The best company happy hours go beyond free booze

The happy hour is ready for a renovation.
The happy hour is ready for a renovation.
Image: Erich Schlegel/AP Images
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Happy hour used to be a time and a place for employees to connect, see friends at work, make new ones, network, let their hair down, and get to know their colleagues in a relaxed setting—all things that study after study shows are very good for business.

But these days, when I am speaking with companies about how to create a human workplace, I hear employees saying they don’t have time to grab a drink with colleagues because they would prefer to deal with their overflowing inboxes. Others say they show up, but then admit they still spend most of their time looking at their phones.

Some companies, meanwhile, are looking to find new strategies for encouraging employees to socialize and connect—beyond offering them a few free drinks. Here are a few of my favorite.

Turning the tables

Zendesk, a customer service software company, has figured out a way to transform the ho-hum happy hour. Two times a year, the executives “turn the tables” and host the happy hour by coming up with the drinks, making the drinks, slicing the limes and serving the drinks. Zendesk values humility and this is a way that the executives can show they don’t take themselves too seriously. Plus, it’s a great reminder that the role of leadership is to “serve” their employees.

Getting to (really) know you

I recently met with a New York City-based financial services firm that wants its associates to be more engaged with each other and the firm. In addition to the regular happy hour keg, the company brought in a professional reporter to its happy hours to interview senior executives about their life stories, fun facts, and career trajectories. This type of curation lead to a wonderful, interesting discussion where the associates felt like they got to know the executive on a more human level. And, when an associate would later run into the executive in the elevator at the water cooler, they were much more likely to engage in a conversation.

Be the change

Happy hour doesn’t need to be after work, nor does it need to be “happy,” i.e serve alcohol. Some employees may consider after hours off-limits due to children or aging parents that need attention after work. A few months ago, I visited Slack, the workplace messaging platform. I signed in at 2:50 pm and waited for my host. At 3 pm (on the nose), a large gong went off and I literally jumped three feet in the air. After I came down, my host explained that a gong goes off every day at 3 pm signaling that it’s a good time to take a break, grab a cappuccino and connect with colleagues. Think of it like the seventh inning stretch, a little shot of connection to make it through the day.

Redesigning happy hour is not rocket science. But it does take intention. And it’s worth it. Because good things happen when people connect.

Erica Keswin is the author of the forthcoming book “Bring Your Human to Work: Ten Sure-Fire Ways to Design a Workplace That is Good for People, Great for Business, and Just Might Change the World.”