Workplace Expert: COVID-Safe Company Holiday Party Ideas and Why Celebrating is Significant

If the idea of adding another Zoom call with colleagues seems unappealing, don’t underestimate the value of a bit of holiday cheer, says management professor Vijaya Venkataramani at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. This year, we need it more than ever, she says.

“This is the time that you shouldn’t skip the office party,” says Venkataramani, who studies relationships at work and how people and teams benefit from them. “After this year that’s had crazy, unprecedented challenges, we’re all wanting to find something to celebrate.”

So, make the effort, she says.

Even if it’s not a big organization-wide party, any celebration is an opportunity for leaders and managers to give thanks to team members for their resilience in 2020. An end-of-year holiday celebration is a way of bringing the team together to reflect on what you’ve achieved together and help to envision another year going forward, because, at least to start, it’s going to be like this year. Venkataramani’s past research has looked into how team-building activities help people identify with each other and better understand the team’s goals.

“This is one opportunity to appreciate all your employees for their hard work and show them that they are valued and they’ve done really well, despite all the challenges that they’ve faced,” she says.

Maybe just a thank-you gift and the afternoon off?

The team-building aspect of a holiday celebration is important, says Venkataramani. It’s an opportunity for much-needed bonding, because right now, we don’t have water-cooler conversations and lunch outings.

“You’re not just efficient because you do your task, it’s also because you have relationships with people, you trust others, you know what they mean when they say something,” she says. “We have to have a chance to not talk about work at all and just get to know each other as normal human beings and not just as colleagues who work on a project together. A festive atmosphere can do that.”

Obviously, the celebration also needs to be about having fun, she says.

Do I really have to participate?

“There are so many different things that you can do,” she says.

If your group is small, you could plan a socially distant outdoor activity, such as a scavenger hunt, a round of golf or a hike. “I’ve heard of some teams meeting up to watch a movie together outdoors, enjoy wine-tasting or have a picnic outdoors,” says Venkataramani, who recently hosted a few colleagues for a socially distant outdoor dinner.

Try to get buy-in from the team on the activity in advance, says Venkataramani. Consider a democratic process and organize an activity that the majority agrees on.

But – especially if you plan something in-person – know that not everyone will want to participate.

“If some people are feeling uncomfortable, definitely give them a pass,” she says. “That’s the case with any get-together – not everybody goes.”

Please don’t make me sing.

Venkataramani says she’s heard a lot of different ideas for virtual group celebrations this year, from online trivia, to Zoom karaoke night, to a secret-santa gift exchange (2020-style: everyone sends an anonymous gift to a coworker via Amazon Prime). “What works will depend on the norms you have in the team,” she says.

Yonathan Berhanu knows how to make these parties work. Berhanu is the vice president of community development and social value for Smith’s MBA Association – “Unofficially, it’s basically the social chair position,” he says. The second-year MBA student has been planning weekly social events for the Smith MBAs since spring 2020, often working with MBA clubs as hosts. He’s had to come up with a virtual manual for booking events, which typically take place on Thursday evenings. Pre-pandemic they were usually happy hour gatherings.

Here’s his advice:

Do something different. “You need to give people a reason to show up,” Berhanu says. A run-of-the-mill Zoom social – asking people to log on, bring their own drink and be ready to chat – doesn’t work. “We’re already spending so much time in front of the screen, so you really have to do a good event.”

Try some healthy competition. Berhanu says the events that have worked best with the MBA crowd have had an element of team-based competition. The MBA Association recently hosted an Eygyptian-themed murder-mystery event, where teams worked together to solve a crime. They also hosted a Treasure Mountain virtual escape room event this fall. Both were well-attended and fun, he says. And winners got $25 gift cards.

Leave the planning to the pros. “Not only is it less work for you, they are also better at it,” says Berhanu, who worked with Teambuilding.com to host the virtual murder-mystery event. “They bring an energy and enthusiasm that makes the whole experience.”

In the works now is a gingerbread house decorating contest, where Teambuilding will send participants supply kits in advance.

Most professionally organized events have a per-person cost (Teambuilding.com events generally range between $30-$60 per person). AirBnB also offers tons of online experiences, some with a lower per-person price, including cooking classes, cocktail-making demonstrations, scavenger hunts, and cultural tours.

Send invites early. Berhanu recommends giving people a lot of advanced notice to plan for the event, and sending follow-up reminders.

Try new technology. It’s not all Zoom. There are other communications platforms and apps for social activities, like playing games together online. The MBAs have used Airmeet, which allows participants to create avatars and move around in a virtual space, going from table to table to talk to people. “It does an amazing job of replicating the in-person experience much better for people,” Berhanu says.

Whatever you do to celebrate this year, remember how important it is for your team to come together for something other than work right now, says Venkataramani. “The whole point of these celebrations is to give employees some sense of appreciation for the work they’ve done. It’s not for the leaders – it’s for the employees to feel valued and have fun together.”