Normally at this time of the year, companies are hiring caterers, setting up onsite casinos or party games, and inviting employees to cut at least a little bit loose to celebrate.
This year doesn't exactly feel like one to celebrate, though. It's certainly no time for a large in-person gathering. And doing the easy alternative--setting up yet another all-hands, all-muted Zoom--would feel like the equivalent of hosting a lecture instead of a holiday party.
Cassi Hansen, vice president of people operations at Nerdery, a digital consultancy in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Phoenix, realized a few months into the pandemic that while Zoom was functional for large staff meetings, its novelty had faded for networking or team-building events. "It's clear people are running into that Zoom fatigue and being more deliberate about their work-life balance," she says. "The appetite at 5 o'clock to log into another virtual meeting is just not there."
Since then, Hansen has been creating more engaging virtual team-culture activities for Nerdery's 250 employees. The company had an employee Halloween costume contest in October, and a virtual red carpet for a quarterly all-staff meeting in which employees dressed up in suits or heels to receive company awards. Once, for a cocktail hour, it mailed each participant a cocktail-making kit in advance of the event.
"The interactive portion is something that makes people want to attend," Hansen says. She notes that niche-hobby instruction works well virtually--such as when a Nerdery executive walked some interested employees through making a unique coffee drink. Trivia contests and raffle-style giveaways also pique interest.
For companies with a significant budget for a year-end blowout, it may be hard to conceive of how to replicate the "wow" factor of an in-person event. It may, in fact, be best to scrap all convention and reimagine what will impress and delight the team. For its large full-company offsite, the social-news site Reddit typically transports hundreds of employees for a few days away. This year it did a virtual event, and spent some of the budget on enticing outside talent, including Janelle Monáe and Trevor Noah, who gave interviews to staffers.
"I went into it thinking, 'How could we possibly do this?'" says Reddit CEO Steve Huffman. "And I went away thinking, 'How would we go back?'"
Do away with convention
Perhaps this bizarre year is an opportunity to rethink the "wow" factor entirely. Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a New York City-based psychotherapist, suggests democratizing the party-planning process by asking employees individually what sort of action in this holiday season would be meaningful to them. She suggests being open to donating to an individual or community in need--or to adopting a cause relevant to your organization, and tracking its progress through the year. "The goal is to create a narrative, and follow the story that is particularly meaningful to your organization," she says.
Smerling suggests that during a year-end virtual gathering, groups of employees can also engage around open-ended questions that empower them to tell their own story. Ask: How is this holiday season different for you? What's one new passion you've developed over this pandemic? What is the story of a time in the past you didn't travel for a holiday? What's one tradition or recipe you'd like to share?
For companies looking to get beyond Zoom, several other platforms have popped up. Early this year, the Go Game, a San Francisco-based company that developed a team-building scavenger-hunt style activity that catered to companies in person, launched an online activity called "Go Remote." The format caught on: Starting at $299 for up to 10 people, it features a large-capacity online "lobby" where a full team or company can gather, and breakout rooms with curated games hosted by contractors of Go Remote, such as trivia, poker, and Pictionary. By October, the Go Game was hosting 2,000 digital events, and had big-name customers including Dropbox.
Some of the physical locations where businesses in typical years hold holiday parties are dipping a toe into digital events too. First Batch Hospitality, which includes Brooklyn Winery in New York City and District Winery in Washington, D.C., is hosting virtual corporate events--which it formats as wine tastings or mixing wine blends ($99 to $149 per shipment, to each employee). Other companies are entirely dedicated to online events, including the Supper Share, which employs sommeliers to select wines to send to virtual dinner-party guests ($55 to $115 per person).
Smerling stresses that thoughtfulness and community building should be your company's aims this year. "Whatever you decide to do, it has to be a carefully considered expression of what your company is and who you are," she says. "This is the opposite of a normal year, and it's time for a more thoughtful kind of celebration."