After a year that has upended work life for millions of Americans, many companies are still keen to show appreciation for their employees with a holiday party.
But with the pandemic still raging across the US and budgets tight, this year the sometimes loved, sometimes loathed festive tradition is getting a socially distanced online makeover.
Virtual party activities range from the straightforward, such as a keynote address by a guest speaker or a festive networking session, to the elaborate – in the form of wine tasting, cooking lessons with Michelin-starred chefs and guided ugly sweater making competitions.
Some companies are booking virtual reality venues where employees can move around as avatars, watch performances and interact with other guests.
While most are going online, some workplaces – including the White House – are sticking to in-person parties, despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines warning of the risks of doing so. Jenna Ellis, a legal adviser to Donald Trump, reportedly tested positive for coronavirus after attending a staff Christmas party at the White House on Friday.
Lisa Frydenlund, an HR knowledge adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) said parties will look very different this year, with most interactions virtual, and that companies are having to “become more creative”.
“There’s just a whole lot more thought about how do we celebrate the end of the year in a very challenging year and how do we acknowledge our employees? So it is changing from what the norm was,” she said.
With constrained budgets and amid huge numbers of layoffs, she expects many will bypass a party all together, or postpone until next year, while others will instead opt to give presents or gift cards to their employees, put aside time for volunteering or give them additional time off.
JoAnn Gregoli said her events company Elegant Occasions is organising corporate Zoom parties featuring mixologists, cookie baking classes and virtual “paint and sips” – where guests are sent painting supplies and a bottle of wine.
But some of her clients are still hosting in-person events, including a party at an outdoor skating rink in New York with hot chocolate stations and boxed meals and a drive-in concert with food trucks.
Philip MacGregor, of high-end events company Ron Wendt Design, said several of their corporate clients have held Zoom events, including a cooking lesson by a Michelin-starred chef and a sommelier-run wine tasting. Guests are sent all the ingredients beforehand.
Other online Christmas party services include Scratch Goods in Chicago, which runs virtual face mask parties, and Unexpected Virtual Tours in Atlanta, which said it has been inundated with requests for its ugly sweater events.
But amid “Zoom fatigue”, others are turning to new platforms.
Networking app Upstream recently launched a “holiday mixer” service that tries to mimic attending an in-person event with festive music and emojis where guests can chat in the virtual lobby before getting matched with others for one-on-one breakout sessions.
Co-founder and chief executive Alex Taub said the format, whose users include General Electric, is especially good for introverts “because you only have to talk to one person at a time”.
Marketing platform Event Farm has created an entire virtual event space which companies can book to host parties where guests can interact and “attend” events such as live comedy or cooking classes with a celebrity chef.
Payment service PayPal, meanwhile, has built its own platform to host a 29-hour virtual party for employees around the world to tune into when they want with magic shows, origami, cooking workshops and live performances. They will be able to “tap” colleagues on the shoulder to chat and take photos.
But with the US workforce suffering from increased stress, isolation, anxiety and depression, the prospect of more screen time could be seen as more of a chore than a celebration.
“The idea of adding yet another virtual meeting, even if it is a holiday party, may not be particularly appealing to many employees,” said Bradford S Bell, director of the Centre for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell University.
“At the same time, one of the main challenges for many employees has been an increased sense of isolation … Holiday parties can serve as a way to connect employees socially, and in a way that is not directly work related.”
Nir Eyal, behavioural expert and author of Indistractable, said virtual holiday parties serve an important role during the pandemic.
“If we don’t have some kind of signpost or mile marker in our life to say this is an occasion, we have reached this point together, then it kind of all becomes meaningless in a way,” said Eyal, who has been invited to be a keynote speaker at several virtual company parties.
Erica Keswin, a workplace strategist and author of Rituals Roadmap, said if done thoughtfully, a virtual party can offer people a sense of psychological safety.
“It’s a feeling of, ‘You know what, this year was unlike any other year but we’re going to be OK’ and bringing people together for that reason, to make them feel that.”
She said many companies are making their events more inclusive by holding events in the daytime and including family and housemates.
Rather than killing off the festive tradition, she said coronavirus and post-pandemic working practices could make it even more important as a corporate institution.
“I actually think there’s going to be more meaning around the times that we do come together because the remote work is not going away.”