Holiday office parties can be maligned and/or dreaded for a multitude of perfectly understandable reasons. Sometimes the camaraderie is forced and employees resent the “gift” of socializing with people they wouldn’t want to otherwise. Sometimes the party’s so cheap it makes people feel unappreciated (I remember one workplace where we were “rewarded” for our efforts with an employee potluck from 12:00-1:00 p.m. in the lunchroom). And sometimes the big blowout comes off as tacky or soulless, especially when it involves partygoers who have a lot to say, a lot to drink, and not much to eat.
Not all office holiday parties, however, are recipes for social disaster; in fact, many workers have happy memories of holiday parties, and not just the ones with the biggest budget or the longest mashed potato bar. Here are some creative ideas to help your next office party sparkle—and create real holiday warm and fuzzies among your colleagues:
The alumni relations department at the University of Chicago throws lavish annual Christmas bashes, but interactive content editor Joy Olivia Miller’s favorite party took place at a different sort of venue: Her team went to the Ronald McDonald house and cooked together. “We spent the afternoon chatting and laughing while we made a huge pot of gumbo and sugar cookies for the families staying there,” Miller recalled. “We brought some drinks and holiday tunes and kept it casual.”
To Miller, actually helping meant more than just paying lip service to charity by asking employees to toss an old winter coat into a bin on the way into an opulent fete. “I think that one remains so special because it wasn’t a huge to-do at a noisy place: It felt more like giving back because we actually gave our time, too.”
Emily Graslie, chief curiosity correspondent at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, is a fan of the way the museum’s holiday parties involve everyone, from staff to interns to volunteers. Plus, she says, “parties with research and collections scientists are a blast because it’s a jovial time to share stories of expeditions and discoveries. The amount of history and knowledge contained in a party like that is a great reminder for why we work here in the first place. While I love the science, it’s really about my colleagues, those people who pursued obscure passions into novel careers.”
The party that Meghan Keane, co-founder at Brick Wall Media, remembers most fondly wasn’t really a party at all. At a New York satellite office of a bigger British company, she had only one coworker. “Since there were only two of us, my boss took me to Nobu and it was awesome,” she said.
It’s a tradition she intends to keep. “This year, we have a small team at Brick Wall, so we’re taking everyone for a great meal. Taking a team for a meal they might not want to splurge on personally is always fun to me and allows for socializing without the pressure to drink a lot at an open bar or get trapped with someone from legal you’ve never wanted to learn about.”
Katie Rich, a writer on Saturday Night Live, agrees. “I think what makes our Christmas parties so great is that they are pretty low-key. We get a bangin’ afterparty after every show where most of us have to entertain guests, so we rarely get to hang out. So we have a little office get together during the tree lighting in Rockefeller Center and a party on the Wednesday before our Christmas show. We do a Secret Santa and just have some beers and whatnot. It’s lovely to just be with each other.”
While the idea of drinking on the boss’s dime, on the boss’s time, can sound pretty sweet, not everyone wants to get ripped at the office holiday party—and why should they suffer? Parties can still provide alcohol for those who want it but without making it the main attraction.
“I worked for a mutual fund company that would do a low-key department outing to go bowling after lunch; those who wanted to go out after, could,” says Chicago writer Annie Logue. “As a daytime function, there was limited alcohol and thus limited trouble. No one had to deal with babysitters or dresses, so it was especially nice for the support staff. And we all got what we really wanted, which was a chance to play hooky from work.”
Jeanne Theresa Newman, who works for the Active Transportation Alliance, said that last year her team went ice skating in Chicago’s Millennium Park in the afternoon followed by drinks and hors d’oeuvres at a nearby pub. “It was really fun and the people who didn’t want to stay past five could leave after ice skating,” Newman says. “Our deputy director doesn’t drink and a lot of people have young kids and need to get home, not drunk, in the early evening.”
It always feels a little scroogey when a manager encourages you to stay late and party on a Thursday but expects you to show up bright-eyed at 8:30 a.m. the next day. That wasn’t the case at Gawker, says Jessica Coen, now editorial director at Vocativ. “Unlike most other companies’ parties, the Gawker parties were almost always on a Friday—sending the message that this was meant to be a big night out.”
Painter Julie Coe encountered a similar forgiving atmosphere at the energy company SoCore, where Christmas parties were all-day, all-night booze-fueled blowouts. “Then next day we had to go to work, but it was movie day with catered breakfast and lunch.” However, Coe still saw room for improvement. “You know what everyone really wants for a holiday party? A day off! Give me $20; I’ll get my own dinner and go home and spend it with my family.”