Making Fun Mandatory

I recently spoke on my satellite radio show with Adam Waytz, a professor of management at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business, about his look at “mandatory fun” at work: social events that are essentially required at work. There are happy hours and office parties of all kinds that are designed to make the workplace more fun. They also include social events where the goal is to build new social relationships among employees. But do they work?

He points to research whose results are familiar to anyone who is a close observer of social events. First, people who already know each other tend to hang out together at parties: Put two departments together at a social event, and people will clump together with their department, like a junior high school dance with boys on one side and girls on the other.

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Socialites who throw fancy dinner parties have long known this, which is why they would have assigned seats for dinner and think carefully about who should sit next to whom so that guests might meet someone new, as well as separate spouses so they don’t just talk to each other. Expecting people who don’t otherwise know each other to somehow mix it up just because they are at a social event assumes much greater social skills — and interest in getting to know new people — than most of us possess.

Second, Adam notes, when starting a conversation with a stranger, we tend to talk about the things we have in common. In the workplace, when we are put together with other people from work, what we have most in common with them is . . . work. So at a workplace social event, it is not surprising that lots of people end up talking about work.

The point here is that if a social event is intended to get people to talk about work in a different setting, we don’t have to do much because that is likely to be what happens anyway. If we want the event to be like a real outside-work fun activity, it’s going to require a lot of effort and design to achieve that goal, and it’s likely going to be harder to do than if we just brought a group of total strangers together.

The important question really is: Why are we doing this at all? Workplace social events, especially when they take place after hours and even if they are kind of fun, essentially extend the workday and take time away from our social life that does not revolve around work. Is it worth doing? It’s easy to say that those who don’t want to come don’t have to, but we all know that there are pressures that compel us to attend. For example: it’s at the boss’s house and she’s clearly going to notice who isn’t there.

Social events at work are also fraught with social peril. If you say the wrong thing to someone and you’ll see them every day next week. If you have too much to drink, you’ll look like you’re not executive material. It’s the same navigating of all the usual workplace concerns about power, influence, ambition and so forth, just in a different context. My radio co-host Dan O’Meara points out that HR departments should just block out the first few days after annual holiday parties every year simply to deal with the problems that happened at those parties.

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Meanwhile, Waytz asks a simple question: Wouldn’t it be more fun for the employees to have time off?

Dan O’Meara asks the more fundamental question that I confess I hadn’t considered: Might it actually be better if we didn’t know our co-workers so well, if our relationships with them were more or less strictly professional and not social and professional?

On the one hand, it’s certainly nice to be at work all day with our friends, and social relationships certainly improve retention. On the other hand, it’s hard to give critical feedback about workplace performance to someone who is also important to your social life; it is time consuming to keep up with everyone’s life outside of work; and it’s not necessarily fun to socialize with people you don’t really like just because you work with them.

Maybe this is just due to a difference in demographics – just please don’t call this a millennial effect. Younger employees tend to go to happy hours in part because they are building social lives, while older employees are less inclined to go to these events because they already have social lives outside of work.

What do you think?

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Peter Cappelli
Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist and a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He can be emailed at [email protected]