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How Office Holiday Parties Will Be Different This Year

The gatherings are one way to get workers back into the office

People giving out gifts at an office holiday party

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It’s that time of the year again: office holiday party season. After the seasonal gatherings went virtual last year with so many employees working remotely, some businesses are inviting their workers back to celebrate in person in small groups as 2021 comes to an end.

According to a November survey of 182 human resources executives, nearly 27 percent of companies will hold in-person holiday parties this year, up from 5 percent in 2020. But that boost in the number of festivities doesn’t mean employers have completely figured out how to have these gatherings, especially as the omicron variant of COVID-19 begins to spread.

“There appears to be even more uncertainty surrounding company parties this year than last,” says Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., which helps businesses find executive talent and conducted the survey. “Most companies simply canceled the event in 2020, likely hoping it would be a one-year issue. Now that we’re entering the second pandemic holiday season, companies want to celebrate and connect their teams, but are not quite sure how to do it.”

Businesses that had their in-person parties earlier in the season held the events with various safeguards in place, but some firms whose get-togethers are set for later in the month are considering whether to modify their plans. That means company holiday parties will continue to be mix of options this year.

In-person parties returning

Some employers are looking at in-person holiday parties as a way to bring employees who have been working remotely back to the office. Hosting the event in the office rather than at a flashy restaurant, bar or other public space also gives employers more control over who will be attending, possibly minimizing the number of waiters, caterers and others who might not have followed the same COVID-safety practices as the guests. According to the survey, 42 percent of employers are holding their in-person holiday gathering in the office this season.

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Another 9 percent of respondents said they will hold their festivities outdoors. These parties will also be smaller, with 27 percent of employers saying they would limit the number of attendees. That usually means either that employees are not allowed to bring guests or that the employer will break what would be one big party into smaller gatherings.

The other big question for face-to-face parties is the vaccination status of the attendees. None of the employers surveyed said they would require proof of vaccination from their guests, and only 9 percent said they would ask that all holiday party attendees be vaccinated.

Virtual parties and hybrid in-person/online gatherings were a quick option in 2020, as companies did what they could to boost the spirits of workers who had been out of the office for much of the year. But those activities have fallen out of favor this year. While 17 percent of employers held a virtual holiday party in 2020, only 7 percent plan to do so this year.

Some places offer perks instead of gatherings

According to the survey, 34.6 percent of companies won’t hold a holiday party this year. That's down from the 54.6 percent that didn’t have any kind of event, even a virtual one, in 2020. Among the businesses that will be festivity-free this year, the reasons vary. COVID concerns were cited by 18 percent of companies as the reason for canceling their party. Ten percent said they have never held such an event, and 3 percent said they had to eliminate their party because of overall cost cutting.

But even without parties, employers are finding ways to celebrate the season with their employees. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, some companies are giving their workers gift cards, paid time off or other comparable perks instead of a party.

Kenneth Terrell covers employment, age discrimination, work and jobs, careers and the federal government for AARP. He previously worked for the Education Writers Association and U.S. News & World Report, where he reported on government and politics, business, education, science and technology, and lifestyle news.

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