Writer ∙ Author ∙ Journalist

The Case for Forced Socialization

Canadian Business / August 2016

Does the idea of compulsory post-work drinks make you cringe? It shouldn’t.

Having come from the stuffier corporate world, travel consultant Mark Novak’s move to the more casual atmosphere of travel agency Flight Centre was rocky. “The culture here is so different than any other company I’ve worked for,” says the 49-year-old Torontonian. Namely, Flight Centre expects employees to be chummy. On the schedule are one-on-one coffee dates, an annual ball and a monthly “Buzz Night” in which the whole shop goes for dinner and drinks. All are mandatory.

“Initially, it was a hard thing to get my mind around,” says Novak. “It was like, ‘You want me to take time from my private life to come here?’” As an introvert, his urge was to politely bow out. But he’s come to appreciate that obligatory socializing with co-workers isn’t so bad. In fact, it’s in everyone’s best interest that people like Novak go and make nice; studies overwhelmingly show that workplace friendships boost productivity and reduce staff turnover. Work friends also slash employees’ risk of depression and make them 40% more likely to land a promotion.

So it’s no wonder companies are getting innovative to foster would-be friendships. At Hootsuite in Vancouver, senior director Noel Pullen started the Random Coffee initiative, in which employees can opt into a social break with a stranger from another department. “Business happens through relationships—they’re one and the same, if you’re lucky—so Random Coffee is trying to build those,” says Pullen (30% of staff voluntarily enrolled).

FreshBooks launched a Blind Dates program with similar goals, and CEO Mike McDerment says the resultant mingling has fostered more collaboration, new perspectives and even skill swapping. “It’s about creating opportunities for people who might otherwise never meet to connect,” he explains. “If someone’s got great technical skills and someone else has great people skills, they can help and improve each other.” Fully half of FreshBooks staff have participated.

Still, that means a whole half said “thanks, but no thanks” to new work friends. Ironically, these are the same people who probably need them most. So what to do with reluctant socializers? “Sometimes you have to force it,” says Shannon Mayer, a human resources consultant from Calgary who specializes in employee relations. She recommends managers play matchmaker in one of two ways: “You can be sly, like sitting the IT people with the accounting people and hoping for the best. Or you can be overt and just schedule it already.”

Forcing people to have fun seems to be a recipe for no fun at all, but there are ways to keep the awkwardness at bay. “First, look inward as to what’s really going on. If company morale is a problem, address it directly,” says Mayer. Ditto for excessive workloads or personality clashes. Then start small, says Mayer, suggesting a midday coffee rather than dinner or a low-key birthday cake instead of a full soirée—all on company time and, ideally, the company dime, too. And if people still push back or flake out? “Privately ask them why,” Mayer advises. “You need to know.”

For introverts like Novak, mandatory events give him a chance to befriend both social butterflies and wallflowers like himself. To his surprise, genuine friendships have formed. “As I get to know people more, I enjoy the events more, too,” he explains. In fact, he recently voluntarily signed up for a team trip to Thailand. He’ll be with 15 colleagues all hours of the day for a whole week, and he can’t wait. “Why wouldn’t I want to go?” he asks, proving his forced socialization has been a smashing success: It’s no longer forced at all.