How to Reinvent the Office Holiday Party This Year

Spoiler alert: the ugly Christmas sweater is here to stay.

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

office holiday party

Happy Box offers themed, customizable gift boxes with experiences that groups can share in, virtually — like making hot toddies. The Hot Toddy gift box includes cocktail syrup, garnish, honey, and a stemless glass.

This month, teams are celebrating the holiday season much like they spent the rest of their year — online. But with more options available than ever and an extra dose of creativity, making virtual festivities, well, more festive, is proving more than doable.

office holiday party

Nonprofit charity My Very Own Blanket donates personalized blankets to children in foster care. Groups can host their own blanket-making holiday party virtually.

Paypal is celebrating with a 29-hour virtual holiday party marathon. Online event platform Hopin asked employees to dress up as their dream vacation, according to PowerToFly’s blog, as well as share a personal tradition through a virtual exhibit booth using their own platform. Some are finding ways to give back. Discover the Palm Beaches is currently running a virtual event series where planners and hotel partners make personalized blankets for children in foster care.

Lee Gimpel, founder and principal of Better Meetings, says that this kind of interactive approach makes for a more successful result than the typical Zoom-with-drinks approach. Holiday parties are “largely about bonding, even if [they’re] not advertised as a teambuilding event,” he said. Earlier this month, Gimpel ran ASAE’s virtual holiday party. He packed the experience with several activities — some big and some small — to get attendees to talk and engage with other. It’s key, he says, to kick off the party with a starting point for conversation and, if possible, break a large group into smaller groups. “Online breakout groups are such a powerful tool for this,” Gimpel said, “and, in many ways, can make for a better experience than what we’d expect in person.”

office holiday party

If team bonding is the goal, holiday celebrations with static presentations or entertainment just won’t cut it. “The competition is extremely high for that attendee’s attention. Then you’re competing with Netflix,” said Lee Gimpel.

Here are more ideas on how to up the ante on the office holiday party.

Make it festive (and make it personal). Gimpel asked attendees at ASAE’s holiday party to choose their own holiday-themed backgrounds to help spur small talk and share an item that holds special meaning for them during a holiday-themed show-and-tell. “We’re all cooped up next to all these personal things that have meaning for us,” he said. “It’s an easy conversation starter… it’s fun, funny, and personal, and it works well in a typical one-to-many format.”

Make it visually engaging. Virtual gatherings offer a built-in opportunity for group photos — companies like MISGIF are offering virtual photo booths, complete with digital backdrops that can be branded or made into personalized holiday cards.

Gimpel suggests hosting a get-to-know-you session by camera vote (where participants start by turning their cameras off, then answer questions by turning their cameras on) as a fun, more visually exciting way for a group to bond. “It’s low risk, but fun,” he said, “and gives those who do/don’t like something to start more natural conversations in a big room.”

Make the gift part of the experience. Hannah and Ariel Redmond, founders of Happy Box, said that when it comes to corporations celebrating the holidays this year, many of their clients said that they wanted to provide an experience, not just swag. Their Hot Toddy Box includes ingredients for attendees to make hot toddies at home. Unexpected Virtual Tours, which pivoted from in-person tours to virtual culinary experiences this year, recently launched an “Ugly Sweater Party in a Box,” which includes a kit and a hosted virtual experience for groups to make their own ugly sweater together.

Make it competitive. Resume.io is hosting a low-key game night for its fully remote team, offering to foot the bill for any food or drink they order in as well as giving prizes to the winners. Virtual jeopardy, a virtual escape room, and an after-party with trivia hosted on Houseparty are on the agenda, said Rolf Bax, the company’s chief human resources officer. “We are hoping the event lasts for a few hours and people can come and go as they please,” he added.

Bar None Trivia launched its virtual trivia parties, complete with an emcee, in June of this year and has close to 200 holiday parties on the books this season. Founder Lilian Chen said that many of their corporate clients are incorporating end-of-the-year speeches, prizes, and other contests. “We get great feedback from companies after we do a virtual event, with many telling us that this is the first time that they feel like their employees have had a chance to connect informally since they went remote earlier this year,” Chen said.

Make it positive. This rings especially true for 2020 — capping off the year on a positive note is especially important after all the challenges we’ve experienced. Gimpel had ASAE attendees write a toast on a collaborative Mural board, and ended the party with everyone sharing their toasts. “It was really fun and lovely,” he said.

Jennifer N. Dienst is managing editor at Convene.