Office Events: Is Anyone Having a Good Time?

A sizable chunk of workers think work parties and events are dull. Why that’s troubling for leaders pushing for a more-engaging corporate culture post-pandemic.

For many leaders, the goal of creating a strong corporate culture has become paramount in the post-pandemic, return-to-the-office era. The only problem: a primary tool for developing it is falling flat.

Once part and parcel of a strong corporate culture, work events from office lunches to party celebrations have apparently become a turn-off for many workers. Indeed, a new poll out of the UK, for example, found that 35% workers can’t stand office gatherings—claiming that they’re “boring” or a “waste of time.” Part of the problem is 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, experts say too many events lack inspiration or don’t fit today’s worker population. “Most organizations haven’t done the work to find out what drives their employees,” says Maria Amato, a senior client partner in its human resources practice. “They end up with events that are vanilla.”  

Of course, a sizeable number of workers returning to the office do appreciate the free lunch or the night out with colleagues at a ballgame. And nobody is suggesting that companies do away with old standards like after-work drinks. But experts say the noticeable 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 workers back to the office; seven in ten workers would reportedly look for a new 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.”

Experts say leaders need to recognize that post-work bar culture was originally designed for the traditional man who went to work while the woman stayed at home. This, of course, excludes the preferences of many of today’s workers. Indeed, the average number of alcoholic drinks Americans consume in one week has declined 25% between 2009 and 2021. “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 inviting everyone to a noisy bar, leaders should consider hosting intimate dinners or lunches with no more than half a dozen people at a time, says Tamara Rodman, a senior client partner in its culture, change and communications practice. Rodman claims they’re a great way for employees to form meaningful bonds that strengthen their loyalty—not just to the company but to one another. A reported seven in ten employees claim they would be happier if they had deeper connections with co-workers. The need for human connection is the tie that binds in an organization, says Rodman. “If I ask a candidate what they liked most about their last job, they’ll almost always say, ‘the people.’”  

When planning larger events, 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 Jonathan Magee, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s leadership and development business. “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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