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Why are office parties so awkward?

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Tramell Tillman and Britt Lower dancing during the short office party scene in "Severance."

Tramell Tillman and Britt Lower dancing during the short office party scene in "Severance." (Apple TV+)

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Econ Extra Credit, in its latest iteration, focuses on one documentary a month with Marketplace themes. But for July, we decided to mix things up. This month, we’re studying the Emmy-nominated streaming series “Severance.”

The show raises an interesting question for viewers: If you could completely separate your work life from your personal life, so that when you were immersed in one you couldn’t remember the other, would you?

It’s not too difficult to tell why the series caught our attention. The show seizes on an issue many people face: work-life balance. But that’s not all.

If you dig a little deeper, the fictional show also reflects another real-world problem workers face, this idea of “forced fun” — essentially the boss mandating camaraderie and connection between co-workers through social gatherings, be it a pizza party, happy hour or the like.

In the show, there’s a particularly striking scene where an employee of the fictional Lumon Industries is recognized for her work. The reward: a brief dance party with co-workers.

Show creator Dan Erickson told Marketplace the scene challenges the idea of self at work. “It’s sort of, you know, saying it’s like, ‘Casual Fridays, wear what you want, but don’t wear anything you want.’ You know, it’s giving them this little, this sort of illusion of self-expression and individuality and merriment for a moment before it’s sort of taken away.”

That’s the television world. But in the real world, forced fun at work is still just work, said Adam Waytz, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “I think socializing at work just kind of adds another layer to our work life and doesn’t really do much for the social connection aspect for most of us.”

Marketplace’s David Brancaccio spoke with Waytz about how employers can encourage employee connection without it feeling mandatory. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

David Brancaccio: So there’s this standout moment in the show where an employee of this fictitious firm called Lumon Industries — no one knows what they actually do — earns a reward for performance on some work task. The middle manager then wheels in a cart with little musical instruments on it, so everyone has to participate in a celebratory music and dance scene.

The employees go along reluctantly and start dancing on command. I don’t know professor, they look queasy or maybe they’re getting into it a little bit. But you’ve looked at organized socializing in the workplace. It ends up leaving you a bit queasy?

Adam Waytz: Yeah. I think, you know, work has come to dominate our lives so much, certainly before the pandemic and during it, that, you know, once you start meshing work life and social life together, it makes me feel like what is left of our social life? That’s my concern.

Brancaccio: All of this hybrid work that we’ve been going through, and companies are trying to get people to connect with each other and be sure people have a voice and we know who we’re working with. And sometimes they try this. Is that so bad?

Waytz: Well, I think for newer employees, it could be a good thing. They want a sense of what is the company culture like? Who do I need to know? Who do I need to avoid? What are my networking opportunities? But I think for a lot of us, again, you know, we’re so stuck to work — we have work in our pockets at all times, on our smartphones, we get emails on off hours, we’re thinking about work on the weekends, on our commutes we’re listening to productivity podcasts — that I think socializing at work just kind of adds another layer to our work life and doesn’t really do much for the social connection aspect for most of us.

Planning time for workplace connection is not a piece of cake

Brancaccio: I think we both worry about the alternative though, right? No fun seems bleak. Day after day of PowerPoint and fiscal year 2023 briefings. If the boss wants to pay for a rack of tiny cupcakes to honor Snodgrass over there, you know, so what?

Waytz: Absolutely, absolutely. I do love those cupcakes.

Brancaccio: [Laughs]

Waytz: You know, the interesting thing, though, is I feel like when the cupcakes get introduced, that’s absolutely a great time for mixing and connection and all that. But in my experience, it feels like in those circumstances, people kind of go to their own people, they break off into their cliques. Or what do you end up talking about once the sugar high of the cupcake wears down? You end up just talking about work more. So I’m more of a fan of disconnection rather than forced socializing.

Brancaccio: [Laughs] Turn off the Zoom. But seriously, I mean, employers may want people to like being at work. They may be earnest in trying to foster these occasional moments of what they think is fun. Is there a way to do it without making the forced-fun mistake?

Waytz: Absolutely. I think the intentions behind a lot of these socializing events are good. You know, people want recognition, people want a sense of being connected to something larger than themselves, people want a sense of shared purpose across the company, and a lot of these socializing events can help with that. All of those components are critical to boosting employee engagement. I think the best thing that my organization has done though, is just put “a-do-it-yourself” coffee station on one floor of the building. And that gives you kind of socializing without the forced aspect. People go to the coffee station naturally, on their own time. There’s a lot of autonomy tied in, you know, you can schedule a meeting with whoever you want there. There’s tea, you know, you can adjust the temperature on the coffee. These small things can go a long way.

How higher-ups can do better

Brancaccio: I mean there’s some irony there. This TV show was filmed in a famous building that used to house Bell Labs in New Jersey back when AT&T was a monopoly. And the whole architecture there is this really big common space to force people to interact outside their cubicles. So that’s where they actually filmed the fictitious TV show in the real building, that was attempting to do a grand version of your coffee machine.

Waytz: Interesting. Interesting. I think, you know, I’m very privileged that I have that space where I can go, kind of the commons and I have my office where I can go hide and zone out for a moment. And there’s this idea in social psychology called optimal distinctiveness theory that says, you know, people need to belong to social groups, but also people need to be independent at the same time. And so I think as long as you’re giving people opportunities for both, that socialization in the group, feeling part of the group and doing what the group does, that’s great. And you need to balance that, obviously, with independence as well.

Forced fun battle scars

Brancaccio: You’re halfway across the country from me right now. But am I detecting battle scars in your voice about some forced socialization? Some old trauma in your career, maybe Adam?

Waytz: Uh a little bit. You know, we academics are a little bit strange to begin with. And you get a socializing and that’s a strange situation as well. You know, I think I’ve seen the good and the bad of it. You know I… again, the key thing to watch out for is the forced component. I think, when we have kind of quarterly get-togethers that are encouraged or we celebrate one of our colleagues, even a colleague who might be moving on elsewhere, those events are completely nice. But when you’re trying to get people who have worked together for decades and don’t really have [laughs] much in common or much to say to each other to have lunch every week, I don’t think that’s going to go a long way. And it’s going to make people maybe just a little bit resentful.

Brancaccio: You’ve sat through that lunch?

Waytz: I’ve sat through that lunch.

Brancaccio: [Laughs]

Waytz: Those lunches are, are totally fine. But what I keep coming back to is all of these, you know, newfangled aspects of the 21st century workplace, you know, regular lunches, kitchens. You know, I’ve been to some of these Silicon Valley companies with massage therapists on hand, wood shops, etc. My problem with them is at the end of the day, you’re still keeping people at work. And I think that does something to sap their autonomy. So even if the intentions are good, I think having the option to just go home. Or as the founder of Patagonia says, “Let my people go surfing.” I think that’s the right attitude.

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