Every year around this time, a fresh crop of articles arrive baring advice on how to survive the office party. If you paid close attention this holiday season, you now know how to diffuse awkward conversations and not to talk incessantly about work.
Why do we have office parties? If the goal is to foster meaningful workplace connections, it may be time we reconsidered our approach. Most office holiday parties fall desperately short of meeting this objective.
In theory, social workplace events should create opportunities for employees to extend their network, develop a richer understanding of their colleagues, and strengthen existing friendships. The reality is much different. Office parties tend to isolate people into groups of those they already know, trapping them in conversations that feel strained and rarely contribute to deeper bonds.
This is a wasted opportunity, and not just because people could be having a more enjoyable time. For organizations interested in achieving top performance, creating high-quality working relationships is a requirement.
Over the past decade, researchers have uncovered compelling evidence that feeling connected to our colleagues makes us more effective at work. We become more willing to ask for help, exchange ideas, and share resources. Studies show that employees with stronger workplace relationships are not only more engaged, they’re also less likely to quit or even call in sick.
Companies should be investing in the quality of workplace relationships. The problem is that from a relationship-building perspective, the office holiday party often gets it all wrong.
Here’s one research-backed approach: Including a novel, collaborative activity that allows colleagues to master new skills by working together like group cookie decorating or holiday-themed games and competitions.
For one thing, experiences of shared struggle and cooperation are a natural catalyst for group bonding. In times of hardship, human beings instinctively seek closer connections with others.
Studies also suggest that engaging in interactive rather than passive activities bolsters relationship quality and leads people to feel closer to one another. By taking the focus off the conversation and placing it squarely on an activity itself, interactive tasks also reduce self-consciousness and make connections easier to grow. This can be especially helpful for the introverts in a group, who are often more successful bonding shoulder-to-shoulder with a colleague rather than face-to-face.
Introducing an unfamiliar task offers another benefit: it makes existing status differences between colleagues less important. Research indicates that people are less likely to form close friendships with a colleague whose standing in the workplace is much higher or much lower than theirs. Status distance, as its termed by psychologists, can serve as a barrier to the development of close relationships.
In part, it’s determined from an employee’s ability to contribute toward valued organizational goals.
Novel activities provide a new frame. They temporarily render colleagues’ workplace abilities irrelevant and present an entirely new context for evaluating competence. Suddenly, an intern can contribute as much to a team’s performance as a CEO. For a few short hours, everyone is on equal footing.
Depending on a team’s size, identifying a single activity that appeals to everyone can feel virtually impossible. Which is why it’s worth considering letting employees decide by inviting them to nominate and vote on group activities.
Alternatively, organizations can offer employees a choice, making several options available. Better that people have meaningful interactions within smaller groups than require everyone to endure the same lackluster experience in the same room. Of course, there’s always the option of having the entire team regroup afterwards for dessert.
For managers who question the value of investing in potentially juvenile activities that appear to have nothing to do with work, consider this: studies have linked playful experiences to creativity, flow, and engagement–all vital to organizational performance. Also worth noting, the laughter an unusual activity can spark is likely to yield its own rewards. Humor in the company of others promotes a sense of closeness.
Simply supplying hors devours and mixed drinks is an ineffective strategy for fostering closeness among colleagues. Throughout our lifetime, we tend to bond over common goals and shared struggle, whether it’s cramming together for a school test, rooting for a local sports team to reach the finals, or preparing an important client presentation.
Business leaders often say they want tighter-knit teams. Redesigning the office holiday party would be a good place to start.
—Ron Friedman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist specializing in human motivation, and the author of the forthcoming book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace (Penguin Random House/Perigee).