How to make a workplace happy hour actually happy
Tips to help ensure that your next company happy hour delivers on its promise
Whether your team is distributed or co-located and embracing in-person gatherings or gathering for online meet-ups, a well-executed workplace happy hour is an opportunity to hang out, build relationships, boost morale, and celebrate milestones. (And, bonus for those seeking the business case for raising a glass together: The effort may also help improve engagement and retention, which is always a good thing!)
We tapped the expertise of hospitality, event, and remote workplace professionals who have made it their mission to bring people together through food and drink experiences at work. Here are their tips for staging a happy hour your team will actually thank you for (you’re welcome!).
1. Virtual happy hours can actually be great
If we have all learned anything about online happy hours in the last couple of years, it’s that they can be just as awkward — if not more — than shuffling around uncomfortably in person at a bar.
“Simply hopping on a Zoom happy hour with no plan or structure does not cut it,” said April Johnson, co-founder and CEO of virtual event planning company Happied. “A poorly planned and executed virtual event can have the opposite of the intended effect and actually reduce team morale,” she added. “Managers need to invest time and energy into their virtual team building, just as they would for in-person.”
April offered up the following tips to guide the planning of a virtual happy hour that will hit the mark:
Do think about your team dynamics. Is your team more competitive? More chill? Find activities that fit with your group's vibe. Virtual events are not one-size-fits-all.
Do give your group options and get buy-in. Ask them what types of experiences they want for that month or quarter. Is it a cocktail class? A game night?
Do be inclusive. When thinking about how to keep remote teams engaged, cultural considerations are extremely important. Invest in virtual engagements for your affinity groups (women, LGBTQ+, and Black and brown team members who choose to connect, for example) and ensure that the experiences you're selecting for them are in line with things they'll actually enjoy.
Don't host virtual events for your teams on Fridays. That's the time they want to spend with their family and friends.
Don't expect your team to do a lot of pre-work for their virtual social events. They are busy enough with their day to day, and a virtual social event should feel like a treat.
2. Don’t just drink, do
While there's nothing wrong with just going out and having a drink with your colleagues, Andra (AJ) Johnson, beverage director and partner at Washington D.C. bar Serenata, said that there's a lot to be said for creating an actual experience for your team.
“I always like to offer the option of a cocktail class to corporate clients if they inquire about hosting a happy hour because it’s a great opportunity for team building,” AJ said. “Working together on something with your teammates and actually creating something for one another is a really fun way to interact and connect.”
If you’re offering up a straightforward mix-and-mingle happy hour for your team, she added, prioritize the opportunity for congregation and community by ensuring you have a dedicated space for your group. “We try to be sure we group tables to put people in a conversational situation rather than simply reserve seats at the bar,” she said. “We want people to be able to see one another but also, especially as we manage anxiety around COVID, to feel safe and cared for in a space set aside for their group. That’s priceless right now.”
3. Make sure mocktails make the menu
Both April and AJ highlighted the importance of including nonalcoholic options at your company happy hours. “You don't want to ostracize any groups or make anyone feel uncomfortable at virtual or in-person events,” April said.
So, what can you offer folks to drink at happy hour if they don’t drink alcohol? AJ noted that there are plenty of options, and the key is to integrate the choices seamlessly and maintain the spirit of celebration, whether the beverage includes spirits or not. “We have three of our specialty cocktails that we can make without alcohol. Every other component of the drink is the same, and we dress it in the same way, so it doesn’t look any different, so nobody feels excluded or singled out for not drinking alcohol.”
4. Think beyond the bar
While happy hours traditionally revolve around beverages at a bar or restaurant — or now, sharing drinks online — April said that employers are also increasingly offering teams opportunities to connect online around coffee breaks or food activities during the day. She offered up some alternative happy hour ideas to get your wheels turning.
“Coffee breaks can happen any time during the day, not just at the end of the work day, and food activities are a great way to share a tasty bite together and even learn something new,” she said. “Make handmade tortillas together or learn to make sushi or dumplings from scratch. At Happied, our Baking Wars online event is a super silly way to bake up a scrumptious cake while having a ball decorating with hilarious results. Think Pinterest fails on overload.”
If you want to expand beyond food and drink, options for online team-building activities are expanding all the time — arts and crafts activities, team games, and virtual escape room experiences are just a few of the options.
5. Offer your remote workers a perk
If you’re the founder of a distributed team, consider offering your remote workers a chance to gather for an in-person happy hour — either with teammates in their area or with other remote professionals.
Remote companies can offer to reimburse costs of meet-ups and casual happy hours for colleagues who live in the same area, providing incentive to connect and create community in person.
Wondering about how to choose a location for the company happy hour? Here’s an option: A membership to WorkChew, a Washington, D.C.-based startup that provides remote professionals access to workspaces and food and beverage perks within a network of hotels and restaurants. The company’s "Work + Eat + Meet" gatherings at restaurants and hotels in their network are a great opportunity for remote team members to create community close to home.
“Remote work can feel lonely at times, especially if they are not geographically close to the rest of their team,” said the company’s marketing manager, LaToya Dove. “Our WorkChew Wednesdays are an opportunity to meet other remote professionals in your area.” And, if you want to connect a group of your team members who live in the same area, WorkChew Wednesdays offer a space for those meetups as well.