People either love or hate office holiday parties. Almost everyone hates virtual office holiday parties. As we enter the second pandemic holiday season, both types of events — meant to celebrate employees and humanize bosses — are back. But it may be different from what you remember.
This year, virtual parties continue, although companies, fortunately, have learned some lessons from last year about what employees will endure. After a hiatus last year, in-person parties are re-emerging as vaccination rates and the desire for socializing have grown, although these events will also be more restricted. We’re also seeing a rise in a third category: no party at all. Instead of serving lukewarm food, bad DJs, and awkward interactions with your colleagues, some companies instead opt for gifts, money, or an extra vacation. One company even plans a group trip to heaven – of course, if you’re cynical, you could consider a never-ending holiday party at the office.
Notably absent from corporate plans this year are the so-called mixed holiday parties, with some guests attending in person and others online. It turns out that these do not work. It’s hard to program in a way that satisfies both groups, so most companies have given up trying.
Which party you attend – or skip – depends largely on your specific company, industry, and region. But one thing is clear: The pandemic has had a lasting effect on the holiday party as we know it.
Virtual Celebrations, sequel
For many companies, this will be the second year of the virtual holiday party. Do not give up! It should be better or at least shorter than it was in 2020.
In the past year, many companies made the mistake everyone makes when moving something to a virtual environment: they tried to approximate a real-world event. For some, that meant Zoom calls that lasted for hours and included everything from games to music to speeches — all better tolerated with a drink on hand at a bar or in a stylish event setting than on your sofa at home.
“It was almost intense in terms of the number of things that happen online,” Tal Brodsky, director of product marketing and business development for Thriver, a workplace culture marketplace that helps companies organize holiday parties, told Recode.
“I think most companies are focusing this year on short, sweet, but impactful things online,” said Brodsky, who estimates that 60-70 percent of Thriver holiday parties will be virtual this year.
This year, at media database company Muck Rack, magician and mentalist Coby Elimelech will be reading the thoughts of some employees from afar. The hypothetical event includes a stipend of $60 for food and drink, and a toast, and will be over in an hour and a half.
Facebook is cutting back big time. After throwing a holiday party for 6,000 people in its New York office at Pier 94 that included a DJ, two Mister Softee trucks, and thousands of pies for guests in 2019, the company decided to host a virtual variety show for its second year. Employees will watch shows by Broadway musicians and actors, and they will make a donation to Broadway Cares.
Many virtual holiday parties this year include a box of food, blended drinks or crafts sent to employees ahead of time and assembled with the help of an instructor during a Zoom event. These events are often held with smaller groups than last year, and any company-wide portions have mostly been cut short.
Chocolate Noise, a company that specializes in organizing chocolate events, sends attendees multiple bars of chocolate, as well as pairs of tea and wine, and then leads them through an online chocolate tasting. The company’s founder, Megan Geller, offered virtual events in the pre-pandemic era, but says they didn’t become popular with corporate clients until last year.
Geller, who has written a book on chocolate, judged chocolate competitions, and taught people “how to taste like the experts,” said Geller.
While Geller prefers to do the tastings in smaller groups, the huge increase in virtual company holiday parties has meant she has had to learn how to host these events for more than 100 people at once. This requires incorporating a boss as well as a number of chocolate bartenders to make the event run smoothly.
This year, Thriver’s popular activities include making watercolor holiday cards, mint mocha, and cocktail combos, as well as a Christmas murder mystery.
Amanda Ma, chief experience officer at Los Angeles-based event experience agency Innovate Marketing Group, will typically host mega events for clients of major corporations like YouTube and TikTok, as well as major banks. Before the pandemic, she said she would build the entire experience, touching the five senses, from food to entertainment to things you touch and feel. This year, 90 percent of the holiday parties she works at are virtual parties. However, she does her best to give guests multi-sensory experiences at home.
“The usual wine and dinner was last year,” said Ma. “Everyone’s expectations are higher this year because they have almost two years of virtual operation now.”
Popular activities among her clients this year include building charcuterie, learning calligraphy, and making wreaths during the holidays. Overall, Ma says she’s seeing more thought about events this year because she’s had more time to plan, with most companies thinking about things this summer rather than last minute like last year. She also noted that virtual events are cheaper than in-person events, with a cost savings, she said, of 30 to 50 percent.
The return of the holiday party IRL
For many companies, 2021 marks the return of the holiday party in the office, but the scale, venues, and timings have changed. Companies — and especially the executives who run them — are keen to bring people back to their desks after many employees spent nearly two years working from home. Chiefs see personal holiday parties as a way to ease people back in. It’s also a way to introduce new colleagues who may not have worked together in person.
Overall, this year’s events are smaller than they used to be, and this is accomplished by blocking additional items, splitting them up by teams, or by having the party run over multiple days.
For a corporate client that hosted vacation celebrations for 1,500 people before the pandemic, Tinsel Experiential Design in New York instead organized three separate events with two different concepts. The client, which the company did not disclose, also held a series of events earlier in the year at the Central Park Zoo, where guests could be outside.
“Coordination is under the microscope,” Alexa Jensen, head of creative production at Tinsel, told Recode.
In general, companies are becoming more thoughtful about where and when to host their holiday parties. They choose places with outdoor space and sometimes move the action to fall or spring to take advantage of the warmer weather. They also have to be smarter in all aspects of the event.
“Plan B is no longer just a rain plan,” Jensen said. “It’s like, plan B is if another delta comes along – I hate to put that into words – what is plan B, C, D sort of.”
This means planning for possible last-minute changes to the venue. According to Thriver, companies that frequently host in-person events also choose to host them in their own offices, rather than outdoor venues, so that they have greater control over safety.
There was also an increase in holiday lunches or early happy hours, rather than evening get-togethers.
“I think people value their time more,” said Rosa Hardesty, a knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management. She added that while the majority of parties you hear about are in-person, again, they do tax less on employee time. “Maybe they realize, let’s do it during the day while their employer pays them and celebrates them so they can go home with their families.”
But, along with the scale, timing, and location, these events don’t look all that different than they did before. There are custom foods, waiters, and music. However, there are also restrictions on the number of third-party vendors and the requirements to vaccinate those vendors. Many employees are required to provide proof of vaccination ahead of time, although some companies offer Covid-19 testing at this event.
Some companies do something else entirely
The pandemic has also encouraged companies to completely rethink the premise of holiday parties. Perhaps because they believe party budgets can be better spent, some companies are finding more new ways to support their employees, whether with colleagues or with their families.
PR firm VSC is replacing The Office Party — and The Office, which they abandoned in the summer of 2020 — for a company-wide trip to Hawaii. In early December, about 50 employees made the five-day trip to Oahu, where they will bungee-ski, surf, and hang out on the beach.
“When we have personal events, it should be social,” said company founder Vijay Chata, “not gathering to sit in front of laptops and send emails.”
Additional vacations, gift cards, and other perks are also becoming popular alternatives to holiday parties, according to Hardesty at Society for Human Resource Management. She said that if the goal of the business is to support your family, companies are moving towards the idea that they should let you spend more time with them. Vox Media, the parent company of Recode, is avoiding a holiday party again this year, even though several teams hold their own smaller in-person events. Vox.com also gives its employees one week off for the holidays.
Although they may have virtual get-togethers at the end of the year, some companies also offer more in-person activities for smaller groups that serve more as team-building exercises than holiday parties. These include things like yoga classes, cooking classes, and even escape rooms.
But despite the emergence of holiday party alternatives, event planners are at least optimistic about a more robust return to the realistic holiday party. This year is a kind of test.
“Everyone is kind of getting their fingers back. I don’t think anyone is trying to defy the odds right now,” said Tinsel’s Jensen. “We’re just happy to be back on site and seeing all the familiar faces and seeing things come to life again.”
She added, “I think 2022 is going to be crazy. I’m already packing my loins.”