After-work drinks are great for productivity—but only if you do them right

Colleagues who go out to unwind together over a cocktail do better work, and get paid more, too. But leaders need to do more than just add booze and stir

Colleagues having after-work drinks outside

(David Levingstone/Getty)

Back in 2008, four friends grabbed a table at Roosevelt’s pub in downtown Philadelphia and ordered a round of Yuenglings, the local beer of choice. As classmates at the nearby Wharton School, the guys wanted to toss around an idea. That notion became Warby Parker, the online eyewear retailer now valued at $1.2 billion. As the business formed, the co-founders returned to Roosevelt’s for a mandatory once-a-month drinking session. Going around the table, they’d say things like, “Hey, when you shoot me a 10-page email at two in the morning…I want to punch you in the face,” recalled co-CEO Neil Blumenthal in a 2013 speech. This barroom candour reminded the team that they were friends first, fuelling a “healthy work dynamic,” he said.

The list of fortune-making ideas born during a round of cocktails include Southwest Airlines, Uber and Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. And yet, the post-work drink is under fire. Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s Labour Party leader, recently called on companies to end “early evening socialization,” calling it a sexist relic. The practice, he said, “benefits men who don’t feel the need to be at home looking after their children, and it discriminates against women who will want to, obviously, look after the children that they have got.” Corbyn’s comments were widely dismissed as out of touch with modern family life. Some pundits, however, trashed Corbyn’s argument—while agreeing that post-work drinks are mostly awful. “They constitute an unpaid extension of the workday; they encroach upon things like family life and drinking with people with whom you don’t share a copier,” wrote Lauren Collins for The New Yorker.

Unlike most business quandaries, this is a case in which the quantitative data is extensive and conclusive. Workers who drink with their colleagues earn up to 14% more than people who skip the bar, according to research published in the Journal of Labor Research. The economists behind the study argued drinkers build a wider network and stronger relationships with co-workers, ultimately leading to a bigger paycheque. A mild buzz can also boost creativity, according to a University of Illinois study. And a survey conducted by Robert Half International, a recruiting firm, found most managers think having employees who socialize boosts productivity. It may feel awkward or be inconvenient, but all evidence suggests a post-work pint represents sound business strategy.

There are caveats. When employees feel forced to participate or drinking is excessive, the risks quickly outweigh the reward. Teetotallers must be welcomed; the point is simply to break the workplace’s standard patterns so colleagues feel free to share ideas and passions. That can just as easily be done with a Perrier in hand.

The founders of Warby Parker created an informal environment in which they could both brainstorm and be brutally honest. The beer likely helped, but that team building could have also happened over a two-martini lunch or a pancake breakfast. The secret is the socializing; the social lubricant is optional.