In every workplace there are rules and rituals. The rules are easy enough to follow, but it's the shades of grey in subtle rituals that can easily be misconstrued.
Alcohol consumption in or around the workplace is an Australian ritual. Whether it's one or two after work, a long lunch, the Christmas party or a Friday night blowout, drinking pervades our working culture.
But the relationship between alcohol and the workplace has shifted in recent times. As workplaces become more diverse and sophisticated, so is the way in which workplace-related drinking has come to be viewed.
Australia's annual consumption of alcohol recently hit a 17-year low. One contributing factor has been a shift in discernment, towards quality over quantity. In business, top-shelf tipples have traditionally been broken out as a social lubricant to get deals over the line.
I recently witnessed the culmination of a substantial business transaction that was helped along by both parties sharing a mutual admiration for Japanese whisky. When I first began to guide them through the history and flavours of a few Japanese malts there was palpable tension in the air. But after sampling a couple of drams, conversation flowed and heads nodded in agreement. Before long, final terms had been negotiated and the deal was done.
Is it still common to see business transacted in this way? Communicating face-to-face is an essential practice in establishing and building strong working relationships. Certainly, we should be circumspect about bringing a fine drop into this equation. But in our time-poor, digitally connected world, is sharing a business meal and a drink a practice of the past?
Stuart Gregor, founder and director of PR firm Liquid Ideas, thinks meeting over lunch or drinks is still one of the best ways to understand who you are actually working with.
"The fact that we can do our jobs sitting on a cave on a hillside, as long as there is good Wi-Fi, means that we need to ensure we don't lose contact with humanity," he says. "And because the long lunch or drinks catch-up is increasingly rare, it is now even more crucial."
Art of lunch
There's a skill to conducting the perfect business lunch or informal catch-up. While some suggest that the long lunch is still alive and kicking - albeit in a more subdued form than in times gone by - what you drink when talking shop is still important.
Or, perhaps, what you don't drink. It's essential to stay in step with what your guest or host chooses to imbibe. Building rapport is made easier by subtly mirroring their choices and decisions. So if it's a round of sparkling water, so be it. But if a rare Italian red is offered, it'd be remiss to refuse a taste.
It's often said that when there's work on the table, you should limit yourself to one or two drinks to ensure you stay on your game. There is some evidence to suggest that a drink or two might actually improve your creativity, yet it's obvious that drinking any more decreases focus and productivity on a rapidly sliding scale.
But when the work's done, does sharing a drink with colleagues help to foster relationships and team-building?
An oft-quoted maxim says an hour at play will tell you more about a person than a year of conversation. It never ceases to surprise me how many business and networking relationships I've seen develop over a few quiet beverages. And when managed with care, a lunch or dinner to celebrate the completion of a project can provide a huge boost to team morale.
The bottom line
Does the close relationship between booze and doing business in Australia also contribute to lower productivity and staff absenteeism? A growing body of research suggests we need to be careful not to let a bit too much revelry run the show. Phillip Collins, head of workplace services for the Australian Drug Foundation, says a number of strategies can help businesses to maintain a sense of balance and timing.
"What we recommend is that if the social setting does include alcohol, the focus must be placed on entertainment – such as music, a comedian, etc – and food," he says.
"However, it is important to note that we encourage them not to ban alcohol outright in all settings, but rather promote responsible consumption, as over 80 per cent of the population drink."
What if you're a part of the population which eschews a drink? "We suggest organisations arrange a non-drinking activity at the start of an event that is inclusive. For example, instead of meeting at the pub, have an activity prior to this whereby those who aren't drinking can enjoy, which is then followed by drinks," Collins says.
Has sharing a drink with colleagues or clients helped or hindered your career, contributed to the success or failure of a deal, or created good or bad flow-on effects in your workplace?