Rory Sutherland

Is it really such a shock that some people drink at work?

Is it really such a shock that some people drink at work?
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Thirteen years ago we shared an office building with a large international bank. A common lift connected both businesses to the underground car park. Here I once overheard one of the bank employees describing our offices: ‘And you know what else they have up there…’ He spoke in the kind of wide-eyed, aghast tone you might have expected if he were about to reveal an opium den or a branch of Stringfellows: ‘They’ve got a bar.’

This was true. In the evenings after work, while the bankers downstairs were soberly hard at work destroying the world economy, there were people only yards above them shamelessly chatting over a beer.

Some people drink at work. It’s a fact. And the presence of alcohol in a workplace does not necessarily denote a party. I bring you this astonishing and exclusive scoop because for some reason the entire cast of British political journalists seem bent on denying it.

For people to be disgusted by the presence of booze in an office is understandable. Drinking norms vary enormously from one business to another, as the banker’s horror shows. But journalists? Seriously? Are we really to believe that nobody working in media had an office drink for six months under lockdown? Whatever you think about partygate, you would have to be suffering from a severe case of long Covid not to notice the stench of confected media outrage around it.

For instance, the photograph of people in the Downing Street garden does not show a party. Obviously it does not look like a work meeting because, duh, most offices don’t have gardens. If your office does have a garden — the White House, Buckingham Palace, the Playboy Mansion — then holding meetings outside is hardly a crazy thing to do. In my 32 years of work, I have attended more than 1,500 meetings, of which only one took place in a garden — the garden of 10 Downing Street. It’s unusual but it’s not unreasonable. Would it have been OK if they had filled the garden with flipcharts and photocopiers to give it a bit of an office vibe? Who knows?

Yet the media narrative holds that being able to drink or chat in a garden was ‘unfair’ to people who couldn’t.

Let me reframe this for you. During lockdown I did not go into the office once. Some colleagues, including some with underlying medical conditions, did go in, to produce Covid-related work. What struck me as unfair was not that they might have shared a drink at the end of the week (I have no idea to this day whether they did, nor would I ever ask). No, what struck me as ‘unfair’ was the fact that they had to travel into work at some risk to themselves when I didn’t. It struck me as unfair that people in food shops had to go to work when people in law firms didn’t. If some nurses or doctors got a bit sloshed together after work, without adding to the network of people to whom they were exposed, good luck to them. They took the risk; I didn’t.

The inhabitants of No. 10 might be arseholes, but they did go into work. Most of them seem to have contracted Covid (the presence of prosecco in the office fridge certainly proves they had lost their sense of taste). Given that the place was a superspreader location, they were at least brave.

What would be really unfair would be for all press attention to focus on drinking activities without anyone asking why 10 Downing Street was so technologically unprepared for a pandemic that it became a major Covid hotspot. Or for a media frenzy to cause junior people to take the hit for a work culture which was not really within their control. Sadly, the likelihood of both is depressingly high.