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Happy hour isn’t all smiles for everyone

February 1, 2022, 9:01 PM UTC
Cocktails on display
Drinking culture is more entrenched in several industries. For example, more than 8% of IT workers are problem drinkers.
In Pictures Ltd.- Corbis - Getty Images

When I started my career in tech, I was still drinking. I was surprised to see how many of my work environments revolved around alcohol. Important business conversations took place at happy hour.

We drank mimosas during all-staff meetings and began every Friday with Baileys-spiked coffee. At company events, executives walked around with trays of shots. After years of thinking this was perfectly normal behavior, I eventually realized that these alcohol-centric spaces were harmful to my physical and mental health.

I’m not alone: Nearly one out of every 10 IT professionals (8.64%) are problem drinkers, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Fast-forward: Today, I’m seven years sober and in a supportive and inclusive work environment. However, alcohol-laden work cultures are still alive and well. No matter how well-intentioned, social events that are meant to build camaraderie among coworkers can actually end up making some feel more isolated if they’re not able to take part in the festivities.

The proliferation of hybrid work has forced our society to rethink the way we approach every facet of our professional lives, from scheduling Zoom meetings across numerous time zones to welcoming toddlers’ and pet interruptions on work calls. So why shouldn’t we use hybrid work as a springboard to reimagine how to make team-building events more inclusive too?

According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 14.5 million people aged 12 and older have alcohol use disorder. Recovering alcoholic or not, some people just don’t drink, and they shouldn’t be tasked with pretending their ginger ale is a glass of champagne if they don’t feel comfortable disclosing their circumstances.

If your company hosts regular happy hours, next month try thinking outside the box. Host a virtual cooking class, board game night, book club, or even juggling lessons. At Cobalt, we’ve done virtual talent shows, cookie decorating, and yoga sessions. The opportunities are endless. These activities can offer a sense of community and boost morale, without unintentionally isolating team members in the process.

Sometimes, group team-building activities can be awkward. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to schedule separate meetings for forced social time!

Instead of hosting a happy hour, try encouraging your employees to log off early on Friday and use the time to do something they truly love, whatever that might be. On Monday, make time for the team to share what they spent their time doing. This will help coworkers get to know one another and give them the freedom to take advantage of one of the best perks remote work has to offer: using their time how they want to.

Or say you have a weekly team meeting. Spend the first five or 10 minutes on a fun icebreaker and rotate the person on the team who’s responsible for coming up with a fun exercise each week. I’ve also found great intimate conversations in one-to-one skip-level meetings, in which I meet with the folks who report to my managers. During those, I like to ask open-ended questions, actively listen as well as I can, and stay curious. I’ll ask things like, “What are the three best things going on for you at work right now?” and “What are the three things you would change if you could wave a magic wand and fix them?” More often than not, I learn something new or unexpected.

Workplace communication channels like Slack and Microsoft Teams are also great forums for helping employees connect about things that aren’t directly related to work. For example, at Cobalt, we have a #pets channel for pet lovers, and a #kids channel for parents. It never fails to brighten my day to see someone’s pet enjoying a snooze or my colleagues with their kids.

It’s 2022. There are so many ways for employees to get to know one another outside of old-school (or virtual) happy hours. By getting creative and making micro-adjustments to their current team-building activities, team leaders can create a truly inclusive corporate culture.

Remember, your employees are people first. Treat them with respect. Make them feel included. When they’re happy, your business will reap the benefits. Prioritizing inclusivity will boost morale, attract the best talent, increase retention, and make employees feel valued, not just as workers, but as people too. 

Caroline Wong is the Chief Strategy Officer at Cobalt.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to the author as Mia Vasser is the culture, diversity, and engagement program manager at CallRail. This is incorrect. We apologize due to the personal nature of the essay.

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