Is it time to kill the office happy hour?

It’s possible to create a work culture that doesn’t revolve around alcohol. Cobalt’s Caroline Wong explains how.

Woman on video chat

There’s still a perception, and arguably not a misplaced one, that the real deals and connections in business are chased down with shots.

Photo: Alistair Berg via Getty Images

In some ways, the end of the work happy hour is already upon us. Just as the pandemic wreaked havoc on the traditional office, it also brought its hammer down on the concept of after-work drinks.

Nevertheless, the pressure to drink in a work context is still present. And saying no can be hard if everyone else is bonding over cocktails, whether of the Zoom or the in-person variety. There’s still a perception, and arguably not a misplaced one, that the real deals and connections in business are chased down with shots.

So what can company leadership do to change that culture? Enter Caroline Wong, the chief strategy officer of Cobalt, a remote-first cybersecurity startup. Wong quit drinking seven years ago and has been on a quest to upend the tech industry’s alcohol-centered culture to make more room for people like herself.

She spoke with Protocol about how to create a work culture that’s more inclusive of sober people.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What made you decide to quit drinking?

When I started working in tech, I was surprised that alcohol was everywhere. I noticed right away that the key decisions are not made in the conference room. They were made at the bar, at happy hour, over cocktails. It seems like anything important or political happened over drinks.

At that time in my life, I enjoyed it a lot. Living in San Francisco, there is a really interesting drinking culture where you get dressed up, put on a costume, and you drink: Bay to Breakers, for example. It took me some time to see what was not great about it for me. And the thing that I know now about how drinking hurt me as a professional was that if I encountered a situation in the workplace that was awkward, uncomfortable or difficult, if I had a cocktail or a glass of wine — which for me easily turned into three or five or 10 — it felt like a solution. I just erased that uncomfortable feeling.

But what I stopped myself from doing was achieving any sort of personal growth. I wasn't coming up with creative or healthy ways to deal with situations. I was just ignoring them. I actually got sober when I got pregnant. Because pregnancy is nine months long, and then I was breastfeeding my first child, I was sober for two years. I realized my life just got a lot better. I was a little smarter, a little sharper and a much better listener.

Not drinking at all has helped me to perform better at my work. The pandemic has caused so many people so much pain and suffering, but it also has really beautiful silver linings. One of those is that it is impossible for us to get together for happy hour.

The pandemic has caused so many people so much pain and suffering, but it also has really beautiful silver linings. One of those is that it is impossible for us to get together for happy hour.

As a sober person, have you felt like you've missed out on important work interactions? Do you feel like not drinking puts you at a disadvantage?

As a fairly severe alcoholic, it was a major transition for me to make at first. Yes, there is some social pressure. And some of that happens in the workplace. I have certainly had colleagues of mine who have said to me, “I can't wait until you're done being sober, and we can go to the bar and have a drink together.” And I'm like, “Hey, that is actually not the right thing to say.” On the other hand, I also learned that a lot of the boundary is really within my mind. If I'm walking around at a party, and everyone's drinking, and I'm sipping on sparkling water with lime, most people are not going to have anything to say about it. If they say to me, “Caroline, would you like me to get you a drink?” I'll say, “Yes, please, may I please have a Diet Coke?” As an active alcoholic, I actually had an impression that there was much more social pressure than there really was.

So how can people who drink be more respectful and mindful of their sober colleagues?

Anyone who has any sort of issue with alcohol has a story. And it might be mild, or it might be severe. It's fair to consider that when you're interacting with a colleague. It's possible that this person has a highly traumatic history with alcohol, and you just don't know that.

In the workplace, we've gotten better at so many things: the way that we speak to women and people of color, for example. People have been curious about how to be supportive and create an inclusive environment. We've learned better how to do that for different groups, and I think this is just another group with a specific experience: people who have trauma related to alcohol.

When you mentioned that so many important business decisions happen in a happy hour drinking setting, it reminds me of when women miss out on, say, the fantasy football league. How do you make sure that, as a manager, you're creating the type of environment that isn't leaving out certain groups of people?

One of the things that I think is a huge advantage to remote work is that organizations are being forced to get better at documentation and asynchronous collaboration. So many important decisions are made in Slack channels, which are really accessible. Remote work has encouraged us to get much better at this.

I think a question for leaders to ask themselves is, “Is this event completely centered around alcohol? And might there be another way?” It's one thing to have a team dinner and for wine to be served at dinner. It's another thing for the entire event to revolve around wine tasting.

Caroline Wong Photo: Caroline Wong

So what are some other examples of fun work events sans alcohol?

You could learn how to juggle together, dance together, show off your pets together, meditate together, decorate cookies together, tie-dye t-shirts, do a talent show, send everyone a stuffed animal mascot and ask them to take pictures of it in different locations throughout the world, do cooking classes, have a book club. We as humans do so many things together that's not just drinking.

My favorite, however, is to actually not require people to get on yet another Zoom call and spend another 60 minutes with their colleagues. Say to people, “You know what, this Friday, instead of a virtual happy hour, take an hour and go do whatever you love that's not in front of your computer screen. And then on Monday morning, come tell us about it. Or over the weekend, send us a photo.” We don't always have to force people to get on Zoom to be together. Sometimes we can just say, “Go do your thing. And just tell us about it afterwards.” And that can actually create connection between people.

That's still like the dilemma, right? That it doesn't feel fun when it's on Zoom.

Exactly. Or it feels forced or supremely awkward. If the goal is connection and retention, then it might actually be more effective to say, “It's Friday afternoon, please leave an hour early. Go do something that you love.”

So how should someone respond if a colleague tells them that they're sober? What should they say, and what should they not say?

You can simply say to them, “Hey, that's cool, and I support you. Is there anything else that you'd like to tell me about that? Or is there any way in which I can support you?” I think those are reasonable responses. When you ship out a cocktail-making kit, you can just offer an alternative, like, “Do you want to receive this cocktail-making kit? Or would you rather receive these 10 chocolate truffles?”

Nobody needs to get up in front of an all-hands meeting and say, “We celebrate sober people at our company.” Just like it would be super weird if they were like, “We celebrate the people of color at our company.” That kind of thing is sometimes well intentioned and sometimes weird virtue-signaling. The important things are the micro-adjustments, like if somebody on my team has a traumatic history with alcohol, should that change any of my behaviors, the stories that I tell or the activities that I suggest?

What do you feel the norms in Silicon Valley are like right now with regard to alcohol? Outside of the context of the pandemic, which makes it difficult for people to get together and drink, do you feel like the decisions are still being made in the sort of buddy-buddy bar context?

I think that whenever you have a group of people, and some of those people have more power than others — which is a natural state in a tech company — there's a possibility that folks with power are going to hoard it. I think in the year 2022, we can actually just accept and believe things like, “Diversity is better. You actually get better outcomes with diversity and inclusion.”

I think Google a decade ago did a study to figure out how to build the perfect team. And they studied all these different factors: How frequently do people eat together? What common traits do the best managers have? And then it found out that what really matters is this element called psychological safety.

Five years ago, I began to talk about psychological safety within the cybersecurity industry. And it was weird and new. Today, it is no longer weird and new. I happen to have this book with me, “The Unicorn Project,” which is all about software development and DevOps. And it has this concept in it called “the five ideals.” And one of the five ideals is psychological safety. So we've actually gotten to a stage in software development where, culturally, there is a well known and generally accepted idea that psychological safety is going to help your team do better and achieve better business outcomes. That is what I notice changing.

Can you explain psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a sense of confidence that your team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone if they speak up. So because I am a cybersecurity person, I think about, for example, a software application that's never been tested for security issues. But [the issues are] hidden, until someone intentionally tries to find them, or they explode unexpectedly during an incident.

Teams and people are always going to have issues. But team members that trust each other are more likely to share information so that an issue comes to the surface, and it can be managed efficiently and productively. If I'm going to, for example, take half a day off to celebrate my kid's birthday, it helps to just say so. And that way my team knows what I'm doing, and everyone can plan accordingly. It's much worse if I don't feel comfortable saying that.

Do you feel like having a culture that’s inclusive toward sober people helps with their psychological safety?

Absolutely. If I'm a sober person, and I'm surrounded by people who are actively drinking or constantly talking about stories of drinking, I may not feel as comfortable saying, “Oh, you were drinking all weekend? I was, you know, gardening with my kid.”


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