The Future of Team Building: Reflections on a Recent Survey in Japan About Drinking With Coworkers

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Over the weekend I came across this article about a recent survey conducted in Japan relating to work and drinking culture. It found that over 60% of respondents felt that drinking parties with colleagues are “unnecessary”. I was a little startled by these results at first, since Japan has such a strong culture of drinking with coworkers, but in the end  I’m not surprised. 

The pandemic has upended a lot of what we thought of as normal, and drinking with coworkers is just another aspect of life that has been challenged. Once we get out of the habit of doing something regularly, we begin to question whether we need it at all. I think this question will be particularly interesting to observe as we begin to wind down restrictions and open back up. What exactly will people want to return to? And what will people choose to simply let go of because it doesn’t make sense anymore?

However, drinking with coworkers is particularly connected to team building and what we do here at Invite Japan. A lot of team building in Japan is centered around drinking parties with colleagues. And, as we’ve been pointing out recently, many companies are choosing to forego the traditional year-end-party-at-a-nice-restaurant plan due to the ongoing pandemic. This presents a great opportunity to try other types of events and ways of fostering deeper relationships without relying just on alcohol and food. 

There’s a lot to unpack from this survey. So in the following post, we’ll talk about Japan’s culture of drinking with coworkers, how that could be changing due to multiple factors, and what kinds of activities can potentially replace or supplement it to make team building more inclusive. 

“Nominication” and its discontents

As mentioned above, Japan has had a strong and long-established culture of drinking with coworkers. There are seasonal drinking parties like end-of-the-year parties (bonenkai) and new year parties (shinnenkai), and drinking parties for workers who are entering or leaving the company. Many companies or teams within a company will have their own parties too after completing a difficult project or succeeding at a difficult goal (getting a client, pulling off an event, etc.) 

The impetus to center team building around drinking and partying together isn’t necessarily wrong. After all, cultures across the world know that alcohol is a good social lubricant and can help people lose some of the inhibitions that hold them back from opening up and making new friends. There’s even a word in Japanese for this, called “Nominication” (which combines the words nomi, meaning drinking, and “communication”). 

The concept of “nominication” underpins a lot of the drinking-with-coworkers culture here, to the extent that it’s a common joke that coworkers will confess everything to each other at a drinking party, only to pretend like nothing ever happened the next day. During the 70’s and 80’s, drinking parties were lauded by American business theorists as one aspect driving Japan’s tight-knit, high-functioning teamwork culture. 

But “Nominication” was seeing a decline even before the pandemic hit. There’s a lot of potential reasons for this. One is that it has come to be seen as too rote and ritualized to younger generations, and as a relic of an older style of office politicking that isn’t as attractive anymore. There’s a sense of obligation and annoyance that comes across when a lot of people talk about going to an office drinking party now. 

Another reason might be a lack of inclusivity. Not everyone enjoys drinking, or even wants to drink, so many could feel left out of an activity that is focused so heavily on alcohol. The pressure to drink, especially in great quantities, can also be seen in some cases as a form of peer pressure or harassment. 

“The Great Reassessment” 

With the pandemic though, and the forced limitations and restrictions on many different activities that came with it, I think a lot of people are also assessing and reevaluating many aspects of social life, drinking parties included.

Many people are spending more time alone and learning to enjoy it, or at least accept it more. Many workers are probably also realizing that they can get a lot of work done without the socializing and office politicking of the past. This is all part of a pandemic-induced “Great Reassessment“, where people are reflecting on their lives and about what they actually want to do. 

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Reassments precede change, which can positively and create new structures that are more beneficial and responsive to people’s needs. If 60% of people find drinking parties “unnecessary”, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s not really having the intended effect. Instead of bemoaning the loss of the old though, we can all get excited at the opportunity to create something new together. That is, after all, the primary goal of teams.   

Finding new ways to connect 

Even before the pandemic, we at Invite Japan had been encouraging teams to try different ways to connect. We looked at it from a “routine” point of view. Team building activities should (try to) get team members out of their routines and have them experience something new together. Since drinking parties can sometimes be seen as routine, trying something different would be able to excite and energize teams.

Obviously, since the pandemic and lockdowns, many teams have been forced to look for different ways to connect. I think it has been really hard to do so, and we can see how hard it is for teams to imagine doing something new. Old habits die hard, as they say.

However, the growth of remote and hybrid work offers new challenges and new opportunities. The challenge is that everyone is separated and isolated, making it even harder to build personal connections and even plan events. 

On the other hand, communication technology has really exploded to meet the demands of the new work environments, so there are many more ways to connect. There is no longer the need to even be in the same room together in order to have a productive and engaging team building session. Our online team building events sometimes have participants from different continents working together.

The need for team building is so much more clear and critical now. With many team members living and working in their own worlds, teams have to work harder to bring everyone together. What I think teams should do though, is reassess what their goals are and which activities are better at helping achieve them. They should ask what values their team holds, and which events are most likely to emphasize them. And I think teams should start thinking harder about inclusivity, and making sure that everyone feels themselves a part of the team building process.

Conclusion 

I don’t think that office drinking parties will completely go away, nor should they. But I think that this time of reassessment and change creates new opportunities for teams to discover lots of different ways to build relationships and strengthen communication. What emerges will hopefully be a landscape where many types and styles of team building–online, short icebreakers, outdoor adventures, and more–will exist together so that all teams, and all team members, can truly take advantage of the wonderful possibilities of growth and change that team building offers.

Invite Japan is committed to developing team building for the future. We have a range of activities–from online to in-person, and outdoor scavenger hunts to indoor puzzle mysteries–that will energize your team’s goals and emphasize its core values. 

Photo by Yutacar on Unsplash

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