How the pandemic has been a real a buzz kill for office happy hour bonding, culture

Illustration of a virtual conference waiting room.

Add one more tradition to the growing list of things the pandemic has put a stop to: happy hour.

Co-workers gathering at the end of the day for a drink or two has long been a routine of work life, while some ad agencies and other creative enterprises are even known to stock their own bars and tap their own kegs in a spirit of fun, camaraderie and blowing off steam. But as COVID crawls on and as the workforce turning to the bottle to cope with the stresses of the pandemic has become a concern, more companies are rethinking the wisdom of mixing booze and the workplace.

“We bring a glass-half-full attitude to everything — except pints, where we bring empty-glass energy,” as Ali Cornford, managing director of the New York-based digital media brand and creative agency Convicts, put it. The firm, whose clients include LVMH and Instagram, has instituted virtual hangouts in the place of in-person gatherings, which, Cornford said, has actually served to strengthen connections between team members, who are scattered from New York to Australia. “It’s less about tipping a pint for us these days and more about seeing friendly faces and shooting the breeze with our work fam all over the world,” she said.

“Cocktail culture was dying before COVID happened — and at least in my experience, COVID has killed it off,” added Devon Fata, CEO of the Dallas web design firm Pixoul, which has worked with the likes of Disney and Georgia-Pacific. Between the rise of remote work and the health risks of drinking in bars, not to mention a growing movement to accept and create space for those who don’t drink, few in Fata’s professional circle are imbibing anymore. “Most of the socializing and networking I do as part of my job tends to happen online, in the form of group chats,” he said.

In her book “The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month,” journalist Hilary Sheinbaum presents a laundry list of reasons why alcohol and work are a less than ideal combination. The Centers for Disease Control found, for example, that excessive alcohol consumption costs companies and taxpayers nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars a year. The Center for Workplace Mental Health has even implemented an Alcohol Cost Calculator, which uses a company’s demographics to estimate the impact of employees’ alcohol usage on the bottom line.

“Offices should make bonding activities more inclusive for those who don’t want to or can’t drink,” Sheinbaum said. “There are so many people who don’t like drinking, in addition to religious reasons, recovery, pregnancy, dry months, health and wellness, and more.”

As Chris Howard, founder of Ethos Recovery, a sober living facility and mentoring program in Los Angeles, pointed out, an innocent drink after work could lead to serious problems — particularly as more of us have turned to drinking to distract ourselves from the pandemic. “I don’t think having an occasional drink at the end of the day with your co-workers is a bad thing. With that said, I personally worked with individuals that had no substance abuse issues prior to the pandemic who needed to enter substance abuse treatment because their strategy to manage their mental health became the bottle,” he said, adding that he’s seen a major increase in people using drugs and alcohol during the pandemic and believes the trend will only continue as employees move back to the office.

Employers have an important role to play. “Understanding that reacclimating to a regular work/home life balance and everyday social dynamics can help organizations formulate a plan for how to reintegrate healthier lifestyle choices,” Howard explained. He proposed that creating a work culture centered around drinking to promote healthy socializing is “a bit of an oxymoron, to say the least. Social dynamics tend to elicit anxiety for many people, even in the most trivial situations, and I don’t think promoting drinking is an effective coping strategy for people coming out of a pandemic.”

Then there is the issue of employer liability. Drinking and the workplace “has always been a minefield for employers, and the pandemic certainly has opened up new avenues of liability, including the super-spreader happy hour,” said Mark Kluger of Kluger Healey, an employment law firm based in Lincroft, New Jersey. “People are eager for social interaction and to be back in the office, and it’s natural for employers to want to rebuild the team and team spirit,” he acknowledged, but he proposed that employers consider alternatives to happy hours, holiday parties and other events where alcohol is on the menu — like bowling or hatchet throwing.

Even companies that are carrying on the tradition of happy hour are setting their limits. Take the New Orleans-based digital marketing agency Online Optimism, which instituted a summer cocktail series featuring local bartenders coming to the office to teach staff how to make drinks around themes like Tiki Night and Mardi Gras. During the first hour, cocktails are served — with a strict two-drink limit per employee. The second hour is game time — to ensure people are safe to drive home. Virgin cocktails are available to those who choose not to consume alcohol.

The agency’s operations coordinator Sara Bandurian suggested that such events, when properly managed, remain a good way for staffers to “connect, relax and destress from the workday.” As the shop, whose clients include the New Orleans Downtown Development District and Xavier University, has onboarded several new employees during the pandemic, these gatherings have become a valuable way to engage with them, she added.

Even as employers reevaluate cocktail culture, the alcoholic beverage industry itself is urging a cautious approach, doubling down on campaigns in recent years urging consumers to enjoy responsibly.

For one, Moët Hennessy, maker of Belvedere and Glenmorangie, whose vp of emerging brands Allison Varone noted that the company’s marketing messages have pivoted to encourage “mindful indulgence” as coworkers begin to come back together and socialize. As Varone put it, “We want our consumers to enjoy each other’s company, reenter society responsibly and safely, and create new, meaningful moments with premium cocktails in hand.”

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