Tips for throwing a great virtual office holiday party

We’ve all been told that the holidays are going to be different this year. And that applies to that annual event, the office holiday party, which this year is going virtual. Just because there’s a pandemic doesn’t mean you can’t gossip, drink, flirt and even dance with your co-workers.

“Office parties often get a bad rap,” says Billy Lake, an event host at HELM Life, which helps organize events for offices, corporations and families.

“You spend every weekday with this group of people and then suddenly you’re asked to eat and drink with them on this night as well?” he says, laughing. “But this year feels different. Most people are really excited to see and connect with their colleagues. In some instances they haven’t seen each other since March.”

HELM helps tailor events for groups of between six and 200. These include everyone from an extended family with generations spread across the country to staff at a big downtown office. One of their recent requests was to plan a pet party for a company whose workers wanted to show off their quarantine pets to each other.

Most HELM parties use the Zoom platform, but Lake says there’s another application suitable for larger parties called Hopin.

Creating a party environment

“Hopin creates that office party environment better,” he says. “It gives you the ability to move freely from room to room. You can be watching an illusionist in one room and then decide you want to catch up with a co-worker, and go and find them in another.”

No office party would be complete without drinks. Lake says some HELM parties include a mixologist who gives demonstrations to the revellers. Sometimes, everyone at the party will have received the ingredients for a signature cocktail beforehand.

Jennifer Armel is the director of marketing and communications at the Behar Group Realty Inc., a Toronto real estate brokerage firm. She’s put together packages containing a bottle of Prosecco and other personalized gifts that will be delivered to each of Behar’s 35 employees before their one-hour virtual party on December 17.

“That way, everyone can open their bottle before the CEO and president make a toast,” explains Armel.

And speaking of toasts, Lake recommends using Zoom’s spotlight function, which makes the speaker’s screen bigger and mutes everyone else so you don’t get unnecessary background noise.

Game-playing can be fun

Games and competitions are a fun way to separate the virtual holiday party from your typical Zoom meeting. At the beginning of her party, Armel is hosting a trivia game, with questions about the history of the company, which goes back to the early 90s, as well as general holiday ones.

One of HELM’s most popular games are escape rooms, in which every person playing uses their particular skills to help solve a puzzle.

“Because everyone’s been working from home, there’s a lack of connection, a lack of feeling like a team,” says Lake. “The escape rooms are 100 per cent collaborative. If everyone doesn’t participate, it won’t work. You get to see everyone bring their own set of skills to the game.”

The company creates thematic escape rooms. For Halloween, they came up with an abandoned hotel room theme; before Diwali, they produced a Diwali-themed game that was both educational and fun.

“And for the holidays, there’s an escape room called The Gift Giving Debacle, and another one called Mystery At The Cabin. More are in the works.”

Local theatre companies get involved

Local indie theatre company Outside the March has even got into the holiday entertainment game by tweaking ideas from their experiential shows The Tape Escape and The Ministry Of Mundane Mysteries to virtual parties.

“We have our actors improvise a story incorporating participants’ real-life mundane mysteries, and along the way the workplace team solves puzzles, plays games and gets to know each other better,” explains Rosamund Small, OtM’s artistic associate. “We’re mixing the game-ified elements with theatre and storytelling.”

Hire a DJ

Bigger companies might also hire a DJ to play during the virtual office holiday party. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk to people, however. If you don’t want to dance, you can find a colleague and head to a breakout room for a one-on-one.

The Behar Group’s Armel, who normally books a restaurant for her office’s holiday parties, says it’s important to create a feeling of fun and familiarity. She’s encouraging people to wear an ugly holiday sweater or something comfortable, or to show off a fireplace in the background or holiday food.

With that in mind, she helped compile a special company cookbook.

“About a month ago, I asked employees to contribute a holiday recipe or some dish that’s been in their family for years,” says Armel. “There are recipes for pecan bars, latkes, other desserts. And I’ve put together a book we’ll present before the party.”

While the virtual office holiday party is never going to be the same as the real thing, there are some unexpected benefits.

“At the end of the night, when the party’s over, you’re already in your house,” says Lake. “There’s no cab, no car pooling. You know everyone got home safely.”


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