I have spent many an evening and late into the night talking through business issues with my colleagues over a beer or two. I have found that these informal social events have had a huge value to my companies and to my personal development. The office environment is often moving just too fast to really hear people properly. Other informal and ad hoc opportunities such as going for coffee and breakfast do work quite well, but I will always have my preference for a nice pub. Below I list some of the benefits of spending some time with your teams in a social setting.
1. Hear what people really think. No matter how much you want to build an open business culture like that at Bridgewater Associates, it's hard. Some people are just not given to opening up and truly speaking their minds freely. I've made it part of my routine to seek out dissenting opinions from those I know to be more likely to open up only after some liquid refreshment. By purposely taking some actions based on this feedback, you can coach everyone that their opinions are valid and will be considered. If you have concerns that some members of the team really don't care what is going on at the company or don't have the same commitment to the cause, a drink or two can help you find that out, too.
2. Speed up integration of new team members, instill values and culture. As you build a team, you will always have the new guys and the old guys, juniors and seniors. Also some functions--sales and development, for example--have little reason to collaborate much in the office. Getting the whole team on the same page is hard to do formally through introductions. Additionally, what managers and bosses consider important is not always what your development leads consider important. Getting a mixed group to socialize for an hour or two after work can help address this. If all the team members have a better understanding of where everyone else is coming from, it increases the chances that they will work better together. Of course, if the corporate culture you keep telling everyone you have is a total mirage (and it happens), you will see it clearly here. People make excuses not to join in or go home as soon as they think they can. If this is happening, you have a real problem.
3. Release the tensions and celebrate success. All businesses have busier and quieter periods. Often there is furious activity before a major product launch or through a sales drive. As bosses, we ask more of our staff--and we can lean on them heavily. Pressure builds up and needs to be dissipated. So when the project ends successfully or the sale is inked, an informal early close and some socializing can work wonders. It is certainly cheaper in the long run than cash bonuses and additional share options. As a contrast, I worked for a boss who reacted to such positive corporate events with a "well, that's what I pay you for" attitude. I was shocked, and felt unvalued. Needless to say, not many people ever went the extra mile for him.
4. Show your human side. As the boss, you'll often find it tricky to let people get to know you. You are defined by your role, and your name is on the paychecks. You don't necessarily need or want your team members to know your innermost secrets. But letting them see you get excited about your team or trying a new craft beer can be plenty to help with the team building. Of course, in order to get these benefits, you need to be mindful not to get too drunk, to be mindful of others' religious and personal preferences, and to be respectful of your team at all times. Otherwise you may find yourself propping up the bar alone, with a business in tatters.