HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

Navigating the Holiday Party Experience in a COVID World

Holiday parties have long been a staple of company culture. They’re a time to mark the end of a year of accomplishments and struggles and to look back on fun memories with colleagues and teammates. Obviously, holiday parties haven’t been nearly the same since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of workers haven’t even been to their office since last December, and even if they aren’t working remotely, social gatherings are certainly still on the naughty list.


But, although the United States is still in the grips of the pandemic, things have changed significantly since this time last year. Millions of Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and many office buildings have at least partially opened to staff and visitors.

With companies and workers eager to return to some sort of normalcy, we asked business leaders and company culture experts their thoughts on what to plan for and expect during this year’s corporate holiday observances.

More Companies Returning to In-Person Parties

“Over the past two years, our law firm staff has overcome many challenges to continue serving our community during a global pandemic,” says Mary Alice Pizana, HR Manager at Herrman and Herrman. “Last year, we hosted a Zoom holiday party due to COVID-19. This year we are hosting an in-person holiday party to reward our team for their dedication and hard work during such a difficult time.”

Pizana says the firm feels confident about keeping its team safe with the changes it has made and because much of the firm’s staff is fully vaccinated. In addition, she says, “We have set up hand sanitizer stations throughout our office, offer free face masks, and have arrows set up in high-traffic areas to avoid our team members from coming into contact with one another.”

Advice for In-Person Parties

For those that are having in-person parties, there are some adjustments that need to be made relative to pre-pandemic gatherings. These include simple steps like offering hand sanitizing stations and more logistical considerations like whether to ask attendees to wear masks and how to handle social distancing. Even venue selection involves COVID considerations.

“Planning ahead is important,” says Ian Sells, CEO and founder of RebateKey. “Knowing the head count can help you quickly book for a venue that meets safety protocols. It’s also important to check with your state or county for any specific regulations or protocols.”

Data Offers Best-Practice Insights

Data suggests that overall, employees feel more comfortable attending company holiday parties when certain safety measures are in place, according to the forthcoming Q4 2021 edition of Jungle Scout’s Consumer Trends Report on deterrents and motivators to attend events during the COVID era.

Jungle Scout polled over 1,000 U.S. consumers and asked them which COVID-related safety precautions would make them more or less likely to attend an event. A selection of the results is shown below.

If masks are required at the event:

  • 56% of U.S. consumers are more likely to attend the event.
  • 25% say their attendance would not be influenced by this.
  • 19% are less likely to attend the event.

Temperature check at the door:

  • 55% more likely
  • 32% uninfluenced 
  • 12% less likely

Proof of vaccination required for entry:

  • 54% more likely
  • 24% uninfluenced
  • 22% less likely

Negative COVID test required for entry:

  • 50% more likely
  • 27% uninfluenced
  • 23% less likely

This data may not be a reflection of your own employees’ sentiment, but it can be a good place to start when considering the issues they may or may not be concerned about—and it’s not a bad idea to poll your own staff to identify their unique concerns.

Advice for Remote Parties

Of course, many companies will be continuing to host remote parties. While these almost always lack the same excitement and sense of togetherness as in-person gatherings, companies at least have last year’s virtual holiday party experience to learn from.

“My team and I are still working remotely so our holiday party will also be remote this year,” says Todd Ramlin, manager of Cable Compare. “Last year’s party was better than nothing but not great either. This year, to try and make it more fun for everyone, we’ll be planning it together. Everyone on the team will get to contribute ideas and we’ll vote on our favorites to determine what we’ll be doing. Hopefully by this time next year, the virus will be less of a concern, but until then we’re putting health and safety at the top of our priority list.”

Virtually everyone who provided feedback for this feature indicating they were staying with remote celebrations this year emphasized the need to work extra hard to promote engagement and excitement at their virtual gatherings.

Providing staff with a couple of drink tickets and the opportunity to mingle with colleagues in person might be enough for a fairly enjoyable in-person party, but most virtual event planners are looking for ways to make up for the less-than-desirable format. These include asking participants to wear their favorite ugly Christmas sweater, trivia, and other games. Some companies are even maintaining gift-giving traditions despite the remote format.

“This year for the holidays, my team is having a virtual party!” says Adam Moore, founder of SocialPlus. “Although we could have a few people get together, I actually have team members who work from a variety of places and therefore we would not be able to have much of a physical party anyway. We are all going to order takeout and commence a virtual call between everyone. We also decided to do a secret Santa and are sending small gifts to each person. We will be getting dressed up and opening the gifts over the camera!”

Moore says he’s excited about the celebration and that everyone will still be able to get together safely and celebrate the holidays with colleagues. “We are all also very close, so we feel comfortable giving each other what address to send the gift to,” he says. “The secret Santa is a fun way to have remote parties, and everyone gets to participate.”

Holiday parties are a valued tradition for companies across the country, and many businesses have worked hard to preserve these events, at least in spirit, despite the challenges imposed by the pandemic. This year, with the widespread availability of vaccines and the increasing numbers of businesses reopening their offices, many companies are returning to in-person holiday parties, albeit with some additional precautions and protocols. But the ones that are sticking with virtual events for at least 1 more year now have the benefit of having learned from last year’s virtual events.

How will you be celebrating this holiday season?

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Guest Contributor at HR Daily Advisor.

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