What to Consider When Planning 2021 Staff Holiday Parties

In 2020, many shifted their office holiday parties to virtual due to the pandemic. With vaccines widely available, but COVID-19 variants surfacing, experts say organizations are considering smaller in-person gatherings, virtual events, and hybrid options for 2021.

For years, office holiday parties have been a year-end staple. Last year, the pandemic caused some organizations to forego them after a financially difficult year or to convert them to virtual. This year, with the vaccine prevalent, associations have a variety of options for holiday parties. The key is considering what will work best for your organization.

“Customize to the culture of the company,” said J. Gerald Suarez, Ph.D., a professor of practice in systems thinking and design at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business. “Do things that reinforce the values of the company, that reinforce the vibe you want to create.”

Associations that are still virtual might err on the side of a virtual party, while those who are in person or going back soon might opt for a hybrid or face-to-face gathering.

This is what Elissa Jessup, a knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management, has seen when it comes to holiday parties. “There seems to be a trend with smaller organizations having in-person holiday parties, and then larger employers either offering hybrid or continuing with virtual holiday parties,” she said.

Additionally, the event needs to have purpose. “It’s no longer about food and booze, and let’s see what happens,” Suarez said. “It’s more about: how can we leverage the gathering? How can we have a bigger purpose, a bigger meaning out of these gatherings?”

Considerations for In Person

For organizations opting for face-to-face gatherings, it’s important to make sure there are safety protocols in place.

“Some considerations are COVID testing prior to the party, health screenings, masking while not eating or drinking, and social distancing,” Jessup said. “If outdoor settings are an option, organizations are doing that. If not, they’re looking for larger venues to allow for greater social distancing, as well as limiting party attendance. That could either mean employees only or only allowing one guest per employee.”

Some groups also view in person as a chance to set the tone for the year ahead. “Having a party in person is a signal that we are making progress,” Suarez said. “That it is OK to have fun; it is OK to engage.”

Whatever an association plans for an in-person event, be mindful that this is a fluid situation. I spoke to Suarez prior to Thanksgiving and news of the omicron variant, and he said, presciently, “I would maintain a sense of flexibility because, frankly, we may be a variant away from having to make dramatic changes to whatever plans we had.”

Virtual and Hybrid

For those considering virtual and hybrid options, make sure the event is interactive. Last year’s virtual parties, according to Jessup and Suarez, tended to be less-structured and not go over well. This year, organizations want to fix that.

“I have heard they are trying to make it more engaging,” Jessup said. “They’re getting more specific and having it be more engaging, whether that’s getting a Secret Santa or holiday trivia, Bingo, things like that. Something other than everyone just staring at each other.”

Suarez found the same, noting organizations are “helping people participate in activities where they add value to their lives, where they learn something, where they are exposed to a class of some sort that they can do with others, and can participate in an activity that builds a team, that is fun to engage in, but nonrelated to work.”

Because many groups have staff who are comfortable being in person and some who aren’t, they are hosting hybrid events. This new holiday party type requires some thought. Jessup said some groups are doing synchronous parties, where virtual attendees can interact with the in-person event, while others are hosting separate events.

Suarez thinks it makes more sense to have separate events. “When you do it simultaneously—in person and virtual—it becomes hard to really integrate,” he said. “It is better to keep them separate.”

Other Options

And while the above options are the most common, Jessup said some are going nontraditional. “They aren’t having traditional celebrations,” she said. “They are sending gifts instead—gift cards or gift baskets or additional time off for the holidays.”

Ultimately, whatever option an association selects should be a combination of organizational goals and staff wants. “It can help to survey employees and see what they’re actually interested in,” Jessup said. “Do they want a holiday party? Would they rather just have a gift card? Try to assess what employees value as important.”

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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