Businesses are eager to return to celebrating the "most wonderful time of year" with in-person holiday events. Social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has been difficult, and as case numbers decline and vaccination rates rise, many colleagues are ready to reconnect in a casual setting. With the right planning, it's possible to host a safe festive holiday work party this season.
"We knew we wanted this holiday event to be in person," said Kelli Mason, chief people officer at JobSage in Austin, Texas. The employer review platform is bringing back its in-person holiday event—an evening at a local restaurant with space to mingle inside or outside.
"Our team is 100-percent vaccinated, and we thought a holiday party would be a great way to get together without an agenda."
Although nearly 60 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges businesses and families alike to celebrate in ways that minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. Updated CDC guidelines emphasize mask-wearing indoors.
As you consider bringing back in-person celebrations again, here are a few other things to consider for planning a safe, enjoyable event.
Traditionally, there is always a little bit of pressure on employees to attend company celebrations. The casual events give staff time to get to know one another. This year, make sure employees know they can choose not to attend.
"We've emphasized that these are optional more than [we have in] years past," said Mitch Chailland, president of Canal HR, a professional employer organization serving Louisiana and the Southeastern United States.
Institute Safety Measures
Texas-based law firm Herrman and Herrman PLLC is also bringing back its annual holiday event and has recommended each team member get vaccinated, but it is not mandatory. The company is incorporating precautions to keep employees who attend healthy and safe.
"We will have masks available for every team member, hand sanitizer stations and arrows set up to avoid team members from coming into contact with one another in high-traffic areas," said Mary Alice Pizana, the firm's human resources manager.
Another option to consider is onsite rapid COVID-19 testing or providing home test kits for use just before the event, which may give attendees added peace of mind.
"If possible, involve employees in the process of planning for and ensuring a safe environment," said Scott Lien, co-founder and CEO of GrandPad. The Minneapolis-based digital health company is known for its purpose-built tablet for people over the age of 75. "Don't underestimate the importance of preparation and communication. Clearly communicate any special rules that you have in place for attendees."
Expanding your "personal space bubble" has been one of the biggest recommendations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce virus transmission. Using larger spaces and opting for outdoor venues when possible is ideal.
"Several months ago, we began seeking out and prioritized options that had covered outdoor space," Mason said. "These venues are typically priced at a premium, especially with COVID, but we budgeted for that in hopes that a more open space would help make everyone feel more comfortable joining the celebration."
An outdoor location is not always practical. Canal HR has planned an indoor event and has looked to the wedding industry for seating ideas.
"We've seen limits of six people to a table be quite successful as well as spacing out circular tables to keep the density of seating lower," Chailland said. "If the event isn't going to be too long, small high-top tables without chairs can also be a great option."
Casual seating, including leather chairs or sofas, also encourages attendees to spread out rather than pack into a small area.
Limit the Guest List
To give everyone a bit more breathing room, JobSage is only inviting employees and a plus one, according to Mason. Companies that have traditionally extended invitations to customers, vendors and other guests may want to consider not doing so this year to reduce the risk of transmission.
GrandPad, which has multiple offices, is planning a series of smaller events rather than larger gatherings and is offering a virtual participation option for those unable to attend.
"This allows us to re-engage socially and in person," he said. "Events may carry slightly different themes or activities, based on the location and the teams involved, which will lend itself to more personalization across our workforce."
Renting space at offsite venues is not realistic for all organizations. Some businesses prefer hosting holiday celebrations onsite. In these scenarios, Chailland suggested hiring a catering company to manage food and drink offerings.
"They're the experts right now on health and safety when it comes to in-person events," he said.
Not everyone has fully returned to socializing, and some employees or guests might have lower alcohol tolerances than they had before the pandemic.
"As ever, if your in-person party will include alcoholic beverages, be sure to make employees aware of judgment-free alternative transportation options like Uber or Lyft ride credits shared in advance," Mason said.
Katie Navarra is a freelance writer based in New York state.