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How to plan a virtual holiday office party that doesn’t suck

Whatever you do, please don’t make your office holiday party just another Zoom session. Here’s how to have some fun and celebrate the season safely.

How to plan a virtual holiday office party that doesn’t suck
[Photo: Pineapple Supply Co./Unsplash]
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As COVID-19 continues to change just about everything about work, so, too, is it changing that annual ritual: office holiday parties. With many workers still remote and gathering restrictions expected to increase in many areas as infection rates rise, the thought of throwing yet another Zoom meeting with everyone dressed in ugly sweaters and holding cocktails is downright depressing.

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Not so fast, say some party planners and services that are determined to save the holidays—or at least the work parties. To plan a virtual office party that doesn’t suck, try these smart ideas:

Think about the reason

“Whether it’s pre-COVID or now, when you’re thinking about a holiday event my advice is always to come up with an event that’s aligned with your company values,” says Erica Keswin, business consultant and author of Rituals Roadmap: The Human Way to Transform Everyday Routines Into Workplace Magic. “That’s always a good way to start, whether again, it’s in person or remote.”

What do you hope to accomplish? You might want to allow employees time to relax or strengthen bonds. Or you might want to create a sense of normalcy by continuing some of the rituals your team loves. Let your goals guide you in planning, Keswin says.

Consider employee needs

Your remote team members might have roommates or family members in the same circumstances. They may be dealing with kids’ homeschooling. “When people aren’t going to an office party in person, they are still in their home environment virtually, and their significant others may find it hard to appreciate that they need to be on yet another Zoom call after hours,” says Lisa Jennings, chief experience officer at Wildly Different, an event production company. It may be best to hold the event during work hours unless you’re involving family members.

Be thoughtful about production

You’re likely going to need a moderator or party organizer to keep things on track, so keep in mind who will fill that role, says meeting planner Deanna Nwosu. “Think about how you consume digital entertainment and create your virtual experience accordingly. The content should be visually stimulating, entertaining, and engaging. Look at the hobbies and interests of your team for inspiration on what would excite them,” she says. This isn’t a time to just get everyone online and wing it.

Make something

Making something together over a videoconference can be a fun way to entertain team members while connecting virtually, Nwosu says. One way to do so could be to send team members a craft to make during the holiday gathering. For example, you may send them the components of a gingerbread house that everyone makes together. Then, have a competition to see whose came out best.

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Or send them the ingredients (or funds to buy them) to make a delicious gourmet meal and hire a chef to guide them through cooking it. As a related example, Twisted Alchemy arranges cocktail and mocktail events. (The hands-on component of these activities may have mindfulness or other benefits, too.)

Try a tasting

From tea to whiskey, you can arrange a variety of virtual tastings. When you arrange the event, the provider typically makes plans to send the tasting items to arrive in advance. Then, an expert guides the team through the tasting. For example, Open Door Tea hosts virtual tea tastings. Sommelier Company will organize virtual wine, beer, whiskey, or tequila tastings. Mongers Provisions does live-hosted or do-it-yourself cheese tastings.

Exchange gifts

Also called “Yankee Swaps” or “Swiping Secret Santa,” here’s how this works: The host of the holiday party has an assortment of wrapped gifts of equal value behind them on the call. Determine the order in which people will participate. You might write everyone’s name on slips of paper, then choose them at random.

The first person picks a gift to unwrap, then the next person can either “steal” that gift or choose a new one. The first person to play gets the last pick of the game. This can also be done after a competition with the first-place person choosing first, etc. Depending on where your team is located, the gifts can then be mailed, or you may arrange for safe pick-up if everyone is local.

Entertain them

Entertainers are looking for bookings, so add them to your party, Nwosu suggests. Musicians, magicians, comedians, and others can often do remote shows. Get recommendations from your team, reach out to some of your favorites, or look at a provider such as Song Division, which has trained musicians and facilitators to help organize your party.

Play some games

Online multiplayer games and competitions can create a fun, engaging experience for your team, even if they’re not gamers, Keswin says. Her firm recommends virtual escape room experiences and trivia games. Multiplayer platforms such as Jackbox offer a variety of games your team can play together. Keswin also says you can set up a DIY activity, such as Minute to Win It, which is a series of 60-minute challenges, or scavenger hunts using ordinary items people have in their homes. Have prizes for the winners or have a White Elephant option for prizes.

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Add party favorites

If your team loves its annual karaoke competition or photo booth, delight them with some creative touches, Nwosu suggests. Companies such as Misgif and Outsnapped let your team snap photos and add fun graphics.

You can also host a virtual karaoke party. These can be hosted by a karaoke provider, or you can use apps such as Virtual Voicebox in Zoom. Watch2Gether is another app that allows teams to watch the same content at the same time. Users share on the website how they organize karaoke parties with their friends.

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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