What to do about the office holiday party this year? Last year more than three-quarters of U.S. companies held one. This year, the idea of spending extra time on Zoom with your colleagues probably seems more like a punishment than a celebration. One survey found that just 17% of organizations are currently planning a virtual holiday event.

We heard from readers, interviewed other people we thought might have good ideas, and pored over the research about what works best given the circumstances. 

Here are some best practices:

  • Start by being clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, and what’s actually possible this year. Is your goal to boost morale? Help your team bond? Allow people to interact with company leadership? Show appreciation to your staff financially? 
  • If it’s about small team bonding, for example, a group arts activity like a tie-dying class (with materials sent in advance) might work well. The most straightforward thing is for companies to distribute budgets so individual teams can organize their own small activities. If exposure to company leadership is the goal, consider having them rotate throughout different rooms or activities.
  • We all know the limits of unstructured group-chatting over Zoom. Have a plan and center your party around some performance or activity. We collected some ideas for activities below. Among our favorites is a dress-up competition, with prizes for the best outfits on a theme like 80s roller derby or sea creatures. Here are the others: 
    • Competitions—Incorporate contests into your events, like ugliest sweater, best pest costume, or trivia. Challenge your colleagues in digital games (check out Jackbox or Houseparty). Reward winners with gift cards. 
    • Coffee or chocolate tastings—DriftawayDelysia Chocolatier, and Theo Chocolate can help to book an expert tasting guide and ship products to your employees. (Alcohol tastings are popular too—though given addiction and health considerations, it’s worth finding alternative options.)
    • Remote gift exchanges—You can structure this as a virtual Secret Santa or white elephant event. Give employees gift cards to use at online retailers—especially Black-led or Native businesses—to easily facilitate this.
    • Ditch Zoom—There are a number of companies that offer other types of virtual environments to connect with colleagues. Check out the approach of startup Preciate Social, whose technology allows participants to move around a virtual room to mingle with others.
    • Live entertainment—Musicians and comedians can anchor an event, and it’s an especially good moment to financially support entertainers locked out of live venues. Companies like Song Division can line up performers for virtual occasions.
  • If a video conference is central to your virtual holiday party, keep in mind some key best practices: 
    • Aim for a maximum of eight attendees per breakout room.
    • Keep events to less than an hour and a half and hold them during the normal workday so they’re not an extra scheduling burden.
    • Each event should have a host in charge of facilitating group conversation or whatever activity may be planned.
  • At many companies, holiday parties are the rare times when family members get to meet your colleagues, and vice versa. Find ways for partners and children to participate in events—they’ve been on the fringes of the Zoom screen this year, and now is a good time to invite them to come full-screen. Trivia contests and kids’ activities are easy ways to do that.
  • Stay away from activities that might highlight how luxurious or modest someone’s home might be. One executive we spoke with nixed an activity that involved colleagues simultaneously making a dessert recipe out of concern that some less well-off staff might not feel totally comfortable showing their kitchens.
  • Increasing numbers of new employees have been onboarded virtually, never having entered a physical office or met colleagues in person. Company culture is tough to absorb virtually, so make sure that any newbies are well integrated into any holiday event.
  • Employees with similar life-experiences may benefit from connecting with one another. Create events for employees with children and mail an arts and crafts project to get them involved. Consider this a mini Take Your Child To Work Day; some kids might be interested to learn what you’re doing for eight hours a day on Zoom. Encourage employee resource groups (LGBTQ+, BIPOC, veterans, etc) to plan their own events as well.

There are upsides to rethinking the holiday party. Human resources professionals can attest that traditional end-of-year events spur all sorts of problematic behavior, and can be a challenge for employees struggling with addiction. 

Still, it’s especially critical to celebrate making it through this year in some way. And it’s actually not too late to do something this month that will make staff feel more connected to colleagues and their work. 

If an event doesn’t seem workable, consider convincing your CFO to take funds your company would normally spend on a blowout holiday event and give half to charity and half back to employees. Then make everyone take a day off. It’s been a rough year.

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