I’m in my first job after graduating last year, and will be working from home for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, this means my boss has taken it upon himself to organize “happy hours” outside of work hours. These aren’t really happy hours; they’re more “work meetings with alcohol on Zoom,” and while they’re framed as not “technically” obligatory, they definitely are, and I get pointed comments if I choose to not attend. My manager will bring them up in team meetings, saying, “Oh, you’re not busy because you’re all in lockdown, haha!” and then expect us all to show up.
The thing is, he’s right: I’m not busy in the traditional sense. But what I am busy doing is decompressing from work, cooking, doing chores, trying to organize my life, exercising, calling my long-distance partner, writing fiction, and also just lying on my bed eating chips and staring at the glow of my phone screen while trying not to think about doom and gloom. I understand the value of showing my face at these meetings, and if they were truly optional I’d show up once a month or so. But I hate the expectation that, “every other Thursday from 5 to 7:30 p.m. you’re going to be in a work call that’s outside of business hours so we can drink but also talk about work.” No one drinks more than a glass of wine at these, by the way.
I wouldn’t care if these get-togethers were during the day. I just feel resentful having the boundaries between work and home being blurred even further by my job digging into my personal time. Plus, I live in a shared house and so have to work from my bedroom. Besides, my manager and I agreed I’d work from 8-4 every day. I enjoy my job, but it’s not the focus of my life.
How do I navigate this? I’ve tried suggesting to my manager that he have these sessions during work hours, but he says the point of the call is for us to socialize and get to know each other better. My colleagues are fine, but they’ve shown little interest in being friends with me. The calls often include me being silent while they talk about children and product managing. (I am not a product manager and am kind of adjunct to the team.) The longer this continues, the more resentful I get. I’m not sure if this is relevant, but I don’t drink and am also the youngest on my team by 15 years and am the only one without children. I’m salaried rather than paid by the hour. We’re also all in the same time zone.
This has become such a thing over the last year, since so many teams started working remotely. And like you, a lot of people don’t want to spend their evenings making awkward conversation with co-workers over Zoom.
Unofficially, obligatory work happy hours have always been a thing, of course. They can just feel especially onerous right now, when people have a particularly high need to decompress from stress. And socializing on Zoom isn’t the same experience as socializing face-to-face; the constant gaze of the camera, the chaos of too many people trying to talk at once, and the delay from imperfect internet connections often make the experience more draining than relaxing — and even more so if you’ve been already dealing with video all day for work.
That said, your boss isn’t wrong to think there’s some value in finding ways for your team to connect informally. There is value in that. The problem is the way he’s doing it — like making people feel obligated to show up and not noticing that you’re being excluded from much of the conversation. Implying that you can’t possibly have anything else you’d like to do with that time is particularly obnoxious. As you point out, just because you’re stuck at home doesn’t mean you don’t have other demands on your time, and even if you didn’t, you’re still entitled to decide you’d rather veg out on your own than have to be “on” for a work call.
I bet you’d feel differently about these calls if they were truly optional and presented as an outlet for team members who wanted it, with no penalties (subtle or otherwise) for people who didn’t attend. You’d also feel differently if your boss occasionally held these events during the workday instead — which he really should if he’s convinced there’s work value to them — and changed up the format so the conversation wasn’t consistently leaving some people out.
But there’s a long and storied history of managers being oblivious to all of this. My inbox is full of complaints similar to yours from people resentful that their employers expect them to spend non-work time on ostensibly “fun” activities that they’d rather sit out.
So, what can you do? One option is that effective immediately, you say that you have obligations right after work that you can’t get out of (whether or not that’s actually the case). You don’t necessarily need to explain what these commitments (or “commitments”) are; you might be able to just say, “Oh, I’ve got something tonight right after work so I won’t be there. Have fun though!” If that doesn’t fly with your boss or if you start feeling awkward saying that every time, feel free to explain that you’re taking a class that meets then, have a family Zoom call at that time (“it’s the only time that worked for my parents”), joined a book club, or anything else that credibly conveys, “I’m not available then.”
That said, it’s not a bad idea to attend occasionally. You don’t need to go every time, but there can be professional benefit to showing up for, say, every third event. You shouldn’t have to, but the reality is that sometimes people do get penalized (subtly or not so subtly) for never showing up. But you might find it easier to bear if you’re not stuck attending every single time! Plus, when you show up, you don’t need to stay for the full two and a half hours (and holy hell, that’s long for this kind of thing). You can show up, say something at the start like “I’ve got to duck out in a bit for a family thing but I wanted to say hi to everyone,” and then leave after 30 minutes. Keep your tone breezy, sound like you’re delighted to be there, and then matter-of-factly extract yourself and head off to enjoy your liberation.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.