How to Plan a Company Holiday Party During COVID-19

Parties aren’t completely off the table this year, but companies will have extra precautions and challenges to consider.

by Sarah Koller, SHRM-CP. People Operations Manager @ GoCo

With the end of 2020 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, amid the pandemic. 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 ongoing pandemic, employee health and safety is a greater priority than ever, while morale and mental-health are trending toward all-time lows. 

Last month, GoCo’s leadership team and I set out to host a socially-distanced off-site employee event, and were overwhelmed with all the considerations that went into planning an event that would be safe and inclusive for our employees. We knew we needed to do something for employee morale, but we struggled to find a way to bring employees together without compromising their safety.

We considered three main options from the beginning:

  • Option #1: Hosting a corporate party in person
  • Option #2: Having a virtual company party
  • Option #3: Skipping the party altogether in favor of something else to boost morale and employee engagement 

Every HR team will need to decide what’s best for their unique situation. In partnership with our marketing and leadership teams, we explored which option made the most sense for our business. Here’s a list of important considerations and tips that helped us plan a safe and successful 2020 off-site corporate event!

How can companies make an informed decision about whether to host a holiday party?

Every holiday party has a goal, usually engagement or employee appreciation, and I think that’s always the best place to start. Given how COVID has reshaped so much of the way we interact in 2020, companies should do the following: 

Find Out Whether a Holiday Party is Important to the Employees

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 recently 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.

Gauge Employee Interest

At GoCo, we started planning with an anonymous survey throughout the company to gauge interest, while making it clear that the event, if it happened at all, 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). With regional differences in positivity rates, I think it’s key to pay attention to what’s transpiring in your local area to help guide the decision. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of places in the United States right now where positivity rates are low, so for most, an in-person event might be out of the question. 

Path #1: Hosting an In-Person, Socially-Distanced Party: Tips for Planning a Safe Holiday Celebration

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:

What components of an event are most important in these times and what are the extra COVID precautions that need to be taken? 

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 backwards 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. This is also something that a lot of people are probably missing right now, since bars are closed and people aren’t going out for karaoke night. So 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.

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.

What logistical considerations are there in having a socially distant party in person, and what extra precautions need to be addressed because of COVID?

The pandemic created a number of logistical challenges, many of which were unforeseen until the planning started. Here are a handful considerations that impacted our event:

Choosing a Location and Vendors

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, just about anything you’d need for an in-person event. Many vendors are doing virtual-only right now, so it takes some creativity to plan 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 need to keep flexibility in mind.

Following CDC Guidelines and Local Recommendations

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:

  • Planning an outdoor event to minimize potential COVID-19 transmission rates
  • Enforcing and respecting social distancing measures/maintaining a 6-foot distance from others
  • Requiring a face covering unless actively eating or drinking
  • Providing hand sanitizing stations throughout the event space and sanitizing hands upon entry
  • Conducting health screenings for symptoms as a condition for entering the event
  • Offering guidance around safety outside of the event per CDC guidelines
  • Asking attendees to e-sign and acknowledge a COVID-19 safety waiver in the GoCo platform

Download the exact template we used for our waiver ⬇️

Prioritize Others’ Comfort Level

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 around how to respect and interact with others and vice versa. 

Here are the wristbands we used for our event

Focus on Cleanliness

We set up hand sanitizing stations and Clorox wipes stations for constant cleaning. It’s a good idea to hire someone for your event to clean as you go. If you’re screening for temperatures, disposable thermometers are also a great alternative to head-scanning thermometers. 

Limit Party Attendance

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. 

Path #2: Host a Virtual Party: How Can You Celebrate Remotely?

Knowing how to plan a virtual party is likely to become a top HR skill by year’s end. Here are a few best practices that can make it fun and engaging. 

Make it Different than a Zoom Meeting

My 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. 

Choose a Theme

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 on 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.

Include Families

I also think that 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! 

Path #3: Skip the Party – What Can Companies Do Instead?

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. 

I expect a lot of holiday parties to be canceled 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. 

As an example, I’m obsessed with some of the corporate-branded care packages that you can build with MerchBox by Merchology, and these yummy treats from Spoonful of Comfort. Whatever you choose, 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. 

In short, 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.

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