Work

How Do You Hold an Office Holiday Party During a Pandemic?

A laptop with three different faces on it, eating chocolate, having a cocktail, opening a gift, etc.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

Usually at this time of year, my inbox fills up with questions about company holiday parties: How many drinks are OK to have there? Should I bring a date? Do I really have to go at all?

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This year, the questions are quite different, and nearly all are some variation of “What do we even do for the holidays in a pandemic?” Many employers are simply canceling holiday celebrations, since there’s no way to safely gather. But some employers have devised celebrations that will keep people safe and actually sound fun (even to this curmudgeon). I recently asked Ask a Manager readers to share how their teams are observing the holidays in lieu of in-person parties this year, and it turns out companies have gotten really creative. Here’s some of what people reported.

Cocktail-Making Kits

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, drinking seems to be quite popular this year, and some companies have figured out how to incorporate it into remote events. Just be sure to offer nonalcoholic options too:

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We had a celebration that even I (a person averse to holiday parties and Zoom calls) liked. In advance we were all given a link to a store that sells cocktail making kits. They had a selection that included non-alcoholic mixes too (like a ginger lemonade). At checkout the price was zero and you couldn’t even enter a tip.

The packages were delivered to our doors in the afternoon of our event. We had a Zoom meeting were a bartender showed how to mix each drink using the provided measuring cup, and answered questions about how to make a good martini, what to substitute for white eggs in pisco sour, etc. After the bartender presentation (which was short) everybody got to chat and enjoy their drinks for some time before saying goodbye. The cups were all the same so no one could tell what you were drinking unless you commented on it. I didn’t even stay until the end and used half the amount of tequila in my margarita because I’m not used to drinking, but it was a lot of fun, we all learned something and had a good laugh.

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You can even turn your staff into the bartending experts:

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We had a “party” earlier this year where there was one big Zoom call, and then we broke out into a set of breakout rooms where colleagues had volunteered to teach others how to make their favorite cocktail. You signed up for your preferred one beforehand and received a list of ingredients, then once the drinks were made, people came back to the big room and there were a couple of facilitated games and stuff (like trivia). Also, of the “cocktails” on offer, there were a few non-alcoholic punch ideas, for people who don’t drink or who wanted to share with a kid, etc.

Coffee and Chocolate Tastings

It doesn’t have to be cocktail focused. Coffee or tea tastings work as well:

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We had a virtual coffee tasting where they sent those who RSVP’d a free AeroPress and some coffees and had a coffee expert walk them through the different kinds over Zoom. Doesn’t necessarily have to be alcohol or coffee—you could do a juice tasting, or maybe a food tasting.

Or, for now and for always, chocolate:

We are doing a virtual chocolate tasting with my team. The chocolate tasting person is mailing out the tasting kits to all of us and will lead us through the tasting via Zoom. I cannot wait.

Gift Boxes

Themed gift boxes are another popular idea:

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We’re sending winter-y stay-at-home gift boxes. Wool socks, very plushy fleece blankets, playing cards, mugs, etc. I also hired a local small business to make some custom iced cookies for us. She had such a creative way for putting a holiday spin on our corporate branding, and they’re going to be a big hit!

We do a Champagne toast at our holiday party every year, and there’s some rumors about mini bottles being shipped out for a Zoom toast, but I’m not sure!

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You can even use it as a way to support local businesses:

We were able to do family meals for our employees. We’re working with local restaurants (some minority-owned) to provide cold reheatable family meals that our employees will take home to enjoy with their family. It’s a way for us to provide food and a “gathering” without being on-site and in groups.

Remote Gift Exchanges

If your office normally does Secret Santa or Yankee Swap gift exchanges, you can keep it going this year too. Websites like Elfster or DrawNames will organize the whole process for you, letting you set a gift budget and providing space for participants to share their wish lists:

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I worked in a fully remote environment last holiday season, and this had been a tradition for several years, though it was entirely opt-in. We also had a really strict limit for spending, like $20. A few more things that made it special:

• The best part about it was everyone participating posting a small list of likes and dislikes—we all got to know each other better through reading those lists and connect over shared interest.

• We also had a gift wrapping contest as part of it—we were a creative bunch with lots of backgrounds in the arts, so some gifts were a person making a donation to a charity in the recipient’s honor, but making a video that fit their interest to share that with them, or a homemade puzzle, or other similar “fun” announcements.

• We’d have the “holiday party” on Zoom, where folks would open what they had received from their gift giver. We’d all ooooh and ahhh, and laugh.

• Then, after that, we had the opportunity to go into breakout rooms—last year, one room did Schitt’s Creek trivia (it was a favorite among many staffers), another did Pictionary using the “annotate” functions of Zoom.

And of course folks could also just log off if they wanted to, with no pressure to spend the rest of the day working.

Craft Sessions

I’ve gotten a lot of reports of teams doing remote crafting sessions together—often around seasonal themes, like gingerbread houses:

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Our office is planning two optional events. One is a gingerbread house session where they’ll send you the kit, walk you through assembly, and then you can decorate with the provided candy and icing or your own. Then there will be a contest with prizes for best house, most creative house, house that looks like the before pic on a HGTV show, etc.

The second event is a winter wreath demo where again supplies are sent to people’s houses and you can follow along with the demo and put a non-denominational winter wreath together. 

I sort of roll my eyes at these, but they did a pumpkin carving contest earlier in the fall and people got very very VERY into it, and someone offered to lead a “how to make the perfect apple pie” for Thanksgiving and the voluntary sign-up had over 500 people. We’re hearing from some people that while it’s not for everyone, having three hours on a Friday afternoon to do something fun together is really appreciated so we’re providing it for those who like/need it.

Drive-Thrus and Drive-Ins

Here’s a way to see people in-person from the safety of your cars:

Our company has had a couple of drive-through events set up in the parking lot of the main company campus. Instead of the usual tables and activities, they had booths set up where treats were handed through the window. Not my cup of tea but a lot of people seemed to like it!

And another:

Our division is doing a holiday drive-in movie and renting out a drive-in theater for the evening. I won’t be able to attend as COVID-19 gave me the chance to move out of state and go full-time remote, but I actually think it’s a great idea. People are encouraged to bring family (which is not something we typically can do with these events) and I would have loved this even before the “new normal.” I’m kind of bummed I’m going to be missing out on this one actually.

Multiple Choice

As anyone who’s tried to organize any office activity knows, it’s hard, if not impossible, to find something that everyone will like, so some offices are offering a whole buffet of choices to pick from:

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My company couldn’t find an online activity that worked for 40 people, so they’re offering a few different options. Everybody got to sign up for whichever they liked best:

• Online beer tasting (they ship the beer to your house, and then you taste it on Zoom with an expert telling you what you’re tasting)

• Online tea tasting (same)

• Smartphone photography class

• Escape room

• Holiday-themed quiz

If they’d just put an extra $100 in my paycheck and said we can’t have a party this year so get yourself a nice treat, I’d have appreciated that too.

Charity

Happily, I’ve heard lots of versions of this choice as well:

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My company is taking the money that would be used for the holiday party (usually a sit-down dinner with open bar) and is donating it instead to a local charity. They’ve asked us what charities we’d recommend. Honestly, I’m really pleased with this decision over trying to make a Zoom party happen.

Time Off

Offering extra time off pretty much never goes amiss, especially at this time of year:

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In lieu of bonuses and parties and all sorts of things, my employer is just closing for the week in between Christmas and New Year’s and giving everyone the time off—it’s been a hit, because that’s usually a huge use of vacation days for folks.

Not every office can shut down for a full week, but even just an afternoon off usually goes over well:

Our end-of-year celebration is usually a big lunch and then we get the rest of the afternoon off. This year, they’re sending a food related gift to our homes and giving us the afternoon off. We’re all pretty pumped about it.

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