An Office Event at the Pub: No, Thanks

A sizable chunk of UK workers think office parties and events are dull. Why that’s troubling for leaders today.

It was a typical office holiday lunch. Employees filed into a restaurant, their employer having paid a premium for them to eat dry turkey and roast potatoes while sitting next to someone whom they couldn’t escape for the next hour and half—what’s not to love?

Apparently a lot. A new poll found that 35% of British workers can’t stand office gatherings—claiming that they’re “boring” or a “waste of time.” Experts say these workers feel that events outside of office hours put a particular strain on employees struggling to manage responsibilities like childcare, eldercare, or simply doing the laundry. More importantly, too many events feel out of step. “If you want to engage the next generation, then ‘ye olde drinking culture’ isn't the way to do it,” says Jonathan Magee, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Leadership and Development practice.

Experts say the lack of interest is a bigger deal than it may seem. Some 66% of executives reportedly say culture—disrupted during COVID—matters more than a firm’s operating model or business strategy. It’s also a key part of trying to coax British workers back to the office; over one-third reportedly state that they would quit their job if required to return full-time. “The paradox is that socializing is actually increasingly important in a hybrid work environment,” says Grant Duncan, Korn Ferry managing director and sector lead for media, entertainment and digital in EMEA. “It’s what builds loyalty and emotional connection.”

To be sure, nobody is suggesting that companies do away with pub gatherings altogether. However, experts say leaders need to recognize that post-work pub culture was originally designed for the traditional reference men who went to work while the women stayed at home. This, of course, excludes the preferences of many of today’s workers. Indeed, one in five workers surveyed claimed that social events were not adequately inclusive of underrepresented groups. What’s more, roughly 38% of 16- to 24-year-old Britons didn’t drink at all in 2021, according to a National Health Service survey—twice the rate of a decade ago. “If you believe that everyone is going to want to do the same thing as you, you’re doing everything from your own lens,” says Neelam Chohan, an associate client partner in Korn Ferry’s ESG and DE&I practice. “That’s when biases creep in.”

Rather than simply offering people a free meal or drink, leaders create experiences for their teams, says Duncan. Indeed, one study out of the University of Texas at Austin found that consumers derive more joy when they spend on experiential purchases versus material ones. Duncan cites an event he organized for his own team as an example of the former: a group trip to an immersive virtual-reality zone for an interactive team game. Everyone went for a meal afterwards, adds Duncan, but the shared experience of the activity was a catalyst for connective discussions. “Of course, it’s much easier to write a check to a hotel and have them sort out the event for you,” says Duncan. “But carving out some time to come up with a thoughtful gathering will pay dividends in helping create more commitment.”

Setting up a social committee can help leaders come up with the perfect occasion by incorporating employees' ideas—something experts say firms could stand to do more of. Slack’s 2021 Future Forum report showed that 66% of executives admitted they were designing post-pandemic workforce policies with minimal to no employee input. However, if a select committee is as diverse as the workforce, it can also help improve the issue of inclusivity, says Magee. “You'll get your ideas from a more diverse perspective, rather than what the majority might feel is a good thing for everybody to do.”


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