November 18, 2013
Cheers, monitor! Virtual happy hours connect far-flung workers
A little after 4 p.m. on a recent Thursday, Eric Fleming, the head of strategy for Mash+Studio, a content marketing firm in Manhattan, gathered his co-workers for happy hour.
In a conference room, they arranged a makeshift bar on a reclaimed wood table: a liter of Sprite, some lemon slices, a bottle of Pimm’s and glasses. After stirring up the drinks, they started chatting. Fleming, 31, turned to Jenni Hayward, who is in charge of business development and asked whether the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, the trendy hotel chain’s British locale, was close to opening. Hayward, 25, said she might pop by later to check it out.
Hayward was not in Manhattan, but at Mash’s partner firm in London, drinking her own Pimm’s. Thanks to Beam, a 5-foot-tall video conferencing robot, her presence was being broadcast in New York.
The occasion may sound like an outtake from “The Office,” but some happy hours are moving from the corner pub to the cloud. With companies increasingly working with employees who are spread across states and continents, these have become a way to foster workplace bonding and deepen relationships that might otherwise be all business, all the time.
Is it weird to say “cheers” with someone on a computer screen? A little, but participants say the awkwardness is worth it.
“We feel like we know them because we have these sessions,” Samantha Schlaifer, Mash’s head of production, says of her London co-workers, many of whom she has never met. “We get their personalities, what makes them laugh. We can have inside jokes.”
Down the hall from Mash’s offices, Shake, a startup that has made a smartphone app to create legal documents, holds regular happy hours with its lead mobile engineer, Ricky Hussmann, who is based in Morgantown, W.Va. Abe Geiger, Shake’s founder, says that he hired Hussmann with the expectation that the engineer would relocate to New York. Personal reasons prevented that, and, a year later, Hussmann remains plugged in to the company thanks to Google Hangout and a 24-inch monitor that broadcasts his presence to the office.
Many Fridays culminate in the opening of beers and the looking up of YouTube videos, part of a running competition for who can find the funniest thing online. Hussmann takes part from home, typically having “whatever’s in the fridge,” he says. “It’s a nice separation from the daily grind.”
The happy hours also help him develop friendships with co-workers.
“When you turn off the monitor and you realize that you’re working by yourself, you can feel a little isolated,” he says.
Some companies bring in bonding activities beyond drinks. At Mixbook, a company in Palo Alto, Calif., that creates custom photo books, employees engage in monthly parties in which local and remote staff members from places as far-flung as Thailand and Siberia log in at the same time to play a video game. Palo Alto employees drink beer from the in-house keg; their foreign counterparts pick their poison depending on the time of day.
But video can be choppy. Wi-Fi connections can cut out and cause odd pauses. Some video platforms don’t allow multiple people to talk at once. Which is why some organizations that host virtual happy hours still try to bring employees together at the same time, in the same place, over the same two-for-one drink specials.
“We also have a corner bar that we go to frequently,” says Andrew Laffoon, chief executive of Mixbook. “Let’s be honest, being in person is better. But if you can’t be in person, we do everything we can to get close.”
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