and others that lean on creativity. We often create teams by drawing names, which can change the dynamics of leadership within the group ... allowing [any naysayers] to help plan or lead.”
Not all rituals have to involve meals or even be face-to-face. Engelby’s team uses whiteboards to communicate and entertain each other. And Wigton’s Georgia office maintains a bulletin board where staff can post on a designated theme. Right now, that theme is “H’BROmicron: We Got This!” using the office abbreviation. “We post pictures and memes,” Wigton says, “and because the bulletin board is near the coffee pot, staff have the quick opportunity to jot something down and hang it while they wait for their brew!”
Engelby also recently launched a weekly newsletter, “Developer Droppings,” that her staff will take turns producing with “complete creative freedom.” The first issue says the newsletter’s goal is to provide a way for the team to “share information across our diverse spaces and different working hours. This can be a great way to update everyone about our ongoing projects and issues we are stuck on.”
She’s hoping it will be something that they look forward to, “at least when it’s not their turn.”
Read Part 2 to find out how rituals are used to break down silos and to celebrate and recognize staff.
Angela Andrews is director of NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program; Holly South is a senior policy specialist in the same program and serves as the liaison to the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries.