Office holiday parties are transformed this year

To put it mildly, no one feels much like celebrating 2020.

Between public health, economic and unemployment crises, office holiday parties - which face mixed reactions in the best of times - are less of a priority than ever during the coronavirus pandemic. Although 75% to 80% of U.S. businesses hosted holiday gatherings in 2019, that proportion has nearly inverted in 2020, with only 23% of employers planning to hold celebrations, according to surveys by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. A LinkedIn survey of more than 3,000 members found 68% of employers planning no celebrations, with 32% planning virtual gatherings, extra paid time off or other rewards.

Among employers holding celebrations, a few seem determined to stick with traditional indoor parties despite the high risk of sending guests and staff home with unwanted microscopic party favors. As one reader reports:

"I work at a school that has been in person, full capacity with just one confirmed case of COVID. I fear that we're getting complacent though, as my principal just announced that our tradition of December potlucks will continue as usual, because we "just can't survive without it." I'll be walking by the smells of a tantalizing feast each day, terrified to eat from shared crockpots and bags of chips."

But for most, holiday gatherings this year will be health- and cost-conscious:

"My small, tightknit team is planning a video meetup. Budgets are tight, but we've gotten approval to send a small dessert treat to everyone's home. We'll get together to have a chat and something sugary, then we'll end the day early. It's nothing like the nice meal out we'd normally have, but we're hoping it will let people relax a little bit."

"Our state government agency generally has an annual awards banquet off-site in December. This year we will be celebrating with catered box lunches at work in our own cubicles. Once we weather this, things can go back to normal - if we are all still here. That's the prize I'm keeping my eye on."

And some are celebrating with rewards, rather than gatherings:

"When I became supervisor, among the benefits I promised my staff was a day off instead of forced conversation and bad food. This year I plan to email everyone in my department a $20 gift card to a local pizzeria so they can enjoy dinner on me on their own time."

"We are being shipped 'limited edition' company logo blankets and each got $50 added to our merch accounts to buy company-branded clothing." (I guess it's the (trademarked) thought that counts? - Karla)

Despite my cynical predictions, Zoom fatigue hasn't completely destroyed everyone's appetite for online work gatherings.

"People are trying to emulate what they've done in the past, a cocktail party atmosphere where the CEO makes an inspirational speech," says Michael Alexis, CEO of event-planning company "But they're also realizing they need a really strong element of engagement."

When the pandemic all but eliminated demand for his company's off-kilter museum tours and guacamole-making contests, Alexis shifted his business model online. Now his team hosts 90-minute Zoom holiday parties featuring trivia contests, virtual gift swaps, and games such as "Gingerbread Wars." Instead of paying for party hosts to travel and transport party supplies to employers' sites, the company's costs now go primarily to Zoom fees and shipping party kits and prizes to attendees' homes. And while hosts previously could run maybe two events per day in person, now they can host as many as four or five online, turning a gig into something more like a full-time job. That, Alexis says, means more paid hours and benefits for his party hosts - many of them actors, comedians and other performers whose day jobs in arts and entertainment disappeared in the pandemic.

And how are the virtual gatherings going over with employees? Alexis shares this testimonial from a participant: "For 90 minutes I forgot everything that's going on in the world right now." Which, if you ask me, is as good as it gets.

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