How to party like it’s 2020

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 8, 2020

The holiday season may be here, but the traditional office party? Not so much.

The holiday season may be here, but the traditional office party? Not so much. Social distancing and other pandemic-related restrictions have ruled out the usual end-of-year work celebrations. Gone are the staff lunch, after-hours drinks and team dinner. Remote workers won’t get to the office, which may not have lights and decorations anyway, nor the Christmas tree in reception. And governments are stepping in with reminders that, unlike other work-related activities, parties are not allowed. Britain has explicitly prohibited “a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity”. Ireland and Germany, like much of Europe, are discouraging large social gatherings of any sort.

All this poses a challenge for companies, as they look for ways to keep their workers safe while also bolstering team spirit in what is traditionally a season of celebration and goodwill. In the past, office parties could be splendid affairs, with big companies splashing out on A-list food and entertainment. Last year, Moneypenny, a global provider of outsourced communications services, set up a marquee in a field outside Wrexham in Wales, where its head office is located. Managers dressed as flight crew handed out boarding passes and staff “flew” (by bus) to an Ibiza-like indoor wonderland with a beach bar and tapas. But covid-19 has made the mood less jolly. We asked managers, workers, executives and event planners for tips on replacing the holiday party in 2020. Here’s what they suggested:

  • Make a party of gift-giving—suitably socially distanced, of course. This year Moneypenny is delivering a turkey to the homes of its 800 employees in Britain and 250 in America. “It will be uncooked, in a Christmas box, with instructions. So will the nut roast, if that’s what you chose,” says Moneypenny’s CEO, Joanna Swash. Staff also get to pick a seasonally appropriate beverage—mulled wine or sachets of hot chocolate—to quaff while the bird is in the oven. Everyone gets to snack on roasted chestnuts, too. “It’s really important to me to look after the team, like they look after our customers,” says Ms Swash. “It’s paying forward.” And back. Like many companies, Moneypenny says it owes its survival during the pandemic to its workers’ adaptability and willingness to wrestle with new equipment and changed routines while working from home. With demand for the company’s services now running at 125% above its level in March, Ms Swash says a home-delivered roast dinner is a safe and cheery way to say thank you.
  • Have a real blast, virtually. According to a survey of 1,000 office workers, most companies in Britain had begun planning for virtual Christmas parties back in October. Events managers responded to demand with specialist virtual planners and a lengthening list of buzzy options that go beyond clinking glasses on Zoom or playing a quiz. Hire Space, an event-technology company, offers Big Top Christmas parties, which use a gaming-style interface to create multiple virtual rooms, each with their own theme. Guests can roam through a comedy club, bingo hall, jazz café and smoking area, stopping anywhere virtually to shoot the breeze with colleagues.  Other companies are doing the same in a less elaborate way. “We’re holding a virtual party on Messenger video so we can play games and add silly filters over the drinks and snacks of their choice that we’re sending to each team member’s house in advance,” says Andrew Ellis, founder of We Are Like Minds, a consultancy that offers business training and development to entrepreneurs. The party will also feature a conjuror doing “close-up magic” (remotely, of course). All 40 employees of PowWowNow, a provider of conference-call services, will link up on video to play communal games. “We’ll conduct a virtual secret Santa,” says Jacqui Beel, the company’s head of brand, with everyone opening presents together before a round of Christmas activities such as charades.
  • Alternatively, party little and often. Some companies are planning a more laid-back approach. To avoid “Zoom fatigue,” says Tushar Agarwal, CEO and co-founder of HubbleHQ, an online marketplace for office space, his company will stretch its celebrations over three days, reserving a couple of hours each afternoon for online interactive fun, professional entertainment and finally, a home-delivered Christmas dinner. For larger companies, where gathering everyone on a single video call is not feasible, splitting the celebrations into multiple smaller gatherings, spread across several days, can give people more flexibility about when to participate, and encourage genuine social interaction that is, after all, the point of having a party in the first place.
  • Highlight the spirit of giving…to those less fortunate. When covid-19 cases surged in Europe and elsewhere in October, Gresham Technologies, a software and services company based in London, started to plan an alternative to the usual knees-up in its nine offices around the world. “We realised restrictions won’t be lifted in time but we still wanted to do something that felt right and which gave us the opportunity to really live our values,” says Tamsyn Cole, the company’s director of people and culture. The company decided to do away with the Christmas party altogether, except in Australia, where the virus has been tamed. “We decided to donate our Christmas dinner to those who needed it most,” says Ms Cole. Each of the firm’s nine offices, from New York, through Luxembourg and Kuala Lumpur, voted to support a local charity that addresses inequalities highlighted by the pandemic. London and New York picked food banks; Bristol chose a project that works to eliminate the digital divide for poor students. Surely there must be some grumbling about the lack of an office-sponsored seasonal junket? “We’re a benevolent lot,” says Gill Sutton, manager of Gresham’s London office, “and most of us thought a lot of people need help at the moment. Really, this is the spirit of Christmas.”

Dig deeper: The British government’s guidance on Christmas parties. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers advice on events and gatherings. ZipRecruiter, an online-employment marketplace, summarises the importance of office parties in maintaining morale.