As many people return to in-person work in offices, teams grapple with finding a routine, a rhythm to their workday. After such a long hiatus, interacting with colleagues could be refreshing at times but also awkward, especially for those meeting for the first time in the physical world. In this context, it might be helpful to think about some rituals to start things off. All cultures around the world have rituals that facilitate social interaction, take the edge off transitions and give people a context to relate to each other. But where to begin? We take inspiration from the traditional namaskar or bhumi pranam that all dancers perform at the start and end of a stage show or even at the start and end of practice sessions.
A dance performance cannot directly start with complicated routines. Both the dancer and the audience need to be prepared for what is to come. There needs to not only be a mind-body connection for the dancer, but also a connection between the artist and the audience. So we take a step back and examine what the ritual of this namaskar makes available to us and explore what is similarly possible in the work context.
1. Creating comfort and safety
The namaskar could be a simple short gesture performed before practice or it could become a small performance piece itself which in Indian classical dance often takes the form of an invocation. Either way it helps us diffuse stage fear and feel confident in the performance space. It is by definition a ritual that has been repeated countless times and its repetitive nature feels familiar and friendly even on a large stage when the spotlight is on you.
In the work context, we want employees to feel safe and settled so that they can devote their energies to their work without feeling worried about differences in rank, departments, gender, skill-sets, etc. Opening rituals serve that purpose by bringing everyone onto a common ground thereby creating a space of empathy, respect and compassion
2. Bring about a connection
Research shows that when an artist and her audience are in sync, their brainwaves are also literally moving together*. For us, the opening ritual is an opportunity to establish that connection with our co-artists and our audience so that as we get into the central performance pieces, both artist and audience can get the most out of the shared experience.
At work as well, such rituals set the stage for an energizing shared experience. They become the threads that weave the various cultural facets of the team together. By immersing in the ritual together, a new collective identity emerges and people are no longer random actors on a haphazard stage. A feeling of community can be created through opening rituals.
3. Focus and consolidation of purpose
One of the greatest gifts of an opening ritual (or a closing one for that matter) is that it marks a transition from what you were doing before to what you intend to do next. So for us as dancers, we would have travelled to get to a rehearsal and might arrive in a hassled state. Or in case of a performance, we might spend the hours before wearing make-up, doing light and sound testing and so on – all of which can place a substantial cognitive and emotional load on the artist. The ritual allows the mind to transition from all of that clutter, leaving unwanted thoughts or pressures of the day behind, and move into the right mindset for a performance.
We live in an attention economy with notifications popping off our devices every second, people expecting responses to emails and messages almost as quickly, and everybody from family to colleagues to marketeers vying for our mind-space. At work, the ritual will help step away from all this for the duration of the task at hand. It helps employees feel focused, organized and in control of their attention and their lives – which directly impacts productivity.
Here are some of our ideas for opening rituals at work:
- A quick check-in followed by high-fives
- Singing a song or anthem together
- Doing a few mindfulness exercises
- A quick check-in of emotions by expressing- ‘how are you feeling?’ through a gesture or a small movement
- A standing meeting where everyone shares a high and a low from their day
- A simple question posed to the group that everyone responds to in their way
- A round of rhythmic clapping to get everyone aligned
- Greeting everyone by name and a Good Morning!
- Doing a few breathwork or stretching exercises to release pent-up stress
- A round of everyone sharing one exciting thing they are looking forward to at workplace that day
- Everyone in the room can also share few things they learned from their team members from previous projects
The trick is to keep it short, simple, and relevant to the purpose of the group. It should not be so onerous that it is one more job for people to do or otherwise inappropriate for the group. For example, if the team members do not know each other very well, there is no point in trying to get them to straight away share a lot of personal details – that would be equivalent of a dancer beginning with a complicated piece!
Opening rituals are prevalent everywhere – in the way a shopkeeper opens his shop for the day, the way a bank branch opens their shutters and follows a formal process of beginning business for the day, in schools where children gather for an assembly with morning prayers or in a classroom where the teacher writes a thought for the day on the blackboard. Facilitators often leverage the power of ritual when doing a check-in at the start or some group-based activity for everyone in the room to feel comfortable and focused.
An opening ritual can be practiced by any person on their own, or by any group of people who come together regularly. It is a short activity or prompt designed to help kick-start things and needs to be performed consistently to unlock its power. What rituals help you feel safe, focused, and connected? Start instituting small rituals for your team at work and observe the positive impact on engagement, energy and productivity.
About the Authors:
Tanaya Pendurkar is a trained Kathak & Contemporary dancer. She is a student of Diploma in Dance Movement Therapy at TISS, Mumbai and has done her B.A. in Psychology- Sociology from St.Xavier’s College, Mumbai. At TAQ, she works in research, content creation and delivery of workshops.
Dr. Sangeetha Rajan holds an MA in Psychology, an MBA from XLRI Jamshedpur, a PhD in social sciences from TISS, Mumbai and an LLB from Mumbai University. She is also a trained Odissi dancer and actively teaches and performs dance. She has two decades of experience in the domain of learning and development and brings multi-disciplinary insights to her work at TAQ.
Bachrach A., Fontbonne Y., Joufflineau C. and Ulloa JL. (2015). Audience entrainment during live contemporary dance performance: physiological and cognitive measures. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 9:179. DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00179. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00179/full
Martone, R. (2020). Music Synchronizes the Brains of Performers and Their Audience. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/music-synchronizes-the-brains-of-performers-and-their-audience/