Rocking holiday party.

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Best Practices: Holiday Parties Amid Covid

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—Driftaway, Delysia 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.

Content from our supporting partner Citrix

Work 2035: how people and technology will pioneer new ways of working. This research examines four distinct, alternative visions of the future of work and explores the role of workers and organizations in 2035. By presenting a 15-year window into the future, the aim is to try and explore the types of challenges that organizations may face as technology continues to change the way that we work. You can read the research here.

What Else You Need to Know

Public company board diversity is miserable. Nasdaq is asking regulators’ permission to delist firms that don’t do anything about it. More than 75% of companies listed on the Nasdaq exchange don’t have at least one woman and one director who identifies as an underrepresented minority or LGBTQ+. The Securities and Exchange Commission has to approve the board diversity requirement, and it then still wouldn’t kick in for several years. 

  • The Journal cited an anonymous source saying that 80% or more of Nasdaq-listed companies had a female director, but only about one-quarter had a director who met the other diversity requirements. 
  • There has been some positive momentum. Six S&P 500 companies added Black women directors in October. Women represent over 28% of board members at companies in that stock index, and over 40% of US nonexecutive director appointments last year were women. As we’ve noted, the largest publicly traded US companies, defined as members of the Russell 3000 index, appointed 130 Black board members in the five months from George Floyd’s death, compared to 38 in the prior five months. 
  • Goldman Sachs in July stopped underwriting IPOs for private companies in the US and Europe without any diverse board members.

Companies in non-diverse neighborhoods are less likely to hire Black job applicants. New research from Rutgers and the University of Chicago concluded that “neighborhood demographics predict racial discrimination in employer callbacks: employers in whiter and less Black neighborhoods discriminate much more heavily in favor of white applicants.” They also found that when criminal background information wasn’t available, employees are more likely to stereotype Black applicants as criminal.

The odds of some sort of affordable child-care legislation appear to be improving—a welcome development for working parents. The Biden administration’s plan includes free universal pre-K for three- and four-year olds, tax credits for child-care payments, and better pay and benefits for child-care providers. The whole package is unlikely to get through Congress, but the pandemic child-care crisis has helped increase the chance of bipartisan support for at least some measures. 


You’re not the only one with a higher electricity bill. Stuck at home, Americans spent $6 billion more than normal on power from April to July. Researchers found that residential electricity usage jumped by 10% in the second quarter, while commercial usage fell by 12% and industrial usage fell by 14%. Home electricity use is 16% higher during work hours than it was before.

Paris has a pandemic bike theft problem. More Parisians are riding bikes and more bikes are being stolen—the police reported a 62% increase from last year, and even more thefts go unreported. The 19th arrondissement, near the Canal de l’Ourcq, has become such a notorious hotspot that it’s been dubbed the “Bermuda Triangle of Stolen Bikes.” But, alas, Paris is not alone—New York City has seen a 27% rise and London bike thefts recently were up 50%.

Harrison Jobe contributed to today’s briefing. 

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email. Have a great day!