Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Working from home: How to get remote work right

There's one Zoom meeting this employee hates. They're not alone

Some things are different on Zoom. And not different good. New research reveals there's real rage out there among employees.

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They don't look happy, do they?

Screenshot by ZDNet

Before COVID-19 and lockdowns, it was easier to have excuses.

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It was also easier to fade into the background, drift away, be somewhere else.

Over the last year, however, we've been captured by screens. Not necessarily captivated, of course, which has led to the sorts of frustrations that few ever anticipated.

I was moved, therefore, to read the plight of one employee who started work as the pandemic raged. Writing to New York magazine's The Cut -- specifically workplace advice columnist Alison Green -- the employee expressed frustration about their boss's so-called Zoom Happy Hours.

"These aren't really happy hours," the employee says. "They're more 'work meetings with alcohol on Zoom,' and while they're framed as not 'technically' obligatory, they definitely are, and I get pointed comments if I choose to not attend."

Worse, they're not in actual working hours. Their boss, though, believes everyone's in lockdown, so what's the difference?

This young employee isn't having it: "The thing is, he's right: I'm not busy in the traditional sense. But what I am busy doing is decompressing from work, cooking, doing chores, trying to organize my life, exercising, calling my long-distance partner, writing fiction, and also just lying on my bed eating chips and staring at the glow of my phone screen while trying not to think about doom and gloom."

Somehow, when Happy Hours were in person, it was all a little different. Now, it's often the boss' misguided notion that these things have to happen with frequency because there's no other way of employees being "together." Even if, as this frustrated employee says, people just drink a glass of wine and talk about work.

Yet this particular boss has decreed the (not really) optional Happy Hour is between 5pm and 7:30pm. Which is quite the definition of an hour. I wonder what the company's timesheets look like. 

I felt some sympathy with this employment newbie being thrust into a situation that's been difficult for so many.

But then I was struck by new research from the University of Sydney. The academic title is: "Collecting experimental network data from interventions on critical links in workplace networks."

But drift to the press release and you find: "Benefits of team-building exercises jeopardized if not truly voluntary."

Lead researcher Dr. Petr Matous described the situation quite baldly: "Many workers told us that they despise team building activities and see them as a waste of time."

And the more I read, the more it seemed the frustrated employee offered a depiction shared by so many.

Matous said employees resent the essential intrusiveness of Happy Hours: "Among the participants we interviewed, some were against team-building exercises because they felt they were implicitly compulsory and did not welcome management's interest in their lives beyond their direct work performance."

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He and his colleagues recommend employers try to build a rapport between just two individuals and let them either get on with it or not, without the boss knowing which way it went.

Fellow researcher Associate Professor Julien Pollack offered: "An important point is to target the right relationships, and we can do that by analytically identifying critical links in collaboration and communication networks among employees." (Or you could just let them find their own friends at work, of course.)

Something like this is at least slightly more likely to succeed in the world of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and their friends.

If you're on a Zoom Happy Hour with, say, 50 people, there's still only one actual conversation. Even if you want to participate, it's hard to get a word in and have it instantly understood, never mind appreciated.

Even if you consider in-person Happy Hours were once a good idea, any goodness came from smaller encounters between people. There wasn't just one overarching conversation.

So, yes, perhaps some people actually need Zoom Happy Hours because they're stuck at home, and this may be one of their only outlets.

Many, though, would happily do without the pressure. Forcing employees to be cheery rarely works.