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Is Corporate America Rethinking the Use of Alcohol at the Office?

Is Corporate America Rethinking the Use of Alcohol at the Office?

By Barbra Murray
January 9, 2024

Rare is the individual, drinker or not, who doesn’t have a story about a booze-filled work event. Birthday parties, corporate celebrations, and the annual holiday parties–drinks are almost always available at such office events. While the numbers aren’t in from 2023’s year-end celebration, there’s no reason to believe they’ll be much different from last year’s figures from Alchohol.org, which found that 88 percent of respondents had two to four glasses of alcohol during the office holiday party. It’s not just about work parties. Imbibing at the office during a daytime social event or after work hours has become part of business culture in much of the world. And now it’s being encouraged even more. In an effort to get hybrid employees to come into the office, companies are planning more social events, many of which include alcohol.

The hybrid work schedule is here to stay, but for many workers, the struggle to commit to what has become most of corporate America’s minimum requirement of three days in the office continues. But all signs indicate that workers are craving something that the workplace can provide. “People are rebuilding their social connection networks, both personally and professionally, after years of significant change in how we live and work,” said Sarah Nelson, an associate director with JLL’s Work Dynamics division. “These connection networks that fostered culture, enabled creativity and innovation, and created a sense of belonging are fractured in a way that attendance or togetherness alone cannot be expected to resolve.” This is where the amenities package takes center stage in the bid to lure workers into the office with the promise of what amounts to an onsite social scene. Office developers are taking note of the importance of the bar as part of the list of vital office extras designed to attract workers, as evidenced by the plethora of new deliveries that feature bars–not just coffee bars or sushi bars–but cocktail bars.

The growing footprint of the office bar isn’t relegated to the country’s trailblazing cities like New York and Los Angeles. One Congress, the skyline-changing trophy office tower that opened in downtown Boston in 2023, features a full-floor, hospitality-style amenity center with a cocktail bar 11 stories up. One Congress also offers tenants an outdoor terrace with another bar. The building delivered 100 percent pre-leased–yes, pre-leased–with State Street Bank and technology firm InterSystems having claimed the tenant roster in its entirety. In early 2023, the approximately 800,000-square-foot office building known as 1001 Penn in Washington, D.C., emerged from its conversion into a trophy property with a host of coveted amenities, including a wine bar. And last fall in Dallas, construction commenced on Parkside, a 500,000-square-foot trophy offering that will provide a sky lobby and lounge featuring a bevy of amenities, a cocktail bar among them. Bank of America has already signed on to serve as lead tenant, which, once the financial company sets up shop at the new property, will spark the building’s name change to the Bank of America at Parkside. All of these premier office properties have a current trend in common: the “hospitalization” of the office. According to a report by health and fitness consultancy Aquila, those with control over the design of today’s workplace are “heavily borrowing” from the hospitality sector, providing amenities that entice and engage, similar to those often found in hotels. Among those amenities are lounges with cocktail bars.

The workplace bar is a thing, and its presence in the office has nothing to do with getting a buzz for relaxation purposes. It serves the same purpose as other office amenities, like a rooftop terrace or yoga studio. “We help our clients invest in purposeful workplace experiences that provide a variety of options for how employees can build purposeful connections with others,” noted Amanda Kross, Head of People Experience at JLL’s Work Dynamics division. “This new generation of workplace experience initiatives goes beyond isolated HR programs and really leans into creating multiple channels that encourage social interactions.” Apparently, the bar has become one of those channels.

According to a recent poll taken by workplace analyst Leesman, 50 percent of the employees queried asserted that when they’re in the office, they socialize with colleagues after work, and 28 percent said they would like to engage in more such socializing. While the poll didn’t involve bars specifically, it points to the importance of having an after-hours venue for bonding. “It’s almost like actually attending the office is a great excuse to get closer to your colleagues and to be in friendship groups and to be at one with them,” Tim Oldman, founder of Leesman, said.

The work bar, however, doesn’t always succeed as a dangled carrot for office-averse employees. At its 20,000-square-foot space in the San Francisco office building at 88 Kearny St., tech firm Expensify opened an upscale cocktail lounge for its employees in the spring of 2023–and closed it six months later in October. In an announcement that month, Expensify CEO David Barrett wrote, “We wanted to know what, if anything, would cause people to voluntarily choose to go back to the office when the entire rest of the world (including the comfort of their bed) beckoned.” The answer, he said, was “mostly no,” not even drinks delivered straight to your desk.

Bars at work are not a sure thing in terms of bringing workers back to the office. And they do come with their own risk, both legal and cultural. Alcohol at work events can be a liability for companies and can be the catalyst for other problems like sexual misconduct. It can also send the wrong message if not done right. In a 2022 study in the U.K. 86 percent of employees feel like there is an expectation to pay. This might not sit well with a non-drinker, or someone with a history of drinking problems, which is getting more and more likely as young Americans are drinking less than previous generations.