I like a glass of free wine as much as the next person. In fact, I’ve rarely been known to turn one down except for the few occasions where I can’t afford the sleepy, relaxed state that happens after only one glass. (Yeah, I’m a lightweight).
So I had to ask myself, as a wine lover and social person, why am I so apt to shy away from office happy hours?
Whining about wine
At my last office job, company sponsored drinks happened at least twice a month. There was rarely a shortage of things to celebrate: website launches, quarterly earnings, or simply making it to Friday in one piece.
Camaraderie and quality socializing is, after all, a large part of the modern work environment. Don Draper may have mastered the lunch hour Old Fashioned, but we are now in a world where post 5:00 pm drinks can extend well past dinner time. Happy hours and mixers have gone from an occasional treat to a constant invite in the inbox.
To be clear, I believe employee engagement and a strong work culture are important—including outside activities. When executed well, they improve employee retention and make people feel like they are a part of a community.
However, it's also true that many individuals find post-work activities a chore, and would just rather not participate. If you’ve ever looked at the clock at 4:59 pm and wondered how you're going to bow out of this week's kegerator gathering, know you're not alone.
If you’ve ever looked at the clock at 4:59 pm and wondered how you're going to bow out of this week's kegerator gathering, know you're not alone.
So why do we find ourselves trying to duck out of the after-hour office recreations? The answer lies, in large part, to the structure of the modern workplace. We are a world of open offices, hot desking, remote employees, satellite offices, and so much technology that we never really unplug. With all this activity it becomes less and less appealing to allow work to compete for our attention after-hours.
The guilt factor—what and why
First of all, know that the guilt you feel from opting out or being the person who is wishy-washy about happy hour commitment is totally normal. There is a psychological reason for why we have difficulty deciding whether or not to be a participant in office social activities—our choices conflict with our self-regulation.
“Self-regulation, is a more outwardly oriented process,” says Stanford University research. “[It] entails deciphering the group’s normative code and adjusting one’s behavior to comply with it.”
But, because self-regulation influences us to act according to normative behavior, like attending the office social events expected of us, going against expectations can result in internal conflict manifesting into guilt.
Open-concept office spaces are killing your buzz
Chances are you currently work in or have previously worked in, an office with an open concept. It's a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. According to the International Facility Management Association, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions.
Many companies adopted open workspaces because it was cheaper (no need to build out cubicles or design private rooms) and execs felt it would improve productivity and collaboration. In a BBC Article, technology executive Chris Nagele says that those were exactly the reasons he chose to switch to an open office space. Instead, what he discovered is that employees find it harder to get things done because of all the distractions. Plus, real collaboration and brainstorming rarely happens during casual desk chatter, or at an unfocused happy hour.
Real collaboration and brainstorming rarely happens during casual desk chatter, or at an unfocused happy hour.
Because brainstorming and bonding don't blossom in open spaces, many of us prefer to find quiet spaces to get things done. But the social signals we send by holing up in a conference room can be taken the wrong way. Thus, we remain “in the loop,” sometimes sacrificing our mental sanity, and the desire to socialize come the end of the day. To combat this, Nagele has abolished the open office and cut down on happy hours. Instead, his team eats lunch together every day. It's still "forced fun," but of a more productive kind.
Even if you love your desk mate, sometimes you just need a break.
Blurred lines of work and play
Unplugging in this day and age is damn near impossible. If you have an Internet connection or a smartphone, you can be interrupted with work requests well into the night. The last time I could escape my work email was when I was in another country. And even then I wondered if the seven hour time difference was enough of an excuse to not be available.
HR Magazine writes, “The Edenred-Ipsos Barometer looks at the working habits of 8,800 employees across Europe. It found over two-thirds (67%) of employees are kept busy by work outside traditional office hours.”
Satellite workers who travel from office to office, also face the challenges of trying to unplug while working to fill the connection gap with their respective teams. When these team members are in town, arranging a special happy hour for them is acceptable, but know they may opt to faceplant in their hotel bed after a long day of travel.
When these [remote] team members are in town, arranging a special happy hour for them is acceptable, but know they may opt to faceplant in their hotel bed after a long day of travel.
When remote workers do visit the office, consider hosting a team lunch or something during business hours to foster that sense of connection. I know for myself, I always appreciated it when managers respected my time and kept work bonding during work hours. This same rule applies to when I visited other offices.
Another way to make satellite employees feel included during visits, and when they’re back at their home office, is to utilize tools like Slack. Setting up separate channels to share photos, and professional or personal successes is an easy way to connect with distant colleagues on a deeper level, according to the Forbes Human Resources Council.
Working with the time we’ve got
Employers may not want to use “company time” to show appreciation or foster team building, but guess what? That’s when they have everyone’s attention. Plus, why not show employees their efforts are valued, and build camaraderie, during the hours when they matter most?
In fact, The New York Times found that “research suggests that social events aren’t always effective: People don’t mix much at mixers, and at company parties, they mostly bond with similar colleagues.”
Plus, it avoids the dreaded office bowling party or karaoke, which may be okay for some, but sends shivers down my spine.
The hard truth is that work means different things to different people. I love what I do, and I want to keep getting better at it, but at the end of the day it is a means to an end. A way to survive and live the life I want to live; enjoying it is a bonus and, quite frankly, a privilege.
The Journal of Research and Personality says, “When we see our jobs primarily as a means to leisure, it’s easy to convince ourselves that efficiency should reign supreme at work so we have time for friendships outside work.”
If you feel you've found your place and have a healthy relationship with your team, (and don't want to kill them after working in an open-office space), then skip the guilt trip next time you opt out of happy hour. Rest assured the only thing you're missing is a free glass of wine.
Rachel Henry is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. She's a firm believer in having chocolate every day and is an avid reader of just about anything. Find her on LinkedIn.