Imagine this. You’re sitting at your desk, plugging away on an important project, head down and headphones in. You’re in the zone.
Suddenly three people from HR run by wearing sombreros and clutching margaritas. Strange, but not entirely out of the ordinary. They’re in HR after all.
Then the Mariachi music starts blaring and it dawns on you: “Ah yes, another office social event I’ll be avoiding.”
Avoiding cringeworthy social events
Let’s face it: some work social events are just… forced. Maybe they’re ill-timed, underplanned, exclusive, intrusive, distracting, or foisted upon us out of the blue.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “mandatory fun” used in the context of a company picnic, office holiday party, or an after-hours trivia night, you know exactly the kind of event I’m talking about.
But avoiding work social events is very much frowned upon, perhaps rightfully so. Sure, not attending once in a while is fine, but if you’re a serial offender you’re probably not doing yourself any favors.
On the flip side, if you’re on the social committee and feeling a little disappointed by the low attendance of your events, it’s time to think about why that is. In this article we’ll take a look at both sides: why people extricate themselves from cringeworthy social events, and the steps you can take to minimize the cringe.
Why do some people choose not to attend work social events?
The point of work social events is pretty cut and dry. Forming strong bonds between coworkers and a thriving company culture requires more than just working under the same roof every day. People need to connect on a social level and get to know each other beyond their daily professional interactions.
It’s how Sue from Accounting becomes Sue who has a lovely family and also happens to be really good at bowling. It’s the human dimension that helps turn organizations into communities.
The problem, in some cases, is the execution. If a social event feels awkward, which can be pretty common especially if you’re an introvert, that might make people anxious. If it feels like it’s not optional, even though it’s supposed to be, then you’re entering mandatory fun territory which is anything but.
When people can easily point to one or two examples of poorly planned (or outright awful) social events, it makes sense why they’d be reluctant to attend future ones. And that’s why work social events need to be planned meticulously.
So what does a successful social event look like?
The ideal work social event is different for every employee. But there are a few attributes that are practically universal when it comes to what we expect from a social gathering with coworkers.
Inviting everyone is one thing; ensuring that people don’t feel excluded when they’re present takes a little more effort. Think about things like dietary restrictions, food and beverage allergies and alternatives, music and activity choices, entertainment and games, physical limitations, etc. Will all employees feel comfortable participating, or will some feel alienated?
2. Scheduled well in advance
You need to give people plenty of notice so that they can schedule their day accordingly. For larger events, I recommend at least a month’s notice, preferably more. For short, informal events, send out invites at the beginning of the week. And schedule them at a time when most people aren’t working like at lunchtime or after 5pm.
Work should be the last thing on everyone’s mind. Social events are for socializing, not discussing the latest product development idea you’ve got kicking around and need someone’s help on. Save that for the rest of the workday. Creating a relaxing atmosphere often can be as simple as providing snacks and drinks, and giving people something to do to occupy their attention.
4. Short duration
Similar to #2, work social events generally shouldn’t last longer than a few hours. Why? Because it’s important to respect people’s schedules and commitments outside of work, too. Make sure you include a start and finish time in your invitation so people have an understanding of what to expect and can manage their time around it. Remember, it's called trivia hour for a reason.
Have you booked the same hotel for your holiday party three years in a row? Try changing up the venue before it gets stale. People also like to do new activities together that they wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to try. Forget the boring Friday mixer and take the team to a vintage arcade or a curling rink. If you don’t have the budget, try experimenting with party themes to make things a bit more interesting.
Social events shouldn’t just be optional in name only. The truth is, some people are going to avoid every event you invite them to, and that’s fine. After all, not everyone enjoys social gatherings. Also: don’t punish or ostracize employees because they’d prefer not to attend.
If you’d like to be more social with coworkers but feel like social events are just too weird, you can avoid attending… or you could be proactive and join the social committee to help plan the next event yourself. Be the change you want to see in the world—or at least in your organization.
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