The death of after work drinks, and a shift in our culture

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I was rushing about town last week when an Outlook reminder popped up on my laptop. Somewhere along the line, no doubt in a moment of absentmindedness, I’d responded ‘yes’ to an after work drinks.

These events used to be an institution. As a young journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald in the mid-2000s, the Thursday night pub crawls were legendary, invariably starting in Pyrmont before winding their way to the Shakespeare Hotel in Surry Hills.

Then a stumble and a spew on the floor, mostly dodging someone else’s, either in Kings Cross or on Oxford Street. Before staggering in to pretend to get some work done on Friday. Professional life blended into personal life. For many, the office had become their entire world.

A hard-drinking culture existed in many of my other jobs, too. Often it would start with a Friday night party on the office floor, full of inappropriate flirting and glances in the wrong places, debauchery that would dance its way into nearby streets. In a large organisation, the desks were always full and there was always fun to be had – from lunchtime football to yoga in an empty boardroom. The idea of working from home seemed anti-social and odd.

As colleagues, we knew each other’s lives. Every day, there would be conversations around the water cooler. Everyone had their favourite mug in the office kitchen. You’d see the photos of loved ones on your neighbour’s desk.

A number of trends have since combined to turn this equation on its head. Seamless digital connectivity, along with the ubiquity of laptops and personal devices, have given us the ability to work from anywhere. Employers are far more attuned to the need to offer family-friendly policies and other forms of flexibility, such as combining employment with study.

We live in a world where anyone can dream up a business idea or be a creator. The very idea of the company has been upended. It all accelerated during the pandemic, and somehow, it doesn’t feel like things will ever fully revert back.

My organisation is a classic example. We theoretically occupy about 20 desks in a WeWork in the centre of town. In reality, only a couple of people are ever in simultaneously – and it’s actually incredibly distracting whenever it happens. Listening to a colleague’s phone conversation has become too much to bear.

The real issue is that at least half the company is now working from outside Sydney – from the Central Coast to the Southern Highlands and Launceston. Another has received permission to relocate to Cornwall on the English coast.

There are still weekly Teams meetings – and we’ve even tried Teams “Friday night drinks”. But eventually, our boss has given up and started scheduling quarterly in-person social events.

Attendance isn’t mandatory, but a gesture of goodwill to the company. A recognition that being part of a work environment involves a degree of connection and investment in each other’s lives. On this night, I got to the event in the city late, just as my colleagues were preparing to leave. But happy to see me, they ended up staying for another hour.

We spoke with surprising depth, of family members who were recently deceased, and other stresses. From nursing elderly parents to dealing with kids having problems at school, everyone was facing something, and surprisingly freewheeling about sharing it. The conversation also traversed personal philosophy and politics, sniggers about Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and reflections on the troubled state of the economy and the world.

It’s a shock to realise you’re growing older with your work colleagues. Checking back in with them every few months, the addition of new streaks of grey in the hair or wrinkles of worry around the face are particularly noticeable.

But these work social events have become markers of our lives, like a slightly more frequent version of a school reunion.

When the evening finally wound up, a few of us wandered up to the counter for several glasses of water. The alcohol doesn’t quite go down like it used to. Then it was time to brave torrential rain as we left the pub.

An offer to hold a colleague’s hand as we crossed through puddles and dodged traffic. Before reaching Town Hall station and going separate ways. It will be another three or four months before I see any of them again.

Alan Mascarenhas

Alan is a journalist and communications specialist. He writes a weekly column for Parra News.

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