The fairy lights are up, the ugly jumpers are on. Someone’s been playing Mariah Carey all afternoon, and by 5pm everyone’s ready to pack up. It’s the day of the office Christmas party, and everyone’s looking forward to it, right? Well actually, these days, maybe not.
COVID got many workplaces out of the habit of holiday festivities, and it seems not everyone wants to welcome the tradition back.
A major factor in the resistance to a night of boozing is an increasing disinclination towards drinking itself. Alcohol consumption has been falling steadily over the past couple of years, and after the pandemic, some people still don’t feel comfortable mingling in large crowds.
On top of that, cracks in already fragmented teams may only have deepened with the introduction of hybrid or remote work—some people want to spend their free time on their own terms instead of with colleagues.
Last but not least, the fear that you’ll overshare or embarrass yourself in front of your team and boss is enough to make anyone think twice about attending a gathering.
So perhaps it’s no wonder that experts believe the days of old-school Christmas parties are numbered—and it’s up to employers to figure out what to do instead.
Do staff want to party with the boss?
Data doesn’t help clarify whether staff actually enjoy Christmas parties or attend out of obligation.
Rehab center Niznik Behavioral Health commissioned a study into drinking in the workplace which found that 60% of respondents thought sharing a tipple with managers would help them get ahead.
However, the vast majority (82.3%) fear being judged if they don’t attend work events where alcohol is being consumed.
Some studies suggest the aversion to socializing with the boss goes even deeper.
In 2019 a U.K. study found that 59% of staff never hung out with their manager, in fact, more than a third (34%) would actively avoid their managers if they saw them outside the workplace.
Anecdotally Chris Preston, founder and director of U.K.-based company The Culture Builders, believes just less than half of staff aren’t keen on a Christmas party.
Whether it’s care commitments, religious reasons, or a clear distinction between professional and personal life, Preston said managers often overestimate how engaged their teams are in work celebrations.
“Christmas parties are not as popular as management thinks,” said Preston. “Managers are divorced from reality in many situations. When you do any research there’s the feedback from the general population, there’s a big gap, and then there’s the results from the managers. For them, everything looks better.”
To truly engage a team the best tactic is to be led by them, Preston said. He encouraged managers to ask for inspiration—be it an activity, time of day or location—and frame it as a “thank you” as opposed to a specifically festive occasion.
“Personal situation is critical to understand because everyone’s got something going on, whether you know it or not,” Preston said. “Recognize that different people want different things.”
Options might include a wider dinner with some team members but individual coffee sessions with others, or holding the party during the working day.
Set some boundaries
Even if bosses go out of their way to include options for all employees, some staff may attempt to press an advantage while they’ve got their manager’s ear.
In informal settings it’s still the responsibility of the supervisor to set boundaries, the experts said, with Columbia Business School’s Professor Wei Cai saying staff will often try to employ “upward influencers.”
This is generally defined as employees trying to garner support or approval from superiors, which in turn may lead to career progression or opportunities.
“It’s hard for leaders to set a real boundary,” said Professor Cai. “It’s a social event, it’s casual, but it’s a workplace social event. I wouldn’t be surprised if some team members think they should talk about work because their boss is there.
“Managers could say ‘Let’s have another chat about it, let’s maybe not chat here.’ They need to think about the purpose of the event—if this is a semi-work event then the topic of work is expected to be brought up, so they should be prepared for such conversations and to postpone them.”
Preston also suggested that if teams are concerned their manager may dish out work boons based on social interactions, they may not want to work for their boss at all.
He explained: “If you’re a manager that makes promotion decisions based on the person sitting next to you, you’re probably not the best manager in the world.
“It is really sloppy management to say: ‘Well you’re a good person because you came and got drunk with me.’ Good managers are constantly working with their people to understand who’s progressing and what they want, and they’re making decisions based on a whole year’s worth of data—not on a Friday night.”
GenZ don’t want to drink, at all
As well as a potential cultural divide between those who want to socialize with their colleagues and those who prefer not to, there may also be a generational line in the sand.
The youngest recruits to businesses may well not want to drink at all, thus alienating them from older managers who like to kick back with a tipple. A study from Berenberg Research found GenZ drink over 20% less in their teens and early 20s than millennials did at the same age.
As well as saying they expect to drink less in their lifetimes—64% of Gen Z respondents said they didn’t expect to drink as regularly as their older counterparts—they’re also abstaining entirely.
A University of Michigan study found the number of college-age consumers who are tee-total has risen from 20% to 28% in the past two decades, prompting firms like Molson Coors to update their product lineup.
This shift is something bosses, who may well be older, need to appreciate.
Preston warned that those in older generations need to steer clear of the “back in my day” trap: assuming younger workers need to go through similar work milestones in order to “earn their spurs.”
“Making it about drinking is really quite damaging,” Preston said. “What you’re saying is: ‘As a culture we respect and value drinking.’
“That’s not a good message. The message needs to be: ‘As a team we value inclusion, we do things that bring us together with appropriate shared memories and we understand some people won’t want to.”
Kickstarting a good year
All the experts Fortune spoke to agreed that, if managed and communicated well, social occasions with colleagues can be good for team building.
Ben Moss is a chartered business psychologist and MD of health and wellbeing consultancy Robertson Cooper, which focuses on giving individuals more “good days” at work—defined by experiencing positive emotions and feeling connected, to name a few.
Having surveyed 61,500 workers, Moss’s team found that any improvement to “good days” resulted in a 13% increase in productivity and a 17% improvement in job satisfaction. If done right, a gathering like a Christmas party could count as a “good day.”
“It’s not like [the party] happens in isolation,” Moss explained. “You don’t go and have a good day, put that away then go back to your desk the next morning. These connections flow into the following week and the week after that.
“You might make a couple of work-based friends you’d never have met before and that might help you both socially and do your job as well.”
Building authentic working relationships could also encourage resistant staff to attend other in-person events or come into the office more, Moss added: “Maybe if people enjoyed that social connection their New Year’s resolution might be thinking about coming into the office an extra day a week, without being told that they have to—just because they feel they want to lean into it after a good experience over Christmas.”