Culture   //   June 16, 2023

Is lunch hour the new happy hour?

Zach Gosney is a teetotaller. But, he works in the world of public relations, where happy hour is an expected part of company culture. And in his last job that meant he had to attend one happy hour a week.

That meant he was the odd one out when he attended in the hope of connecting with coworkers, which left him feeling uncomfortable. But if he skipped it entirely, he missed out on important bonding time with coworkers and not showing face at a work gathering. 

“It’s one of those things where you kind of feel pressured because it is your work and you want to make sure you’re getting to know your coworkers or they’re getting to know you,” said Gosney. “Happy hours were so embedded in the culture and there were times where it was hard to know what was personal life and what was work life. There were plenty of times where I just had to jet out because I couldn’t take it and was uncomfortable.”

Gosney’s happy medium was found in his next job, where the typical after-hours happy hour networking had been shifted to the lunch hour. Once a week they would gather to eat lunch, still talk a little business, but had the opportunity for the conversation to drift into personal lives too. 

“It’s something that needs to be used more often,” said Gosney. “I’d much rather have sit down lunches where you can collaborate with people more. It’s having the structure of still being at work.”

“It’s one of those things where you kind of feel pressured because it is your work … [but] there were plenty of times where I just had to jet out because I couldn’t take it and was uncomfortable.”
Zach Gosney, account executive at EngagePR.

Gosney isn’t alone. More than two thirds (68%) of workers said they’d prefer to socialize with coworkers during the workday compared to after-hours at a happy hour or party, according to new survey data from corporate catering platform ezCater. And 61% of respondents said they prefer bonding with coworkers over a free catered lunch over an alcohol-fueled happy hour. Further, 78% agreed that spending time with coworkers over food at work is more inclusive to team bonding than over drinks.

This shift in preference towards day-time food-centered networking is likely driven by a range of factors: the continued sober curiosity trend; employees prioritizing work-life balance during the return to office and needing to factor in commutes, parenting duties, evening workouts and other things over a happy hour.

To meet this demand for different work socials, employers are beginning to ask how they can introduce the same benefits that a work happy hour brings, like employee engagement, without the actual happy hour. 

“Alcohol is risky because it doesn’t necessarily lead to positive things and when it’s sponsored by the organization, it can send the wrong signal,” said Peter Bamberger, professor at Tel Aviv University, who has conducted research on workplace relationships in relation to social aspects like drinking and eating. “But events around food are useful in terms of building team cohesion in the workplace and building bridges for different groups in the workplace. As much as alcohol can be beneficial in terms of building social bonds, as far as an employer is concerned, my recommendation is to try to do the same thing without alcohol. It’s possible.”

The answer could be a lunch hour. 

What ezCater has found is that employees do get excited around a shared lunch in the office. Its survey found that 94% feel a sense of “lunch-citement” if they know their office provides catered lunch and 92% said they scope out the menu at least one day in advance. 

One customer last week, who had 150 people eating together, said that everyone was talking about what they were going to order and it sparked conversation for everyone. ezCater has a virtual food hall called Relish where people can open an app on their phone the day before and get a list of local restaurants to choose from for lunch the next day. Ahead of lunch, people organically ask one another what they’ve gotten before, what they recommend, what they’re ordering this time. During and after lunch those conversations turn into what did you get, how was your meal, will you get that again?

“One thing we hear from our customers is that food really brings their teams together,” said Diane Swint, chief revenue officer at ezCater. “Everybody eats, but not everybody drinks.”

“One thing we hear from our customers is that food really brings their teams together.”
Diane Swint, chief revenue officer at ezCater.

It’s an easy conversation starter that can open the door to more as people enjoy their meals alongside one another. However, it does take effort from the workplace to ensure that this doesn’t become a time where people get their meal and head back to their desk and pop their headphones back in. If a company is trying to recreate the same sense of connection that a happy hour can bring, it means being intentional about how that hour is spent. 

“It’s really nice if you’re providing that lunch in an environment where people can sit down,” said Swint. “In the summer months, if you have a nice outdoor space, people can sit down there. If you have tray catering, you will probably stay near the food.”

With choosing a lunch hour over a happy hour, employers are choosing a more inclusive option, especially when alcohol use might be a trigger for workers. According to substance use management company Pelago, 46% of American workers have experienced personal or family problems involving substance or alcohol use, with more than one in three workers reporting having a family member struggle with substance use. One in six U.S. workers report missing work because of a personal substance or alcohol use problem, regardless of job category.

“When alcohol is involved, the inclusivity is not always where it can be,” said Swint. “It’s hard. If folks have a reason they can’t drink, for all sorts of issues, having that happy hour sometimes doesn’t provide that inclusive environment.”