Enough of Zoom—Office Happy Hours Return

After months of virtual meetings, some employees are finding ways to get back to in-person socials and the connections they had missed

By Ray A. Smith | Wall Street Journal

They made do for a while with Zoom happy hours. But as coronavirus cases eased, office workers at KDG, a professional technology services company in Allentown, Pa., were eager to get together for drinks in person.

Meeting on the building’s outdoor deck, about 35 employees, all still working from home, brought their own booze. Food was individually packaged. Those attending had to stay six feet apart, and bathroom doors were labeled as entrances and exits.

“Once we decided to do it, we were very clear that if you’re going to come to the happy hour, here are the rules. They’re not breakable rules,” says the company’s chief executive Kyle H. David.

As the coronavirus has forced many to work from home, it’s also disrupted a fixture of office life—afterwork drinks. While virtual happy hours have helped keep colleagues in touch, many are gingerly trying to resume more traditional socializing. There are psychological and career benefits from meeting up with colleagues in person, whether grabbing lunch, drinks, celebrating colleagues’ birthdays or goodbyes–and some workers are eager to get back to that, though it might not be quite the same post-coronavirus.

During strict lockdowns, colleagues tried to keep the happy-hour tradition going online with virtual meetings. Organizing online social events ranked as one of the top five things companies were doing to strengthen their cultures, according to a global July survey of 2,100 adults conducted by analytics firm Qualtrics and business-news site Quartz.

As the novelty of Zoom meetings wore off, some participants found them lacking when it came to networking and relaxing. Researchers point to similar conclusions on the value of ad hoc socializing with colleagues. “To the extent that relationships are vital for promotion, advancement, or being tapped for leadership positions, these things are vital,” says Loran Nordgren, professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Such meetings also are critical to helping coworkers form or strengthen bonds. In a recent Harris Poll survey of 2,002 U.S. adults, 62% say they feel less connected to their team since remote-working rules have been put in place.

“What is lost in not having those experiences is the uncovering of shared experiences, understanding people’s back stories and things that don’t get shared in a professional setting that rise to the surface in more informal occasions,” Dr. Nordgren says.

“In-person meetings are much more effective,” says Denny Crain, a principal of Remiger Design, a St. Louis, Mo.,-based architecture firm, which figured out how to start holding safe, in-person, socially-distanced happy hours with about 10 colleagues on the outdoor patio of a microbrewery next door to the office following a few months of hosting virtual socials. Keeping the camaraderie going “is incredibly important because working remotely, you lose just a little bit of your culture,” he says.

Emilie Kauffman, an agent-services coordinator with a real-estate company in Sacramento, Calif., was thrilled that her colleagues wanted to continue the company’s “Final Friday Happy Hour” tradition online after Covid-19 hit. “Our office has a wonderful work-family vibe and we were all of a sudden so isolated. In the real-estate world, agents are independent contractors and can leave to go to another brokerage any time they like. Part of the value of sticking with one office is having a family feeling,” says the 37-year-old. “Happy hour get-togethers are a huge part of maintaining that connection.”

She and her colleagues started with “trivia happy hour” Zoom calls. Though local bars started reopening in mid-May, they didn’t feel comfortable getting together in person until the end of June.

The meetings aren’t what they once were. “Typically, the people showing up to events right now do not have any conditions that put them at additional risk for Covid complications,” Ms. Kauffman says. “We do ask everyone to do their best to maintain six feet of distance and wear a mask when not eating or drinking. We have hand sanitizer available at tables. Everything has been outdoors, so that helps people feel a lot safer.”

Now, fall weather is making outdoor dining and cocktails more challenging, and an uptick in cases threatens new rounds of lockdowns in some places. Britain, for example, recently announced a new series of restrictions, including earlier pub closing times.

Caroline Hearne, an energy project manager in Newcastle upon Tyne in England, had been getting together with five of her colleagues in one of their backyards for alcohol-free happy hours since previous restrictions were loosened in early summer. Because everyone but the host would have to drive, the team decided against alcohol.

For Ms. Hearne and her colleagues, who she describes as “a social bunch,” continuing the tradition matters. “Your work colleagues are part of your social life,” says Ms. Hearne, 56. Plus, “two of our team live on their own and I think the rest of our team were concerned that when we were in lockdown they would be quite isolated.”

To be sure, some see advantages in the new reality. “I don’t miss the pressure of participating in after-hours activity,” says Cheryl Matheson, a 52-year-old manager with a marketing and advertising firm in Toronto. “I just found that being the older coworker, I didn’t always see the value in giving up my time for small talk and excessive drinking. With a commute and family obligations, it wasn’t as high a priority or as feasible.”

At KDG in Allentown, the company’s volunteer “social committee” has tried to keep the socially distanced happy hours light-hearted, including one where attendees brought their dogs.

The meetings have been important for morale, the company’s CEO Mr. David says.”It keeps us all really well-connected even though we’re all apart, because we’ve sort of all committed to ‘OK, we’re all in this together, we’re going to get out of this together, and dammit we’re going to have some fun along the way.’ ”

Read the full story at the Wall Street Journal.