“Virtual Happy Hours” Are Boosting Morale At Work

Here’s how company leaders use digital tippling to help keep employees together, engaged—and maybe even happy—during the pandemic.

One of the fastest-growing memes for companies in the suddenly enormous world of telecommuting is the “virtual happy hour.” The idea of setting up a way for work buddies to remotely tipple in digital unity at the end of the day has taken hold rapidly as CEOs search for ways to keep employees engaged and calm while toiling at home and trying to get to the other side of the coronavirus crisis.

“Bosses who are having virtual happy hours are saying, ‘I value my connection to you and I want to maintain it in some way at an intimate level’ despite what’s going on,” said Matt Brubaker, CEO of FMG Leading, a San Diego-based human-capital advisory firm. “That makes a difference.”

Tom Gimbel agreed. “In this situation, we’re realizing that even people who don’t like a lot of social, happy-hour, company-rah-rah kind of stuff don’t like being alone, either,” said the CEO of LaSalle Network, an employment agency based in Chicago.

But there already are some do’s and don’ts for this new workplace and social construct. Here are some pointers from CEOs who actually were conducting virtual happy hours before the pandemic, and from chiefs who have quickly adopted them:

Open people up: Limeade CEO Henry Albrecht likes the company’s virtual happy hours because “it’s a richer experience in some ways” than a post-workday get-together at a bar.

“You see if someone is maybe a gardener, or has three cats, or their kids are riding bikes in the background with their helmets on,” says the chief of the online “wellbeing” platform for employees, based in Seattle. “You get all those little insights into someone’s life, if you’re willing to be open and not so buttoned up.”

Reckon with kids: Whether to have suddenly home-bound employees pounding a brewsky online with co-workers while their kids are doing homework in the background can pose a dilemma for virtual happy hours, some chiefs concede.

“Whether you bring your kids into it, or maybe your roommate, really depends on the culture of your company,” Gimbel said.

Widen the circle: To help keep its virtual happy hour fresh, Auth0, a software-security firm based in Bellevue, Washington, randomly reaches out to three employees from across the company and invites them to participate in that day’s event.

“It could be a VP or someone from any level of the company,” says CEO Eugenio Pace. “It makes it more of a social event.”

Bring something extra: It may not be enough just for workers to be stirring their Manhattans or sipping on spiked seltzer as they stare at one another through their iPhones. Auth0, for example, adds online games, such as a trivia contest resembling those that are ubiquitous at pubs. “It helps keep people engaged,” Pace said.

And at LaSalle Network, an employee’s friend recently volunteered to play piano for the staff, taking requests and conducting singalongs virtually. The company now also conducts virtual sunrise yoga sessions.

Get ready for them to end: Lenovo is conducting virtual happy hours now for the Raleigh, North Carolina-based workforce of the Chinese tech giant. But David Rabin, vice president of global commercial marketing, isn’t necessarily expecting the digital gatherings to replace physical ones over the long term.

“When a sense of normalcy returns to the world, [virtual happy hours] will be very quick to return to face-to-face ones,” he says.