In the era of the virtual office, when even workers who are physically present often wall off their senses with oversized headphones and rely on instant messaging platforms to chat with colleagues sitting in desks next to them, forced fun at the corporate level may represent the last, best hope for human interaction among co-workers who would otherwise remain the closest of strangers.
“I can’t think of anything more depressing than an office where no one actually talks to each other,” said Lois Najarian O’Neill, the founder of the Door Idea House. This New York public relations and branding agency enforces a no-phone, no-screen policy at the company’s midweek overnight outings. “Our retreat is our saving grace.”
Even so, company mixers and retreats come with plenty of baggage. The problems, according to several professionals interviewed, are many.
For starters, these company get-togethers sometimes put pressure on employees to showcase skills that have little to do with job performance.
While working at a research firm in the management consulting industry, Jessie Hunter found that cocktail mixers organised by her firm “took the extrovert-introvert differences” among colleagues “and turned them up to 11pm”.
In such settings, office gossip also tends to flourish. This is not entirely a bad thing. A 2005 article in The New York Times about the psychological benefits of gossip noted that furtive smack-talking “not only helps clarify and enforce the rules that keep people working well together”, but can offer “a foothold for newcomers in a group and a safety net for group members who feel in danger of falling out”.
But as a morale-booster, gossip has its limits.
Liz Hall, an executive assistant, recalled exchanging cheeky barbs with colleagues at company outings during her stint at a career-search start-up which, at first, felt good. “You felt united against the common enemy, annoying co-workers,” she said.
The benefits did not last. Eventually, she said: “I realised that all that gossiping was causing me to get more disgruntled than I would have been if I had just kept my head down. It was basically creating steam instead of blowing it off.”
In a #MeToo era when sensitivity concerns are in overdrive, gossip is hardly the only potential hazard at work outings, especially ones involving alcohol.
Recalling her days at a big jewellery company, Barbara Palumbo, enjoyed going out with friends after work. But the mandatory nonsense is just that”, she added, “especially with more and more stories of work-related harassment coming into the light, who wants the obligation of going bowling with the creepy guy from the Wichita office who walks around with his fly unzipped?”
This is not to say that company outings yield nothing beyond expense reports for managers. Now the company outing or retreat is essentially just a different way to work.
When she was an intern with the legal department of a baseball team, Daley Epstein, now an attorney, saw an employee softball game on the diamond of the team’s stadium as an opportunity for self-marketing for younger staff. Although the game was just for fun, junior employees could also use it to “showcase their competitive side and leadership skills on the field,” she said, so that the “the manager who witnessed it may later decide they had what it takes to run the next major project”.
Company outings can also collapse, or even invert, office hierarchies.
When Dina Kaplan was helping run a video-sharing platform, she and the other founders helped organise a paintball excursion for their employees. The outing gave the staff a chance to plug away at management with impunity. “I wanted to hide on the field, but wasn’t sure if that looked cowardly to the team,” added Kaplan, who came away with black-and-blue welts. “The irony is that I was afraid to look afraid.”
Cutting-edge companies are starting to treat company mixers and retreats as an effort to challenge employees, not coddle them, in an effort to inspire them to new professional heights.
LinkedIn recently hired a company to push its executives to the limit on a corporate retreat at a ski resort. The employees were awakened one morning with a frantic knock on the cabin door, urging them to organise a high-stakes search-and-rescue mission for a fictional missing skier, providing them only with maps, compasses, avalanche beacons and other basic gear. Afterwards, their performance was evaluated over wine by an executive coach during a fireside debrief.
“Teams connect when they are having fun and genuinely challenged,” said Noah Rainey, a company founder.
Connection, after all, is the point. This is particularly crucial in the virtual modern workplace where even elevator chit chat is being replaced by workers staring glassy-eyed at their smartphones on the trip to the 12th floor.
At her company’s most recent retreat in the Catskills, O’Neill gathered her employees, many of them millennials, to watch a video by Simon Sinek, the author and motivational speaker, about millennials and tech addiction. They then broke off into groups to discuss whether they were angered or enlightened.
“I knew some would be totally offended by his words,” she said. But one of the sessions resulted in an overdue ‘Ten Commandments of Slack’ policy for the office, Commandment 6: Don’t hide behind Slack for hard conversations.
“It was a hallelujah moment for me,” said O’Neill. “It’s sinking in!”
This article first appeared in The New York Times.