With the end of 2022 in sight and thoughts of celebrations and gifts coming into play, companies must ask themselves whether they should move forward with their traditional holiday work parties. It’s not an easy decision to make, as year-end parties are usually a company’s way of rewarding all of their employees for all their hard work.
But given the unique circumstances of the post-2020 workplace, employee health and safety is a greater priority than ever, while morale and mental health are trending toward all-time lows. These concerns only compound with pre-pandemic worries, like how to ensure employees get home safely while driving in winter weather.
Employers know they need to do something for employee morale but are struggling to find a way to bring employees together without compromising their safety. Many are left considering three main options:
Every HR team will need to decide what’s best for their unique situation. Here’s a list of important considerations and tips that helped us plan a safe and successful 2022 holiday event!
Every holiday party has a goal, usually engagement or employee appreciation, and I think that’s always the best place to start. Let’s look at how GoCo tackled this task in 2020, when planning our first holiday party after the onset of the pandemic. Keep in mind, these precautions were prepared when COVID-19 rates were particularly high. While it’s unclear whether or not the US will experience a new wave of COVID this winter, these tips can still put you in the right mindset to plan a safer holiday party than ever before!
How important is it that the employees have this time to get together and bond with each other? Is this important enough to outweigh the potential negative side effects of having a group party? There are a lot of things you can do to mitigate your risk, but there’s no way you can get your risk down to zero when you’re meeting in person.
At GoCo, we made the decision to have an in-person but socially distant event because we received feedback that our employees were Zoom-fatigued and could truly use a boost in morale and mental health. We have a younger workforce, many of whom live alone and are feeling isolated. We didn’t make it mandatory for anyone but wanted the option to be there for those who were missing human interaction.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have switched our holiday parties from one big party to smaller department parties. Not only is this the safer and more mindful choice, but it allows for more creativity within the events where departments can have a more intimate setting, getting closer to one another.
This team bonding in smaller department holiday parties leads to closer relationships at work, creating a tight-knit team that is willing to help each other out, both inside and outside of the office. The positive relationships created at events such as holiday parties will ultimately lead to higher success in the workplace.
We started planning with an anonymous survey throughout the company to gauge interest while making it clear that the event was going to be completely optional. Some people said they didn’t want to attend the event under any circumstances, and that was totally okay. For those who said they were comfortable with some level of interaction, we wanted to know under what circumstances they would agree to attend. We asked what precautions mattered most to them, such as being outdoors, wearing masks, cleaning protocols, etc.
In the end, we erred on the side of safety first, going above and beyond what they said they’d be comfortable with. We followed local recommendations and CDC guidelines so that all bases were covered. We also waited to hold our event until the positivity rate was below 5% in our area (it was over 10% for a long time).
We ultimately decided an in-person party was a viable option for our event, given that positivity rates were lower in October, at the time of our event. If your company decides to take a similar path, the following questions and considerations can help to guide your planning:
Safety was our number one goal, and it should be yours too. There’s no amount of morale-boosting and team-building that could outweigh personal health and safety. In addition to safety, we also wanted to focus on how to create special moments that reflected our culture and things that mattered to our employees, then work backward from there on how to make those moments safe.
For example, we have a lot of singers at GoCo, so we knew that having karaoke would be a hit. To do this safely, we thought about all the hazards of singing and found solutions like microphone covers and other precautions so people could do what they love, but do it safely. Alternatively, if your team is big on sports, you could look into planning a sports party for the company. Regardless, safety should be the number one priority.
We also wanted to create a sense of normalcy during the event. We wanted to do some team-building activities in groups without people having to be physically close to each other. This was hard since we were outdoors, six feet apart, and wearing masks. We opted to bring in a trivia game that was customized to our company and culture, which was a lot of fun. It helped to foster camaraderie in answering the trivia questions and allowed us to work in teams and just have fun.
The pandemic created a number of logistical challenges, many of which were unforeseen until the planning started. Here are a handful of considerations that impacted our event:
Choosing a location was definitely the biggest challenge of all. We knew that we wanted to find a place that had plenty of outdoor space to accommodate social distancing, and we wanted it to have a fun party atmosphere because we were really trying to create a sense of normalcy (to the extent that we could). But most importantly, we needed a venue that we could buy out and host privately because we didn’t want to expose employees to people outside of our group at all — not even in the restrooms or at the bar.
Finding a place that could accommodate all of that within our budget took a lot of persistence.
We had to put a lot more effort into planning because out of 10 vendors we’d call, we’d maybe get a returned call from one. That was true for food trucks, entertainment vendors, and just about anything you’d need for an in-person event. We had to book a venue that was really far away from our office just to be able to accommodate the things we wanted, so you may need to keep flexibility in mind.
One of the biggest changes we’ve made is always looking for an outdoor location where employees will feel safe and avoid keeping large numbers of people between 4 walls with limited ventilation. This allows for a safer, less risky environment where it is easy for employees to keep their distance as much as they want and feel comfortable with without feeling comprised or forced to do anything they don’t want to.
Safety-wise, there were tons of precautions to consider. We had to think through all the CDC guidelines and protocols, which we compiled into a document that our employees would be asked to sign and acknowledge. GoCo has an HR Support Center as part of our offering, and we can get expert help from HR professionals, so we actually leveraged our own service to create guidelines under which people could attend or would be asked to stay home.
We loaded this into GoCo as a Magic Doc and shared it with employees who wanted to attend so they could see the guidelines (e.g. wear a mask, disclose symptoms, provide a negative COVID test, etc.) and acknowledge and e-sign it. Some of the precautions we took in efforts to comply with CDC recommendations included:
We introduced a color-coded wristband system where attendees could select green, yellow, or red to indicate their level of comfort in terms of distancing. So a red wristband indicated the person wants others to always stay six feet away. This gave people more confidence and clarity about how to respect and interact with others and vice versa.
One of the biggest challenges in holiday planning is making sure that your organization is compliant with all of the various regulations. This includes everything from labor laws to health regulations. If you are hosting an event, you also need to make sure that you are in compliance with any event planning regulations. And, of course, you need to make sure that your event is safe and secure.
We set up hand sanitizing stations and Clorox wipes stations for constant cleaning. It’s a good idea to hire someone for the event to clean as you go. If you’re screening for temperatures, disposable thermometers are also a great alternative to head-scanning thermometers.
In total, our event had about 40 people (a portion of our employees and a plus one), which was within our local guidelines for maximum gathering size. You should prioritize following local recommendations, so if you have more employees than the recommendations accommodate, consider skipping the in-person event, or breaking it up into smaller, team-based gatherings.
Ok, but what do you do when your team is remote? At GoCo, we have employees across the country and around the world, some of whom won’t be able to make every party. It’s our goal to make sure these team members know how much we appreciate them and everything they contribute to our culture. How can you make sure your virtual holiday party is one that your employees will actually enjoy? Here are a few tips to get you started.
There are employees who enjoy working remotely and have no interest in stepping inside of an office space for a party or to work. There is another group of employees who enjoy and thrive on social interaction in the office. This dynamic makes it difficult to plan parties that are inclusive and equitable. It’s important to keep in mind when planning parties to ensure that both groups of employees are included.
A virtual holiday party doesn’t have to be a stuffy affair. Our biggest piece of advice if you decide to go virtual is to not have a party that feels like another Zoom meeting. Parties should be fun, engaging, and enjoyable – everything that Zoom meetings are not.
There are lots of ways to do this, but some ideas include setting up virtual chat rooms for mingling, having employees submit photos or videos of their favorite holiday traditions, or even hosting a virtual gift exchange. Whatever you do, just make sure there are plenty of opportunities for people to interact with each other.
Everybody loves a fun theme party. One idea we considered was to do a virtual Olympics party, where we’d mail equipment like hula hoops to employees and then hold contests via Zoom, like who could hula hoop the longest or who could sit on a balloon and pop it the fastest. We loved this idea because it allowed employees to get a surprise gift in the mail, and catered to our team’s natural competitive spirit.
Virtual cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, and game shows also made it to our list. You can mail ingredients or wines to employees so everyone can participate, or create virtual teams and recreate game shows within Zoom.
If you prefer to keep it simple, you can always have food delivered to people’s homes (it’s not a party without food!) and get together for a simple virtual happy hour.
But sending something special is the ultimate key: you want people to get something out of the event instead of making them give up something (their time and energy) to it.
What seems best nowadays is to offer people the option of a party and have employees submit their preferences for attendance, be it in person or via meeting software such as Zoom.
Once an idea of the number of attendees is assessed, then it’s time to choose an appropriate venue. The challenge would be to choose one that would meet your company’s culture, so it may be best to inquire with employees the best places to choose.
Incorporating families and pets into the party is a great way to make it special. For example, I’m encouraging our team to consider doing virtual Santa visits with each family via Zoom for the holiday season. If Santa could have a gift arrive at the same time — even better!
Not everyone is in the mood for a holiday party, especially if they’re already feeling stressed about the end-of-year rush. So make sure your party is optional, and give employees the option to attend virtually or in person. That way, everyone can decide what’s right for them.
The holidays are all about spending time with loved ones and reflecting on the things that matter most. so use your remote holiday party as an opportunity to connect with your employees on a deeper level. Take some time to check in with everyone and see how they’re doing both personally and professionally. This is also a great opportunity to share your company’s values and reiterate why everyone loves working for your organization.
You want your employees to continue to feel connected to the company and their fellow co-workers, but you don’t always need a lavish party to do this. And you might just not want to add yet-another Zoom call to the calendar. A lot of holiday parties were canceled in 2020 and 2021, a trend we expect to continue this year.
If you’re considering this option, think about what you would have spent on a holiday party. Now, take that budget and reinvest it in holiday bonuses or care packages for your employees. A big selling point of a party is to give back to your employees, and a bonus or gift can achieve the same purpose — perhaps even exceed it for the introverts on your squad. Plus, all of your employees benefit from the gesture, not only those who are comfortable attending an in-person event right now.
Something cool we did in 2020 at the height of the pandemic was a Favorite Things Catalog. Each member of leadership picked a couple of things they loved or used heavily, and employees got to pick one item as their gift from the company. They ranged from a bottle of expensive champagne to a massage gift card, to a car washing kit, to a weighted blanket, and much more. This helped us show each team member that they are appreciated. It was meaningful for each employee, and allowed them to get to know their leadership team and what’s meaningful to them.
Whatever you choose to do to celebrate the year’s end, the most important thing is that you think about what makes your employees special and what they like to do, and tailor your gift or bonus to them.
It sounds crazy, but COVID-19 actually saved our holiday party. In the years leading up to COVID, our holiday party had started to die. Attendance and enthusiasm was dropping, and I take the blame for getting lazy in planning last-minute, boring parties. COVID, however, kicked my butt into gear to plan something bigger and better.
Since we went fully remote in 2020, our team members (who are pretty close on a personal level) hardly got to see each other. So the holiday party in 2020 gave us all an excuse to get together and catch up. We went all out in 2020 with an outdoor ski day and tailgate, and we had 100% attendance.
If COVID has taught me anything about holiday parties, it’s that they shouldn’t be taken for granted. It shouldn’t be some impromptu potluck. Holiday parties are about connecting with team members on a personal level, celebrating the year’s accomplishments and having fun.
Your options for planning a holiday party will vary depending on your local conditions, the size of your workforce, and the opinions of your employees. The most important thing you can do is to be open-minded and think outside the traditional party to ensure employees stay safe and feel appreciated.