getting to know your coworkers when you can’t hang out after work

A reader writes:

I just started a new job a few months ago at a great company — it’s a well funded start-up, and I’m really excited about the opportunity. The only issue is that most of my colleagues are in their early to mid-20’s, live in the city where the office is located, and hang out together frequently — go to the gym, go out for drinks after work, etc. On the other hand, I am in my mid-30’s, married, with young children, and live about an hour-and-a-half away from the city by a very-limited bus and ferry schedule, and thus really need to bolt out the door right at 5 pm so I can be home by 7.

I’d like to find some way to bond with my colleagues, and get to know them on a more personal level. Any suggestions?

Ask people to have lunch with you, or to grab coffee.

Also, be an awesome coworker — helpful, responsive, and good at your job. That goes a long way.

And if you can swing it with the limited bus and ferry schedule, you could go to the occasional happy hour — not every month, but maybe once or twice a year.

But beyond that, I wouldn’t worry too much about joining in this social extravaganza. Yes, it does help to have good relationships with colleagues, and getting to know people in a more relaxed environment can help with that — it’s generally easier, after all, to feel cheerful instead of resentful about fielding someone’s last-minute, could-have-been-avoided-with-better-planning request for help when you’ve shared a beer with them and discussed your mutual crush on Kit Harington than if you only know them as the guy down the hall who always wears khakis. But the reality is that you’re at a different stage of life than most of your coworkers, your interests are probably going to be somewhat different, and you can accomplish a perfectly reasonable amount of coworker bonding through the stuff above, without feeling like you need to leave your spouse home with your kids while you do shots (or bench press, or whatever) with your coworkers.

Anyone want to advise differently?

{ 78 comments… read them below }

  1. Janet*

    Agree with the advice. I have small children and need to do daycare pick-up. Most of my co-workers either don’t have kids or their kids are older and they don’t have to worry about daycare. So they have happy hours quite often. I went to one and chit-chatted with folks I don’t normally see too often in the office. I eat lunch regulary with colleagues which has helped me enormously with the ones I do work with. Another tip? Bring treats and keep them at your desk. A simple “Hey, everyone, I have donuts/kolaches/bagels on my desk for a delayed St. Patrick’s Day treat. Help yourself!” is an easy way to get people to come to you and think of you as nice.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        Yup, that’s what I was going to suggest. And go for a variety, so it’s not always chocolates, candies and doughnuts, but sometimes something healthier like cuties (mini oranges), grapes, a fun tea assortment, or even a mind-teaser toy or puzzle.

    1. ExceptionToTheRule*

      If you were my co-worker and you brought kolaches in, I’d never leave your office. Especially if they were cherry kolaches.

      1. Elizabeth*

        Almond poppy seed.

        Of course, the woman who babysat me as a kindergartner refused to share the recipe before she died. So I can’t make them.

        1. Jamie*

          There are many variations – but my totally objective and unbiased opinion is that my Kolache recipe is the best. I think I posted it in the open thread of December or November when we were talking about holiday recipes.

          And also empirical fact is that cherry and apricot are the only flavors worth eating.

          And I read something below about savory which I have never heard of before and I find somewhat upsetting. :)

            1. Andrew*

              I’d never heard of them either, but after reading descriptions of them I can say that any shipments to MA will be gratefully accepted.

      2. Janet*

        Kolaches are the bomb. But I’m afraid they’d be savory kolaches. Fruit kolaches are inferior.

          1. Janet*

            I’ve gotten them with egg and bacon and sausage and cheese- any variation of those ingredients. I like the egg and cheese the best. It’s like a little breakfast sandwich in a very sweet bun.

            1. tcookson*

              I’ve never had a fruit kolache. I’ve only had the sausage ones (my favorite) or the egg and cheese ones. I didn’t even know they came in “fruit”!

        1. dk*

          Where do all you people live that you know of, let alone can debate the merits of various kolache? Because I seriously need to consider moving there!

          1. Janet*

            Ha! I fell in love with the kolache in Texas and now I live in a city that has a Kolache Factory restaurant.

  2. Anonymous*

    Second the lunch thing. That’s a great way to get to know people better. That said, if you’re the new person in the office, sometimes it can be difficult to get an invite to participate. So start by asking one person at a time and most likely, you’ll soon be having a great time over at the Group W lunch table…

  3. jmkenrick*

    As one of the 20-somethings who socializes after work with my other 20-something coworkers, I feel like a lot of that is about establishing oneself socially that we’re occupying a new stage in life.

    I don’t think you’re really missing anything important by skipping that stuff.

    1. badger_doc*

      I agree. We have a happy hour at work that is basically for 20-somethings, single (unmarried) with no kids. It’s an unspoken rule that is not really enforced, but usually the married with kids types come once or twice before they figure out we are only hanging out to act like 20-somethings and get away from work. One thing to make sure is that it is an open invitation, especially if you are above them in rank. We would feel uncomfortable if our 34 year old married manager with kids came along because he is our manager, not becuase he is married with kids. Speaking for myself, I don’t want to be careful about watching what I say or drinking a little too much at a happy hour with like minded coworkers.

        1. KellyK*

          Yeah, that’s always a possibility, especially if you’re drinking too much. I’m a fan of the Evil HR Lady’s advice to treat any situation with coworkers as if you were at work (with the obvious exception that you wouldn’t drink *any* alcohol at work unless it was a super relaxed office or a special occasion, possibly both).

      1. Oxford Comma*

        It’s wise to be careful about what you say around colleagues regardless of age. Been there, learned that lesson.

        1. Jamie*

          This. As someone who has attended happy hours in the past with colleagues those who get drunk and brag about how they get other people to do their work for them by deliberately doing it poorly and think this is just hysterical because they have totally forgotten that the poor drudge who is picking up there slack if YOU the person to whom they are bragging….

          Those comments are not forgotten. And when the poor drudge is heading a project you are on and they no longer buy your helpless schtick you have no one to blame but yourself.

  4. Sascha*

    Being an awesome coworker goes a tremendously long way. Become the person who is known for being helpful, reasonable, and reliable. People will eventually include you.

    Some more immediate options are as Alison suggested – lunch or coffee. Also, I have asked new coworkers a few questions about how they got started in this field or this particular job, and they are usually happy to talk about it. Just a few questions here and there to get to know them better. Another example, is when someone is training me, sometimes I will ask them how they learned a particular skill. It gets them to open up about themselves but also helps me think of strategies to facilitate my own learning.

    1. Kelly O*

      There is real value in truly listening to other people and being present when they talk. Not trying to formulate your response. Not thinking about all the other things you could or should be doing, but whenever you can, investing your time in someone else.

      Sure, you “waste” a little time sometimes, but it helps develop relationships, and doesn’t necessarily require a happy hour.

  5. Jackie*

    I’m a little puzzled here: I was told early on that socializing with your co-workers was a terrible idea; second only to dating one. Is that not true anymore?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think most people would argue that any socializing with coworkers, ever, is a bad idea. The occasional lunch/coffee/whatever is generally a good thing.

      I do think that office cultures with really heavy socializing are best avoided, for all sorts of reasons — but they’re also very common in offices with lots of 20somethings.

        1. badger_doc*

          Why was it so bad? I came from a start up of <20 people where 5-6 of us were all the same age. We socialized at happy hours scheduled bi-weekly and also hung out at eachothers houses for cookouts or football. I am not with a very large company although our branch here is about 200 people. We have a biweekly happy hour for unmarried 20-somethings without kids and it has been so much fun getting to know everyone and feeling welcome in a new company. I'd like to know some stories about when this can be a bad thing so we can avoid that at all costs!

          1. CJ*

            It’s not bad on its own, it’s just that those activities might be excluding a large portion of your workforce.

            “…biweekly happy hour for unmarried 20-somethings without kids and it has been so much fun getting to know everyone and feeling welcome in a new company.” But are you really getting to know *everyone*? How are the 30-somethings with kids being welcomed? Is the HH the only activity provided to socialize with your co-workers?

            Speaking for myself, if a biweekly HH were the ONLY activity that took place, I’d never socialize. Would I then be shut out of projects or processes because I can’t/won’t ‘play ball’? Would you see me as unfriendly or unsociable because I don’t do the bar thing?

          2. A Bug!*

            In some (not all) situations, where a large portion of an office spends a significant amount of time together outside work as friends, weird politics can come into play because the line between personal and professional becomes less clear. (Especially with any of the participants are management-level.)

            It’s not so much the fault of the socializing, but the socializing does enable it to take place more easily when there are employees who are inclined toward that sort of unprofessional behavior.

          3. Ask a Manager* Post author

            In addition to what CJ and A Bug mentioned, it can also cause problems like people taking on the emotional burden of other people’s battles. For instance, Joe hates his manager and talks about it at outside social events all the time. You didn’t have a problem with Joe’s manager before, but now you can’t help but kind of hate her too, because you like Joe and he thinks she’s treating him unfairly (even though it turns out that she’s not). Or some of you have a minor gripe that would have stayed minor, but because you keep discussing it together, it starts to loom much more largely, and some of you make bad decisions for yourselves because of it — becoming unhappy with a job you otherwise liked or even leaving over it. Or Beth gets fired for perfectly good reason, but the rest of you are bitter about it because she’s your friend. (These are all real life examples I’ve watched.)

            The blurring of lines between professional and personal can cause real problems.

            1. jesicka309*

              This is what happened at my office when I first started. I was really young, fresh out of uni, optimistic and excited, and gradually the lunch time beat downs of management by my older, seasoned coworkers got to me. I only realised a few months that it’s affected my whole attitude towards working here in a way that I can’t shake off years later.

            2. SevenSixOne*

              Don’t forget the the no-win conflict of interest when the right thing to do as a friend contradicts the right thing to do as a colleague, or the messed-up power dynamic if one of you becomes the other’s supervisor!

              I’m all for being social and friendly at work, but I never want to be more than colleagues with anyone there.

            3. Oxford Comma*

              Here’s an example. I have a colleague who is my peer and we had become friends. Actually this colleague is “friends” with most of the people here. She is chronically late, leaves early. She routinely takes 2 hour lunches. My boss is aware of the situation but has chosen not to address this with her. Since I do our scheduling, guess who has to cover when she’s not there or “forgets” about her duties? Other colleagues are annoyed because we’re routinely having to cover for her. She’s that person in the group who is regularly not pulling her weight. But we’re all “friends.” So now it’s awkward on multiple fronts.

              I’ve been distancing myself from this woman because she’s taking advantage. I am now being a lot more careful about with which work colleague I socialize and how often.

            4. Jamie*

              Everyone I know who does a lot of socializing with co-workers outside of work sees zero problems with this – it’s very common in the places I’ve been.

              Sometimes it’s not an issue – I’m kind of amazed that people can have issues at work (not personal – but conflicts over work issues) and still get together to watch a game on Sunday. Nothing wrong with it – I just don’t work that way.

              But it absolutely can interfere in all the ways Alison mentioned – especially when it’s between management and reports. If I have an issue with someone on a project and I go to their manager for help resolving this (lack of communication, missing deadlines without notice, problems with the work itself – nothing personal) but I know the manager has been at the Christenings for all of this employee’s kids and they’ve been hanging out on weekends for the past 20 years…if I am not getting the results I need from talking with the manager I wonder if that has anything to do with not wanting to have a difficult conversation because they are friends.

              Maybe, maybe not but the perception is definitely there. If people are going to hang out outside of work I can’t imagine caring on a personal level, but they need to make sure they aren’t putting each other in awkward situations at work by trading on the friendship currency. Because that isn’t fair to either and it sure as hell isn’t fair to those of us who just need to get shit done and don’t give a crap who is hosting the BBQ this week.

          4. ExceptionToTheRule*

            Personal anecdote: when I was young & 20-something and we did this sort of thing, there was that one co-worker who had an unhealthy crush on that other co-worker and would drunkenly hit on him in front of all of us. It made the next day at the office very uncomfortable.

          5. AG*

            I had to stop being friends with a coworker when she was fired because it made hanging out with her really uncomfortable. It was really obvious to me why she was fired – she wasn’t doing her work! At that point I still really liked my job and I couldn’t deal with her constantly badmouthing the company and her former boss.

          6. Leisabet*

            My job is to train large groups of people, and I’m pretty good at it (if I do say so myself). I get up in front of groups and talk to them, I’m friendly and bubbly with my coworkers, who are all lovely, and I love my job.

            But I’m also highly introverted and really, really need my downtime. When I worked with a company who had weekly drinks and social events and parties and barbeques I nearly broke under the stress of it. Not showing up was not an option, and I got increasingly fragile without the time to decompress. Everyone else seemed to love the tight knit culture. So I left.

            Not everyone is built for that particular brand of socialisation. I felt like an outsider simply because I preferred to keep my private life and professional life separate. I value my relationships with my colleagues, but my time is mine. :)

    2. Elizabeth West*

      I don’t think hanging out with coworkers is a bad thing necessarily. You may have stuff in common with them and that’s fine. Just don’t forget they are coworkers too. It’s a little bit different dynamic than hanging out with friends.

      Dating coworkers is verboten to me because I cannot afford to lose a job over a guy.

  6. Claire*

    Chit-chat over coffee breaks? It sounds like you have your own thing going on and don’t really “need” to spend a lot of out of the office time with these coworkers. I have the opposite problem right now – I’m an early 20s person and all of my coworkers are 30+ and married with kids and there’s no chance of out of work socializing (whereas my roommate is constantly invited to parties and rewatches of popular nerdy TV shows by her coworkers, sigh)!

    1. Holly*

      Age gaps definitely are a thing. I’m in my early 20s, and most of my coworkers are in their late 20s to early 30s, so their idea of going out differs from mine – also their interests (they talk fashion all day, so they prefer to go shopping together, and I’d rather hit up a pub and talk sports.) Bridging that can be hard.. and at least for me, when you’re the only one of that age group, it can feel isolating.

      1. A. Noni Mouse*

        I agree. I’m in my early 20s as well and everyone I work with is late 30s+ (all of them are married with kids and a few of them are grandparents). While it is nice to be around more seasoned and mature co-workers, it can certainly feel isolating from time to time, especially as I hear about friends in other companies being invited to happy hours and other events.

      2. eLena*

        You sound like me a while back…when I was in my early/mid twenties I moved to a geographically isolated area for work, and by necessity my social contacts spanned a pretty wide age-range (there just weren’t that many people, period). This included a bunch of work colleagues. It was a bit awkward at first, but I ended up being really glad for the diversity. Maybe you can view it that way? I did feel like I picked up some unexpected maturity, which was a plus…

  7. Just a Reader*

    My job is very relationship driven, to the point that I spent my first quarter here meeting people for coffee. Think of it as work schmoozing/establishing yourself as both a person and a professional vs. making friends that lead to super personal sharing.

    1. AP*

      The good thing about GOT is that there are like 100 characters so there’s someone for everyone. Personally I get all fluttery whenever Iain Glen comes on the screen.

    2. Jen in RO*

      Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is dreamy… and Kit (or rather Jon) needs to ditch the ugly moustache.

    3. AP*

      PS, my mom once ran into Peter Dinklage at Kiehl’s in New York and jumped ten feet in the air. She was really afraid that he thought she was startled because of his size and not because he’s Tyrion Lannister, but thought the better of actually trying to stop and explain it.

  8. mel*

    Must be some other way… I feel pretty bonded with my coworkers and I’ve never seen them outside of work. We don’t even have many personal conversations. Maybe it’s just seeing the same faces everyday?

    Meanwhile, my S.O. has social gatherings with his coworkers on a regular basis to the point where they’re not really just “coworkers” anymore.

    Though this definitely didn’t happen within three months. I think in the first three months I was feeling really awkward surrounded by teenaged drinking-party types. It gets better.

  9. B*

    Agree with the lunches and coffee, and definitely the free food. A quick email every now and then saying you baked something, brought in something, etc can go a long way to just meeting people. (and a great way to not eat all of the Halloween candy).

    My other bit of advice…if you are heading out for coffee, and someone says they can’t come, ask if you could bring them something back. Poke your head in and ask how their weekend was. The little things go a long way to being reachable and helpful.

    1. Holly*

      A little note while I’m thinking about this: if you coincidentally invite almost everyone in one department to coffee and they say no, and you ask them if you can bring anything back, also ask the rest of the people in their department.. it’s really awkward when the three people next to you get asked and you don’t.

  10. Sam*

    I’m a 20-something and single Mom, I work for a small company with a predominately 20-something staff and a manager who thinks of herself as our mother (seriously, she has referred to us as her kids). There is a lot of out of work socializing, but I skip most of it as I would rather spend the time with my child/minimize the time kiddo spends in daycare. I do go to the occasional thing, like the end of big-project parties (there are three or four a year) and I join in with everything in the office (for example birthdays get celebrated in our office with cake baked by a colleague and a bit of social time).

    I think missing out on the out of office socializing has actually helped me avoid some conflicts, I don’t take things so personally as I have less of a close friendship relationship with my co-workers, and my manager hasn’t seen me drunk/behaving in a way that would reinforce her view of her employees as children. I’ve also often been the only one without a hangover in the morning!

    On the other hand, before I did this job I worked in a role that involved spending 90% of my days with one other colleague, we happened to be similar in age and come from the same, relatively small suburb, so we spent a lot of time together and are still good friends now that we’ve both moved on to other jobs.

  11. MD*

    I’m a 20-something always looking for an excuse to avoid getting invited to social events after work. I don’t hate my coworkers, I just am not interested in getting to know them (or having them know a lot of details about my personal life) outside of work. Plus, I’m single and have at least two single male coworkers who act like they are romantically interested in me, and it is uncomfortable.

    1. ExceptionToTheRule*

      Just smile and say politely that your policy is to try to keep your work and personal lives separate.

    2. Lanya*

      MD, I feel the same way – I am 20-something and I have absolutely no interest in hanging out with my coworkers after work, especially on weekends. I already spend 40+ hours a week with them as it is, and I have my own friends to see and things to do in my free time, which is getting more and more precious. I appreciate that the OP wants to get to know his workmates, but there is absolutely no need for him to “hang out” with them outside of work if he makes an effort to strike up a conversation during those 40 in-office hours.

      1. Laura L*

        This is a good point. Just because we’re all the same age and at roughly the same stage of life, doesn’t mean we’re monolithic.

        I don’t enjoy spending time with every 20-something I meet. And I’m sure many of them don’t enjoy spending time with me. It’s a personality thing.

  12. Jennifer*

    I do think there can be a different set of expectations at a startup, where “cultural fit” can be more important than almost anything else and where devotion, not just good work, is expected. Make sure you’re not working somewhere that will penalize you for having a life outside work (the stories I could tell…)

  13. kristinyc*

    Does this person work at my company? It sounds exactly like it. (If so, come hang out with me! I live an hour away and rarely, if ever, go to the happy hours/after work events).

    But yeah – start with hanging out with the people you sit near. Eat lunch together or grab coffee. Or even just start conversations with people in the kitchen/break room.

  14. Anony*

    I have the same issue but the opposite! I am a single, early 20-something and everyone around me is either married or has kids! It’s hard to relate to my coworkers when they start talking about their significant other or their kids school stuff, so I end up not socializing much at all in an office that promotes socializing.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Me too, only I’m older. So I get the sideways looks like “WHY isn’t she married? What’s wrong with her?” and the suggestions “Go to a bar, go to the ballpark.” Yeah. In 30 years of dating, I have never once met anyone *good* at a bar. And I hate baseball.

      1. Anony*

        I’m so glad to know that I am not the only single, weird one around here! I feel the same way with the comments too!

      2. The IT Manager*

        I enjoy watching sports in person. I go to games. I don’t think that’s a place to meet people you don’t already know. You sit in the stands and stare at the field. The only people you’d be able to talk to are the ones right around you if they wanted to talk instead of watching the game. But then I haven’t actually figure out how to meet people outside school and work type activities where you can slowly get to know them.

  15. jesicka309*

    I totally get where you’re coming from OP, the constant nights out can be a drag, especially when you have a long commute.

    However, I strongly advie to make sure you attend all of the company organised get togethers, if you can manage it. It’s one thing to avoid the informal Friday night drinks, another to turn down the going away party department head organised, or the company sponsored BBQ organised as a reward for meeting targets, or the Christmas party etc. Those can be great opportunities to network with other people in other depeartments, and you’d be surprised howmany managers notice a no-show, especially if you’re regularly bailing on them, at it’s perceived as not being a team player. Leave early if you like (I do), but at least make an effort to attend and do the rounds for anything formally organised.

  16. Cube Ninja*

    6 weeks from now…

    A reader writes:

    Help! I asked a co-worker out to lunch to get to know her better (we work on projects together every couple days) and now she thinks I want her to have my babies! She’s obsessed with aliens and my wife is really angry. My manager told me that I’m not allowed to socialize with my co-workers anymore. Is this legal?


  17. Tuesday*

    I know it’s normal in some places, but a 90-minute commute sounds wretched. That turns an eight-hour workday into an 11-hour day (12 if you add an hour for lunch) which is bookended by taking care of small children.

    Apologies to the OP, because I am making a bit of a leap, but I have to wonder if the issue isn’t wanting to hang out with the group of younger coworkers, but rather the need to have some sort of social outlet that doesn’t center around the kiddos.

  18. Chocolate Teapot*

    The Friday bringing-in-croissants-pain-au-chocolat-and-schnecks for breakfast always seems to help.


    Hey everyone – OP here – thanks so much for the great suggestions! It has been several months since I wrote in, and things have definitely improved. Since I can’t really hang out after work, I’ve started to find way to “socialize” during the work day – chit chat in the elevator, ask colleagues out to lunch, and just to put myself out there more. Snacks at the desk definitely doesn’t hurt, either!! :)

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