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Weighing the Pros and Cons of In-Person Holiday Parties

A person holding a suitcase with reindeer antlers on it.

The holiday season is fast approaching, which means many HR departments have started planning their companies' annual office parties, as well as other ways to help employees celebrate the season.

While last year's parties were almost exclusively virtual, declining coronavirus cases, rising vaccination rates and the arrival of COVID-19 booster shots are allowing for more in-person experiences this time around, especially at smaller employers. However, to keep employees safe, some organizations are keeping their events completely virtual, while others are inventing new ways to mark the season.

Safe, In-Person Experiences Return

Mary Alice Pizana, human resources manager at Herrman & Herrman PLLC in Corpus Christi, Texas, said her law firm's holiday party will likely be in person this year after it hosted an online party in 2020.

"We have already asked that every team member in our office be vaccinated, and we also enforce team members to wear face masks and social distance whenever possible," she said.

Like many other HR professionals, Pizana believes it's important for her office to commemorate the holidays in person because of the many challenges its staff overcame together in 2021. "With the difficulties we have faced this year, we feel our team deserves a day to celebrate and enjoy themselves with their co-workers at our offices," she said.

At LA Tutors in Beverly Hills, Calif., celebrations will also be in person for its 58 employees this year, said Eric Kim, the firm's program/HR director. There will be an informal, voluntary get-together during the day in an outdoor setting, and masks will be provided and encouraged.

"We'll be doing a raffle for all employees who attend the holiday party, with multiple prizes," he said. "Our employees are the reason we are so successful, and we want to make sure they understand how much they are appreciated, so we will take the time to honor their dedication to our company."

Another employer that will be celebrating in person for the holidays is Colony Roofers in Atlanta, according to owner Zach Reece, who also manages HR for his eight employees.

"Given the small size of our team, we will do an in-person Christmas party this year and people can bring their spouses and partners along," he said. "We will at most have only 15 people in attendance, which makes everyone still feel comfortable concerning health and safety."

Reece said he feels that having a party is important as a reward for his employees' hard work handling this year's real estate boom. "My team has worked incredible hours not only to recover from the financial impact of the pandemic, but also to take advantage of the massive increase in business we've had. As a result, my team deserves to be honored with a Christmas party, even though it'll be small."

At Sawinery, a website dedicated to woodworking based in Manchester, Conn., founder Robert Johnson is optimistic about the in-person celebrations he's planning for December. "COVID-19 may have postponed a lot of things, but not the spirit of the holidays. Traditions need to be continued despite the pandemic because I believe it boosts morale within the workplace, even if most of our employees are working remotely," he said.

Sawinery's party will offer a hybrid option to accommodate in-person and remote workers, said Johnson, who will be distributing gift cards to all employees. "They offer personalization and practicality at the same time. Recipients generally prefer the gift of choice and the ability to regift," he said. "It's a particularly seamless way to show my gratitude toward the people who make up our company."

Virtual Celebrations and Party Alternatives

Not all employers are ready to abandon Zoom-based celebrations. Christine Hanks, employee experience lead at staffing agency Wonolo, a remote-first company with hubs in San Francisco and Nashville, said the organization is planning a virtual holiday party with crafting and a Secret Santa gift exchange. Employees will also receive a special gift.

"We want to recognize them for all of their hard work, effort and passion. We love our team and love recognizing them with fun events so they can enjoy some fun at work," Hanks said.

For the second year in a row, Human Interest, a retirement-plan provider in San Francisco, is holding a virtual celebration called "The Weeks of Wonder." For seven weeks, starting on the first night of Hanukkah, the company will hold events that celebrate the season, small business and creativity, explained Loralie Young, culture and people enablement manager.

For example, on Giving Tuesday, which falls on Nov. 30 this year, the company will host a live auction to support charitable organizations and causes. That will be followed by an event on International Volunteer Day, which falls on Dec. 5. Employee resource groups will help host virtual meetings that support their community members and efforts, Young said.

"It's critical for us to celebrate our employees in this way because connection, celebration and appreciation build better working teams and strengthen our cohesiveness," she said.

Castos, an entirely remote podcast hosting company based in Winter Garden, Fla., is opting not to have any sort of celebration, said founder Craig Hewitt, who also manages HR. Instead of hosting a party, he's giving his staff additional time off to spend with their families.

"I believe that we should work to live, not the other way around," he said. "That is, work should simply be a way for you to earn the money to live the lifestyle you want to live. For most people, that lifestyle means spending time with your family and loved ones, so I want to enable, encourage and empower my employees to do that."

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


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