workplace rituals missouri house it support team

Joy Engelby, far right, and her IT support team, shown here in the Missouri House chamber, established a well-received “Lunch & Learn” program so that staff could learn more about the work their colleagues are doing and the details of legislating.

Good for Business: The Benefits of Rituals, Part 2

By Holly South and Angela Andrews | May 6, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

Developing workplace rituals—group activities, shared meals, awards ceremonies—can be an effective way for legislative teams to improve performance and stay connected to their purpose and values, as we explored in Part 1 of this story.

But rituals also can be a great way to break down silos in a large professional operation such as a legislature.

Tim Sekerak used an opportunity for professional development to do just that in the Oregon Statehouse. During the two-day program, held during interim years and organized by the nonpartisan offices of the legislative branch, each group in the building—bill drafters, building maintenance, elections staff and others—discusses priorities and projects. “These connections are really important,” he says.

Joy Engelby, who leads the Applications Development and Support team in the Missouri House, established a well-received “Lunch & Learn” program so that staff could learn more about the work their colleagues are doing and the details of legislating.

Between sessions, Colorado’s nonpartisan Legislative Council Staff forms several subject-matter teams made up of people from all sections of the office. “For example, the education team will include fiscal analysts, economists and research analysts who all work on education topics,” says Natalie Mullis, who leads the Council Staff office. “We also distribute the information technology staff among the subject-matter teams. These teams work together to curate and update the information available to the Legislature in their subject area each interim, and they also take one or two field trips each year.”

Mullis says they typically spend half the day on a tour related to their subject area and the other half doing something fun or charitable. The office usually contributes a small amount per employee to defray expenses.

Celebrate

Establishing a celebration ritual “primes the brain to look for the good, to look for moments to highlight,” workplace consultant Gary Ware says.

For the last 20 years at least, current and former staffers of the fiscal note section in Colorado have gathered at a local bar or restaurant after major committee deadlines. Custom dictates that “the first round is paid for by the last person who left the section,” Mullis says. “It’s a great way for the staff to come together to celebrate the hard work of the last few months and to catch up with former fiscal staff.”

A proponent of bringing staff together over free food, Othni Lathram, director of Alabama’s Legislative Services Agency, celebrates sine die with his staff each year with gourmet ice cream sandwiches shipped from San Francisco. “We gather the first day after adjournment to enjoy them together. That short moment as the dust is settling is something to look forward to, and every year more folks check in to make sure we are on track to make it happen.”

To celebrate staff individually, Georgia’s House Budget and Research Office has a traveling trophy, the “Hulkie,” to recognize outstanding performance among the analysts. Awarded by the analyst’s peers, it changes hands weekly during the session and monthly during the interim. Any analyst who receives the Hulkie four times earns an extra telework day.

Colorado’s Legislative Council Staff office presents awards for tenure at the all-staff meeting held at the beginning of each regular session. After 10 years, staff receive a replica of the brass marker embedded in the white granite steps on the western side of the Capitol to indicate 1 mile, or 5,280 feet, of elevation above sea level; after 20 years, they’re presented with a flag that’s been flown above the Capitol or a framed print of the building.

Say Thank You!

A ritual can be as simple as taking time in staff meetings, as Sekerak does, to call people out by name and thank them. Or establishing a “Kudos” channel on Slack, like the Colorado Council Staff office did. “Anyone can post something good about anyone else. It’s used regularly by people across the whole office,” Mullis says.

Gratitude and recognition are really important, Lathram, with Alabama’s Legislative Services Agency, says. “So much of what legislative staff does goes unnoticed, so I always try to … compliment particularly good work or the completion of important projects. We always try to make time for public shoutouts, especially when coupled with a compliment from a member.”

Lathram says they use branded gift items to recognize longevity milestones and holidays—or sometimes for no reason at all. “I love to see LSA travel mugs, water bottles and journals throughout our spaces and try to make sure there is never too long a gap before passing out something new,” he says. “We also give out challenge coins at the completion of someone’s first regular session.”  

Megan Martin, who leads a staff of 80 as secretary and parliamentarian of the Pennsylvania Senate, launched her first staff awards ceremony before the pandemic. She wants to make it a ritual, an annual event that staff look forward to. She noted the positive impact of the awards on morale from follow-up surveys and remarked that legislative staff “tend to only get noticed when something goes wrong.” The awards remind staff that their good work gets noticed, too.

Rituals can create a bond between team members, which reinforces their sense of purpose. And they can help retain staff. “To the extent that they help create a positive, collaborative and supportive culture, they also contribute to giving our office a reputation for being a great place to work,” says Mullis of Colorado, who has seen a large number of applicants for open positions even during a tight labor market.

Engelby’s team of nine in Missouri has been together for more than five years, thanks to a workplace that makes even very in-demand IT staff want to stay. “Life’s been tough—we’re trying to do things to return to where we were,” she says. “But the team is very strong. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Get Started

Want to bring the power of rituals to your office or team but not sure where to start? As a first step, author and workplace consultant Erica Keswin recommends identifying the rituals you already have in place. That may be an activity at a weekly staff meeting, a regular meal function or a commitment to recognition. Once you’ve identified the ritual, Keswin suggests performing a “rituals litmus test”: Does the ritual provide psychological safety? Is it linked to purpose? Would people protest if it went away?

If you don’t have a ritual, or a ritual that passes the litmus test, there’s no shortage of ideas shared by legislative staff leaders, and by consultants Keswin and Ware, that can be incorporated into your legislative workplace.

“Rituals are the tools of the human workplace,” Keswin says, adding that they can lead to higher engagement, less stress, more creativity—a workplace where “turnover goes down and passion is turned up.”

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.

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