How to host a holiday office party on Zoom

There are plenty of things companies can do virtually, but the key this year is to give back and make employees feel appreciated, party planners said.

man at video office party

Image: iStock/nito100

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The venues may be different—very different this year—but it’s still possible to host a fun and engaging holiday office party on Zoom. From virtual trivia contests and wine tastings to cooking demos and scavenger hunts, companies just need to be a little more creative this year, and party planners can help.

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Companies don’t have the usual expenses for corporate holiday parties this year, so planners suggest spending some money to create a remote festive environment to show appreciation for employees.

It’s a great idea to hire a performer or master of ceremonies to host the party, planners said.

“I love the idea of musical entertainment because it appeals to everyone and makes everyone feel good,” said Jodi Raphael, owner of Jodi Raphael Events. Hiring a magician is another possibility, Raphael said, because it captivates people and appeals to a wide audience.

She also suggested including spouses as a way to make employees feel more connected.

If the company CEO or owner wishes to make a speech, Raphael advised that they consider pre-recording it. That way, it avoids some of the technological glitches that can happen, she said.

Make it structured

Know your audience when planning the type of activity you want to offer, advised Gwen Coburn, a corporate entertainment planner with GC Entertainment, who started her business during the pandemic and offers customized game experiences.

While the type of event will depend on the number of people and makeup of the company, providing an activity and allowing people to collaborate “is really energizing and makes it feel a little less like just another meeting,” Coburn said.

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She recommended having some type of facilitator. “It takes so much more energy to read body cues through Zoom or online, so having that structure or facilitator there means people can turn off what they’re doing and participate,” Coburn said.

A caterer that Raphael works with delivers “cocktail packages” with all the ingredients, and then a mixologist shows people how to mix the drink. “Depending on the budget, we’re also delivering hor d’oeuvres they can all share so they’re all eating and trying the same things and then have a chef talk about” how they are made, she said.

Craig Sutton, owner of Eventgo2guy, agreed that delivering cocktail kits ahead of the party and then having a live bartender teach how to make a drink is a great idea since companies are saving money on venues this year. “Or you can obviously send mocktails; mango colada with no rum,” he said.

Since driving isn’t an issue this year, both Sutton and Raphael said companies should definitely offer or encourage people to have alcoholic drinks if they want. Sutton added that rules still apply “if you’re getting a buzz on” on company time. “That’s fine–but keep it corporate clean. Don’t offend anyone because you’re home and being cavalier with conversation.”

A company can also utilize breakout rooms on Zoom and mix people from different departments together on teams so people get to know one another, Raphael said. They could play a game show or have an ugly sweater contest with hosts either internal to the company or hired from outside.

Raphael also suggested having a contest for the best Zoom background. Las Vegas and tropical-themed parties can also be done on Zoom, she said.

The time factor

Given the fact that parties have to be remote, and people have video conferencing fatigue, the planners recommend keeping them to about an hour or an hour and a half.

While most people don’t have a lot of conflicts these days, “Keep it short and sweet and to the point,” Sutton said. “If people want to stay, they can stay.”

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“Don’t make it too long so people stay engaged,” Raphael echoed. “They have to sit on computers all day, all week and that’s already taking away from family time.”

Coburn also agreed. “People would rather do something fun and think fondly of it rather than have something go on too long,” she said. “If you’re able to do it during the workday that’s always great because it feels like you’re offering it as a gift to your employees.”

It also means people are coming in while they’re still fresh rather than when they’re tired, Coburn added.

“If you’re not doing [an office party] on a workday, what’s really important is that as the days get shorter, daylight is limited,” Coburn said. “So midday Saturday or Sunday might feel like a good idea but right now daylight hours are so precious” and people want to be outside, “so just be aware of that.”

“This is an opportunity to include employees from around the country and world” in a virtual office party, Raphael said. She suggested holding the office party at the end of the workday “so people can feel like they can be festive,” and to give people in different time zones the ability to stop working early.”

Raphael also advised that companies not offer a full meal–snacks and drinks are enough. “It’s too awkward to eat a full meal in front of a computer screen,” she explained.

If an executive does do a live speech, keep it short, she added.

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All the planners agree that offering something interactive is key this year.

Sutton suggested sending out puzzles or gingerbread kits ahead of time and then offering a prize for the best one. Either could also be donated to a charity afterwards, he said.

Distribution “can get complicated and tricky–but it’s not impossible,” Coburn observed. The caveat with not offering anything means “people who just go into a holiday party in a Zoom room might find it’s not quite the same as an open cocktail hour in a hotel or your office.”

Instead, it could end up feeling like an everyday meeting, she said. “You’re also still dealing with everyday stress, and am I going to speak or are you? People have enough of that. Every moment of every day we’re trying to figure out what we’re doing. You don’t want to have to worry about how to make this fun.”

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