Most years, the company holiday party is a chance to do everything from witness your boss getting a little too drunk and making a heartfelt, misty-eyed speech to maybe catch a glimpse of your coworkers’ significant others. Even if you’ve never been to a company holiday party, you know what they’re like thanks to television shows making the annual event a common trope. Throughout its nine seasons, The Office showed us many different ways holiday get-togethers can devolve into an awkward mess, and in Mad Men, office parties were an excuse for everyone to get even drunker than usual. At one memorable work fete, a secretary rides a lawnmower through the office and, well, let’s just say that enough blood gets spilled that watching this episode is certainly enough to turn you off from work parties for good.
But, there will be few, if any wild holiday party hijinks this year. In a study of 189 companies across industries conducted by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, only 23% said they would be marking the end of the year in some way. Among that 23%, almost three quarters said it would be some kind of virtual event — through Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, or whatever the company’s video conferencing program of choice may be.
“Since we can’t safely host our normal holiday party, we’re planning on a virtual celebration complete with customized gift baskets for each employee,” says Jenna Saponaro, chief of staff at marketing agency Postali. “We've partnered with a local courier service who will deliver the baskets within a two-hour time frame while we're having our virtual party. We'll have time set aside for the team to meet in small groups — as if they were mingling at an actual party — and then we'll also spend some time as an entire group, and throughout the evening, the team will be answering their doorbells to a surprise gift, which will also include their end-of-year bonus checks.”
But there’s also, understandably, a lot of Zoom fatigue by now. It doesn’t matter how great your internet connection is — video chatting just isn’t the same as face-to-face socializing, and sitting at home in front of your computer is a far cry from a party at a venue where there’s a DJ and a dance floor.
In light of this, some companies are refocusing on what might be the best alternative to a holiday party for their employees. “Normally we do have an office party, and being a company of only 30-40 people, it wasn't very hard to get everyone together or invite plus-ones for a formal dinner,” says Sarah Sherren, who works at product and service review site Best Company. “This year, however, our CEO has just decided to give every employee paid leave from Christmas through the New Year. I love a good holiday party, but honestly, giving paid time off for employees to celebrate however they can or want is much nicer than making small talk with coworkers I don't know very well.”
Elizabeth, 20, works as a paralegal in Kansas City and is also happy about the pivot her workplace is making this year. “They’re sending all of us turkeys to our house!” she says. “In the years I've been with the company, they’ve always been very generous — think year-end bonuses and bonuses when we hit certain sales milestones — but they’ve never given us turkeys before.” She notes that she’s definitely not a fan of Zoom parties.
Terry, 29, works in marketing in Denver. “We're an employee-owned company, so it was decided as a group that in place of a party we’re using our budget to give everyone a gift card for the holidays. I feel like this was a safe and equitable alternative,” she says. “My partner jokes that I’m always getting free money from my work. We have a designated budget for employee engagement and spot bonuses for safety — so it’s not uncommon to have some sort of gift card program circulating.”
Like others, Terry doesn’t particularly enjoy Zoom get-togethers. “The sales team tries to loop in marketing on a weekly celebration call, but it usually turns to venting and I often have to skip it because of my work deadlines. I'm okay with that.”
And while many people seem to agree that Zoom parties are lacklustre, in-person work parties can be a minefield of awkwardness or bad behaviour. Rachel, 28, works in politics in Chicago. “Our boss gave everyone gifts and clearly gave better gifts, and more gifts, to people he liked more,” she recalls of the worst work holiday party she attended.
Mallory, 29, currently works in social media in New York City. “A few years ago, I was working at a PR agency and we all went out for dinner and karaoke,” she says. “My boss got super hammered and kept pressuring everyone to go to the bathroom and do coke. A few girls I worked with gave in and did it. I refused and left early, and I felt hardcore judged for months. I only stayed for about six months after that. My boss, although a nice person, was not financially savvy and eventually blew through all of her parents' money, which she was using to fund the business.”
All this leads to the question of whether we should have holiday office parties even when the pandemic is over. Could they, like fax machines, become a workplace relic? What purpose do they really serve — and how could they evolve?
Erica Keswin, a workplace strategist who has written a book on the importance of workplace rituals called Rituals Roadmap: The Human Way to Transform Everyday Routines into Workplace Magic, believes that they do still serve a purpose — when they’re done the right way. She points out that the end-of-year work celebration “is a time for many organizations to have people come together and bring a significant other. I think that was a big part of it — we're keeping your person here, they're working all the time and we want to thank you as well. It’s to create an additional bond with the broader family, because they know that to get the person that works there really focused, you need to have a support system around that person.”
This may be a part of why work parties can be so discomfiting. The point is to help you bond, to welcome a part of work into your personal life and vice versa, but that’s not something we necessarily want to do. Before COVID-19, the boundary between work and home for most people was physically distinct. Our commutes weren’t just about bridging the physical distance between home and work, but were also about transitioning in body and spirit from one space to the other. Many of us want that delineation, because it helps set up a healthy boundary between the personal and the professional. But the essence of the work party is an uncomfortable union of the two dominant compartments of your life: your work self and your “real” self.
A resistance to these worlds colliding is why some people maintain a solid border between friends and work-friends. “It's nice to be able to have close coworkers, but I firmly keep them in the coworker sphere,” says Rachel. Terry agrees that there are limits to a coworker friendship. “I have good work relationships built on trust, but I wouldn't share anything too personal,” she says. “I’m very careful about what I share — for instance, I would never share with a coworker that I’m in therapy. I’m not embarrassed or ashamed, I just like having a divide between my professional and personal life and having parts of me that are just for me.”
A survey of 3,000 people by Olivet Nazarene University found that 41% of people categorized those they worked with simply as “coworkers,” while 20% said they were “only-at-work friends.” Only 15% answered that some of their coworkers were “real friends.” And yet, while some of us may keep our work relationships at a distance, it’s undeniable that during quarantine we’ve been lonely and longing for more connection, not less.
“I personally have been someone that has developed, over the years, real friendships at work,” says Keswin. “Many of us spend more time at work than we do at home, which is why so many people are so lonely right now.” This is why bonding rituals that bring emotional honesty to your coworker relationships can be so crucial — whether it’s a holiday party or otherwise.
She notes that, this year, more companies are looking to ensure that their holiday celebrations really express their values, and the sincerity of their appreciation for employees. The general lack of enthusiasm people show for work parties is a chance to “rethink everything about the way we work.” In terms of holiday parties, that might mean respecting people’s time by scheduling the event during work hours — not at 9pm on a weeknight — and keeping it fairly short.
“One company I spoke to said, ‘How do we involve the family?’” says Keswin. “Let’s hire a virtual Santa to read to the kids in a breakout room, so that employees don’t have to hire a babysitter to come to their virtual holiday.”
A company could also “celebrate” the holidays by communicating their values through a well-placed gift to a charity or other organization for social good. Especially given that companies can’t throw an expensive in-person party this year anyway, “Why not use that budget to do something that's better for the world?” says Keswin. It would set a positive example for employees and help reinforce that, hey, you’re actually working for a decent place that puts its money where its mouth is.
“[We] want to feel connected to people,” she says. “Rituals give us what I call the three Ps: psychological safety, purpose, and both of those together give us a boost of performance. ‘Performance’ can mean that we feel better emotionally [while working], which will give us that sense of belonging that people are craving.”
“One of the things I talk about and have been thinking about a lot recently is the importance of matching the message to the medium,” says Keswin. That means if you’re serious about connecting and communicating a message to your employees, Zoom just can’t be the sole medium through which you deliver that message. People will get tired, both physically and mentally. “It has a diminishing return in terms of connection,” she says. She suggests creating a diversity of ways to connect. “Have a Slack channel and connect on your favorite NBA team, or pictures of your dog or pictures of your kids. Have certain days where you're talking to somebody on the phone.”
One of the chapters of Keswin’s upcoming book focuses on a concept called “eatings” — like meetings, but meetings where you eat together over video chat during these isolated times. She cites online course provider Udemy, which has a ritual called “lunch roulette,” in which people could sign up to be randomly matched with colleagues to have lunch with a different group of people every other Thursday. “[Udemy] shared with me that people miss this ritual so much that they adapted it for COVID,” Keswin says.
She says that “lunch roulette” highlights the key to what makes rituals different from just a habit. “Not every lunch on Zoom is a ritual,” she says. “There's a higher level of intention and purpose around why they're doing it to begin with.” It sets the tone for the company’s values and culture, and it also brings a routine into your workflow that consistently nurtures your work relationships.
While Keswin believes that post-COVID, we’ll see a permanent move away from spending so much time in the office, she says that the pandemic WFH era has been manageable in large part because we knew our colleagues and managers beforehand. “We have been living off the relationship capital that we have built over the years,” she says. “You have all these colleagues that you can vent to and laugh with and bond with because you're home — but you're able to do that more effectively because you know them from the office.”
In the end, a work holiday party is — like a family holiday party — about fostering your interpersonal relationships. “If it were what I would want [this year]? I would want people to come together and hear from leaders,” Keswin says. “Leaders should use this opportunity to give a state of the union, address the company, and really have this be a moment of gratitude, to thank people for what they've done.” That appreciation could take the form of being sent a Thanksgiving meal on the company’s dime or getting extra vacation days to recover from burnout — anything as long as it’s not another Zoom call.