Why company socials are more invaluable than people think

Socials are valuable tools for maintaining a strong culture, and, even though there are plenty of examples of organizing poor ones — like when your CEO thinks bringing employees to a foreign escort bar is an ace idea — teams should be congregating outside the workplace to foster relationships and build rapport. Here’s some research into the value of socials and some lessons I’ve learned from organizing regular events.
How getting out benefits you, your team, and your company

It can be easy to joke that socials are a way to slack off on company time. But research supports the legitimate value of social and cultural events. One of the main benefits is to help foster friendships, invaluable when you consider that none of us can go it alone at work. Here’s how friendship is magic:

Does making friends at work really matter?

According to Harvard Business Review, it does. “People in organizations need to work together. So, managers and employees need to foster collaboration, trust, personal relationships, fun, and support,” writes Christine M. Riordan, a professor at University of Kentucky. “In an increasingly global and virtual environment, challenges for employees and managers will be to cultivate these personal relationships. Fostering friendships takes proactive effort.”

“In an increasingly global and virtual environment, challenges for employees and managers will be to cultivate these personal relationships. Fostering friendships takes proactive effort.”

Can’t you just make friends at work?

Absolutely, but gathering outside of work provides a new context for meeting and bonding with people. We all adopt work personas once we step inside the office, and heading out provides a chance to show more dimensions of who we are. Taking people out for axe-throwing or archery tag allows people to support, encourage, and playfully tease one another in a new environment.

“Effective team-building creates a culture of trust simply by giving employees an opportunity to strengthen their interpersonal relationships, be vulnerable in a low-stakes environment, and try out new ideas with a safety net of humor,” says Jenny Gottstein, who has crafted team-building events for Amex, Facebook, and Netflix.

“While companies often pay significant attention to loyalty toward the organization, the best employers recognize that loyalty also exists among employees toward one another.”

Friendships act as a bulwark against dropping employee engagement

Gallup notes that, in general, “employee engagement at work is at an all-time low.” But having people around you can joke, share with, and confide in help improve engagement at work. Employees able to describe “having a best friend* at work” were:

  • 37% more likely to report that someone at work encourages their development.
  • 27% more likely to report that the mission of their company makes them feel their job is important.
  • 27% more likely to report that their opinions seem to count at work.
  • 21% more likely to report that at work, they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day.

“While companies often pay significant attention to loyalty toward the organization, the best employers recognize that loyalty also exists among employees toward one another,” the polling organization concludes. Socials are a space to strengthen that sense of responsibility to one another.

* If you’re curious about the usage of “best friend,” Gallup explains that “because some employees had difficulty with the word ‘best,’ Gallup went back to those groups and softened the word to ‘close’ or ‘good,’ or excluded the word ‘best’ entirely. When this was done, however, the item lost its power to differentiate highly productive workgroups from mediocre workgroups. This suggested that the use of the word ‘best’ actually pinpoints a dynamic of great workgroups.”

So you’re planning an outing

We can all organize group outings, and without being prescriptive here are some helpful tips.

Set up an organizing committee

Groups are great because they spark more ideas and perspectives, in addition to distributing the work. Sometimes these perspectives clash, but that’s actually a feature not a bug. Everyone attending your event won’t be the cookie-cutter same, so having different voices in your planning committees helps surface potential concerns and thoughts from your attendees.

Do more with less

Enjoyment doesn’t necessarily correlate with spending. A trip to Toronto’s Centre Island cost little more than the ferry ticket and picnic food items. Going to somewhere like Ripley’s Aquarium cost less than $30 per person. Budgets can be great, acting as a constraint and forcing organizers to consider how to get the most bang for their buck.

Imagine through the experience

Thinking through the attendee experience is key.

How will they get to the venue? What will they need to bring with them? (If it’s outdoors, for instance, remind attendees to bring sensible shoes, a hat, sunscreen, and water.) Do they need to bring any money or identification? Will they be able to easily return to the office after, or will they be carrying all their gear with them? At the bottom of this post, you’ll see a full list of considerations!

A thorough walkthrough will help bring up potential hiccups ahead of time.

Show it’s a valued part of the work experience

Many times, groups will do socials after-work as a way to “wind down.” However, many people have daycare, commuting, and other responsibilities. Socials should be during work time to not make people feel obliged to give up personal time, and it demonstrates that this kind of relationship-building is important to work so it’s done during “work hours.”

Leave notes

Don’t rely on having the same group of people organizing all the time. It can lead to burnout. But ensure that they leave notes and protocols so the next group isn’t reinventing the wheel. (Part of the incentive of writing this was to pass the knowledge along!)

Socializing it

Field of Dreams was wrong: if you build it, people won’t necessarily come. Ensure buy-in by having leadership and leads encourage participation. People may feel they have too much to do to attend, but signal the value of attending.

Give lots of notice ahead of the event, so that people can move around meetings as needed. Plan socials in the afternoon on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays in an attempt to minimize disruptions and to provide a welcome break during the workweek.

Put thought and intention into your socials. They not only provide a space for people to connect, but also demonstrate your culture. It says something if your team ventures to a museum or does some group volunteering, versus if they’re wasted at the strip club. (Mind you, if a night out to a Magic Mike-type show is on brand with your company, then go for it!)

Sometimes the way you know whether or not you’re at a great place to work is when you’re not actually at work.

More considerations for planning events!

  • Alcohol: not everyone drinks and we’ve found that attendees have enjoyed our socials without relying on having to drink to bond. Drinking isn’t banned, but it is not the raison d’etre. Also, not everyone on your team will be drinking age, and not having alcohol removes a complication
  • Dietary restrictions: keep in mind people have many dietary needs and to accommodate people as much as possible, or to at least warn them if certain options are available
  • Novelty: we always ask, “Is there something new or different for people to experience together?”
  • Skill level (non-gendered, height etc.): we try to put everyone on the same playing field because it’s a chance to experience something new together
  • Breadth of experiences: how many ways are there to interact with this experience: is it gendered? is it heteronormative? does it allow for positive experiences from both introverts and extroverts?
  • Mobility and accessibility: can people get around reasonably? We don’t do things that might exclude people with mobility or accessibility issues
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