It’s Time to Relearn How to Have Work Drinks

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When Michelle Marks went out for drinks with her co-workers one weeknight in late May, the group, giddy at finally gathering together, celebrated for about four hours.

“We closed out the place,” says the 32-year-old plant pathologist from Columbia, Md. “We ended up just chatting and we ordered pizza, played a few board games…It was just really, really nice.”

As excited as Ms. Marks, who started her current job a month before Covid-19 lockdowns, was to take part in this office-life fixture and just be out with others again socially, she didn’t plunge in with abandon. She stuck to her pre-pandemic office drinks rule of just one or two beverages. “I would never get drunk in the presence of co-workers,” she says.

As society emerges from lockdowns and people reconnect with co-workers at in-person happy hours, many may have to remind themselves just how to do work drinks. More than a year away from this kind of setting means social skills may have gotten rusty. Introverts and others who were already anxious about after-work mixers might feel more anxious now that these functions are resuming.

Working from home put on hold some of the professional code-switching that people engage in when in person with others. The return of work socials and networking requires some refreshers on appropriate behavior and imbibing, especially with alcohol present.

“The first thing I’d recommend is having a really honest conversation with yourself about what your relationship with drinking is right now and what you would need to do to put yourself in the best possible situation with co-workers,” said Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist based in San Francisco.

“This might look like deciding not to drink at all. It might look like deciding in advance how many drinks to have and sticking to it. It might mean finding a buddy and agreeing not to drink, together. Or to check in with each other throughout the evening,” she said.

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Dr. Anhalt, a co-founder of Coa, on online company that offers classes in mental health and emotional fitness, said the buddy system also works if people find they have stayed at work drinks longer than intended. If you’re enjoying yourself at an event and want to have one more beverage than you agreed to with your buddy, you can plan to check in with each other first, she said.

During the pandemic, people drank a lot more alcohol—at home alone, with family or a small group of friends—and they may not fully realize what that looks like in an in-person, professional social gathering.

“You may be thinking, ‘Oh I’ve been having three drinks a night for months now, so I can have two drinks at this event’ and not realize how it may impact how you’re interacting with the other people there, because you haven’t been in that kind of environment [in some time] or seen the differences in yourself or others,” said Abigail R. Kies, assistant dean for career development at the Yale School of Management.

Grabbing drinks with co-workers for the first time in a long time might also influence the way alcohol affects a person.

“When we are in novel environments, there’s a kind of a phenomenon where the drugs and the alcohol that we consume have a much bigger effect on us,” said Adam Galinksy, a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School. “You’re taking the same dosage you’ve been used to taking, but because of the novel environment it has a greater impact on you.”

“Pace yourself,” he said, “because you might not be aware how much it’s affecting you, or you might be so caught up in the moment, you’re not aware of how much you’re drinking.”

Be mindful that, with a desire by some to really let off pent-up steam and energy after being cooped up for more than a year, can “push you past your normal limits,” he warned.

Dr. Galinsky’s advice to company leaders in particular: Organize a lunch first to ease everyone in before progressing to a happy hour.

As in pre-pandemic times, leaders and employees should remember the rules on inappropriate language and touching. In response to the #MeToo movement and greater awareness of employees’ varying comfort with co-worker contact, some companies nixed holiday parties and other team morale-boosting events involving alcohol. Some people may feel more comfortable holding off on handshakes and sticking with elbow bumps, not only for health reasons but social ones, too.

“Three words: Take it slow,” Dr. Galinksy said. Physical touch that seemed normal before the pandemic, like a side-hug, might seem more intense now to some. “You’ve just got to slow down and ease in, and that means recognizing what other people are comfortable with,” he said. “My guess is a casual touch will affect us more intensely because, one, it’s novel, and two, maybe because we still have fears of contamination.”

Working from home meant many people gained a more informal familiarity with their co-workers over Zoom, with glimpses of pets, children or interesting décor. Be careful about taking that familiarity too far in person, especially when alcohol is involved, experts advise.

“Remember, these are not just fun social events,” said Ms. Kies from Yale. “You want to make sure you’re erring more on the conservative side in terms of drinking and social mores.”

Write to Ray A. Smith at ray.smith@wsj.com

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