The Workplace Happy Hour Is Dead
Illustration: Michael Kennedy

The Workplace Happy Hour Is Dead

There must be a better way to facilitate fun in corporate America than getting employees wasted. Right?

When I was promoted and given a team to manage, one of my priorities was cultivating a healthy team culture for my direct reports. Few of my colleagues may realize it, but I’m a fun guy, word to Kawhi. And while I may have sometimes despised the way colleagues of my past would host mandatory fun after-work functions at the office’s local pub, I must admit they were an efficient (albeit unoriginal) means of getting folks to loosen the hell up for once.

These days, my team — Black Karen, Mitch, and Young Marcus the Intern — is working remotely, which takes IRL happy hours off the table (ditto for Marcus’ 20 years of age). But let’s be real: Even before the pandemic, these cliché bar outings had become HR minefields. They were where in-office reputations were solidified, and legends were made for the wrong reasons. (Shout out to the Snow Patrol.)

Once the drinks start flowing, professional facades and filters vanish. Amy from accounting lets her hair down, Richard from recruiting unfastens the top two buttons of his shirt, and you and the attractive person who works in another department finally get a chance to speak — away from the fluorescent lighting that feels like it’s slowly zapping your soul. Trust, it doesn’t take a meteorologist to predict a whole lot of messy in the forecast.

How can I expand the playbook to team activities that are more inclusive and less dependent on alcohol?

Don’t even get me started on all of the Earl Grey that gets spilled at these happy hours. The most popular activity at any workplace event with booze is to talk about everyone who isn’t present at said function. Even I’ve partaken in this great corporate American pastime, especially on the occasions when there’s been another Black person in attendance. When two Black co-workers meet at a company happy hour, just know they’re gonna find a way to talk about who’s casually racist, who’s overtly racist, who has a Black wife or husband, who is down with Black Lives Matter, and who seems like they’re down but probably owns a MAGA hat at home.

Moments like these were what made happy hours so intoxicating. The fact is, happy hours could be fun. This is why when the pandemic started, virtual happy hours were a popular way for so many teams to find some good vibes in dark times. But at my company, within the first few months of working from home, Zoom fatigue was collectively kicking our asses. On one of those anonymous employee satisfaction surveys, a large majority of my co-workers kept it real: Virtual happy hours feel like work meetings where people can (openly) drink. Honestly, I couldn’t be happier that we ended them.

But still, that leaves me back at a sober square one. It’s the end of the year, and many of us professionals are in the midst of a slow crawl to a too-short holiday break, wrapping things up for the year and working ahead to get a jump on Q1. There will be no secret Santa or white elephant gift exchanges, no holiday parties to send things out with a bang. But my team deserves a little fun. And I’m honestly at a loss for how to facilitate that.

Drinking with co-workers isn’t something I particularly miss. Nor is it something I wish to bring back whenever we return to the office — especially considering my elevated role at the company. I’m just not here for the shenanigans. So what are my options? How can I expand the playbook to team activities that are more inclusive and less dependent on alcohol? My goal is to find a way to make team hangs feel less like work and more like a genuine hangout that brings us all a little closer and motivates us to work harder for one another, whether virtual or in-person. So reader, please help a brother out by sharing some suggestions in the comments.

Please Don’t Invite Me to Another Pointless Work Meeting
I never knew the importance of one-on-ones until I started running them myself