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Why Office Rituals Matter

Not as fancy as religious services, they perform much the same task.

One spoonful of
freeze-dried coffee. Hot water, stir, stir, stir. Fridge door. Milk, full fat.

– Morning, how’s it going?
– Good, good. Need the milk?
– Yeah, thanks. So I still have to send you that thing, right?
– Yup. Are you coming to the meeting today?

At 9.30am, these little co-worker exchanges are a daily office routine. 

Psychologists used to
term them water-cooler talk, having noticed that, when clustered around the workplace
cooler, employees would recharge on both water and gossip. Language has lagged
interior design, with a similar title yet to emerge out of the modern office
kitchen, where the fridge, microwave and sink now serve as hubs. But gossip has
lost favor; today, behavioral researchers prefer to think of what’s exchanged
as knowledge.

All employees are equal
in that they face two types of learning curves at work. One is that of explicit
knowledge
, summed as the stuff you need to know to get a job done. The
other and arguably more important type is tacit knowledge, which constitutes
subtleties that factor into judging a job done well. University, YouTube,
and the Company Handbook are all fine places to gain explicit knowledge. But
tacit knowledge usually gets exchanged during chit-chat.

The
informal setting is of the essence. How else would you feel comfortable asking
that question, floating that suggestion, or exchanging observations about the
way things are done? Nonetheless, both qualitative and quantitative research affirms these casual interactions lead to
better performance of employees and the group as a whole.

In
this sense, tacit knowledge interactions are like nature’s four-leaf clovers; harbingers
of good fortune they may be, but they’re also quite random. One study had all employees within a mid-sized company diligently
log every knowledge-sharing meeting over a week. Serendipity, the study found,
was also hard at work: One in three meetings were initiated following coincidental
visual contact.

Which
is why it’s tempting to consider all working-hours socializing as little more
than structured tacit-knowledge gathering fests. But by 12.30pm, it becomes clear
this explanation is lacking:

Venturing together as a group, I join my colleagues for a team lunch. We’re a good-sized bunch, and the waitress directs us to a large table. I like talking to Pete, but he happens to sit at the other end, so whatever we have to say to each other will have to wait for another time. By seating proximity, our mass partitions into groups of threes and fours. Within each group, conversation commences:

– Got something planned for the weekend?
– Yeah, planning to go to up to Wales. Hope it doesn’t rain. You?
– Nah, I just need to get some stuff from IKEA.
– You’re going to Wales? I went last year. It rained nonstop.
– Ugh, that’s the worst.
– IKEA’s not that bad.
– No, when it rains in Wales.
– I like the meatballs.
– Never knew Wales was famous for meatballs.

As knowledge-sharing goes, this barely qualifies as a two-leaf clover.

And that’s because this lunch, or any like it, isn’t about exchanging tacit knowledge at all. What you say matters far less than taking part and adhering to the code of ceremony. Like most other workday social gatherings, it is a ritual.

The
team may change when switching jobs, but never the team lunch. This suggests
that the experience is governed by values not specific to whoever’s ordered the
burger. In their book The Thinking
Organization,
Henry Sims and Dennis Gioia put it this way:

“Given the nature of organizations as socially constructed entities, and the nature of individuals as socially immersed and influenced, the lines defining what is an individual phenomenon and what is an organizational phenomenon are very blurred indeed.”

And as
with any respectable ritual, food plays an important role. Behavioural
researchers have known for a while that social affinity can lead to similar
food choices. But a paper published last year in the Journal of Consumer
Psychology showed it also works the other way around: Consuming similar foods
increased trust and cooperation between strangers.

It’s not all benefits. In Britain, office “cake culture” has become so pervasive that earlier this year it was dubbed a health hazard. At 2pm, as we’re hit by the post-meal sugar slump, I discuss this with my colleague Fran. Together, we are munching on chocolate someone brought in to share, though neither of us can recall the cause for celebration. So far this week, the events marked with treats included a birthday, a successful holiday in Majorca, and Thursday.

Only now I’m not so sure: is it Fran I’m speaking with, or is it Office Fran? Because there’s a difference: Office Fran is a smiley, helpful vegetarian. But like everyone else, a lot of Real Fran’s personality is tucked away, shielded.

The ritual of workplace birthday celebrations recognizes this. We all like Colleague Nate and collaborate to sign a cheerful card, passing it around as if it were counterfeit goods. When it’s my turn to sign, I pause and glance at Nate. Head hunched, he’s typing away in concentration. If I squint, I can see a trace of the child he once was.

Organizational behaviour studies have long sought to link personality
traits with professional success. In decades of research, one particular
characteristic to consistently stand out is the ability to regulate and
control how one presents themselves in social settings. This is often
referred to as self-monitoring, and for inter-office networking success,
has been shown to matter far more than whether someone is, say, extroverted or creative.

At no other time is this discrepancy between the real person and the
office persona more striking than at around 4pm, when people gather to
bid a departing colleague Farewell.

I can never resist looking around, observing crossed hands, weight rocking side-to-side, frames leaning against desks. Inwardly, we each consider a naked truth: Come Monday, life will resume without Pete. And for a while, a Pete-shaped hole will linger. Then, this too shall pass. But colloquially, our years of workspace co-habitation are rendered hollow by the parting speech:

“Pete, you did a great job…thank you for all your hard work…I remember that time you got drunk Ha Ha Ha… but seriously, it was a pleasure…On behalf of everyone…all the best… Now let’s all go down for a drink.”

For, if you’re with colleagues past 6pm, odds are you’re holding a beer. Curiously, though alcohol is ubiquitous in the post-work ritual,
intoxication is not. In some places, alcohol is little more than a prop.
I’ve had the dubious fortune of experiencing other environments, where
co-workers drank so hard they couldn’t remember how the night had
ended — and wore this as a badge of honour the following day.

Recently, a former City trader released a candid account of how boozing with clients escalated into an addiction. He recounts that, when faced with his decision to sober, his colleagues could only say: “We’ll get you back drinking soon.”

Work drinking buddies, he called them; a ritual, summed
in three words.

Being alcohol-averse myself, I used to find the post-work drinks the most befuddling ritual of all. What was one supposed to DO, other than stand there, holding a drink? Conversation remains as aloof as it was during lunchtime, with a dab of juvenile flavoring:

– Colleague Nate: Faith No More are the Beatles of the 90’s.
– Office Fran: No way! It’s gotta be Take That.

With
time, I realized that the point was not about doing anything.

It wasn’t even about saying anything: In pubs so noisy to render me deaf, I’ve discovered words are superfluous. Taking my cue from facial expressions, I’ve nodded attentively without comprehending a word. But nonetheless, there was a deep, satisfying sweetness in these moments.

As Doors frontman Jim Morrison once pointed, people are strange when you’re a
stranger. To worshipers, religious services are about mediating the
bond with divinity, forever the proximate stranger. Their office
counterparts lack the grandeur, but perform much the same task. One day,
if you’re lucky, you may get to know Real Nate and Non-Office Fran. In
the meantime, office rituals help make you less of a stranger — and them
less strange.

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