Office Holiday Parties: Ready for an Update?

by Nancy Ordman

The traditional office holiday party could be on the way out. During the Great Recession, the need to economize shut down the yearly festivities for many workplaces. Even though today’s thriving economy has refilled many company coffers with party funds, alternatives to the standard party are growing in popularity.

What is driving this shift? The hiatus in seasonal festivities that the recession caused has some companies reflecting on the expenditure and questioning whether to use these funds for an activity that is more meaningful to employees or for charitable contributions. Millennials expect a different kind of workplace than did baby boomers, so they do not necessarily expect a big party. Another reason, particularly with the advent of the #MeToo movement, is concern that parties provide stalking grounds for sexual harassment, frequently fueled by alcohol. Employers face potential liability when bad behavior happens at parties. The employees who behave badly endure their own punishment: facing their colleagues after an embarrassing turn at the karaoke microphone.

Suggestions for non-party-based holiday activities abound, many published in the last few years. These ideas break into a few loose categories. Take a look and find inspiration for ways to celebrate the holidays and acknowledge employees’ hard work in the previous year.

Community Service

The holiday season serves up many opportunities to give back to a company’s local community. Donating some, or all, of the funds that would normally go toward a party is an obvious choice. Some employees prefer a more hands-on approach and want to volunteer. Here are a few ideas.

  • Partner with a charity organization to help with whatever the organization needs: help stuffing stockings, delivering gifts, serving a meal.  
  • Set up a “Giving Tree” with paper ornaments, each ornament with the name of an item for a child (or senior citizen, or a homeless shelter). Employees take an ornament, purchase the item and put the gift under the tree.
  • Volunteer to wrap gifts at the local mall. Many organizations sign up to wrap gifts in return for donations.

Fun in the Office

The internet abounds with festive ideas that are not expensive or difficult to execute in the office.

  • Sponsor some friendly competition. Have a desk- or cubicle-decorating contest or an ugly sweater day. A cookie swap can also include a competition for the most unusual cookie, the best chocolate chip cookie or the silliest-looking confection.
  • Have a catered holiday lunch. After lunch, bring out an assortment of games. If weather and facilities permit, play basketball or table tennis.
  • Have a potluck lunch. The meal could have a theme, like bringing a dish that represents an employee’s home city, state, region or country.
  • Have brunch instead of lunch.

Non-holiday-themed Activities

Many people have so much to do during the holidays – parties to plan and attend, children’s pageants, shopping, baking, and closing out the fiscal year for some companies – that they will appreciate shifting a party or other team-building activity to another time of year.

  • Have a Halloween party. Or celebrate a date that has local significance, such as the date the company was founded or hit its highest revenue target.
  • Use the holiday party budget to fund different kinds of employee engagement activities. Such activities could be tailored to different departments, and they can be scheduled at any time of year.
  • Take employees outside the office, for an afternoon at a local attraction or a three-day trip to an exotic location. One company held a hatchet-throwing party at a Stumpy’s Hatchet House, abandoning all pretense of holiday celebrations.

For those companies that decide to go ahead with a party, the festivities do not have to be over the top. A scaled-down party, perhaps without alcohol or with very limited alcohol, could be more enjoyable than a big blowout.

The Society for Human Relations Management calls the 2016 movie “Office Christmas Party” a human relations professional’s worst nightmare. The movie’s directors researched HR and corporate life and used what they learned to create the satirical film. Revamping the annual holiday extravaganza could result in more satisfied employees – and happier HR departments.