Here’s how to message this year’s holiday party—or whether to bother having one at all

HR and comms pros weigh in on ways to maximize the annual festivities amid a terrible year and a surging pandemic.

2020 holiday party guidance

The workplace holiday party, sometimes maligned, has always been an effective way for organizations to tell their people how much they care.

It typically includes testimonials and salutes, and a summary of the year’s big wins. Co-workers have a time to socialize, let loose, and perhaps sample some Grey Goose with their colleagues. The idea is to host an uplifting bookend to another year of profits, productivity and progress.

But this year, new questions arise: Does 2020 merit a gathering of any kind? Is a virtual party necessary? After all we’ve endured and experienced this year, is it even appropriate?

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Some organizations have decided to cancel end-of-year festivities due to logistical difficulties, Zoom fatigue, or out of reflection for those we’ve lost amid the worst public-health crisis in a century. No reasonable person would fault anyone for foregoing this year’s holiday party. But still, it just might be a crucial opportunity to engage employees in a meaningful way.

Here’s some guidance on how to make the most of a 2020 holiday event.

Find reasons to celebrate   

Holiday gatherings and year-end messages offer an opportunity for companies to show employees how much they’re valued and appreciated. Cherished, even. In messaging, let appreciation, gratitude and recognition freely flow. Also, kindness. As internal comms pro Martin Flegg writes: “There is only one possible guiding principle for internal communicators as we sit at our keyboards drafting this year’s (end-of-year) message—unconditional kindness.”

Part of kindness is being inclusive and respectful of everyone’s schedule, notes Malin Teles, communications manager for the design and innovations agency EGGS Design. She offers a reminder to “consider the time of the event so that it suits employees who are less flexible (parents, mainly!)” Teles adds a reminder to not pressure those who are having a tough time. “Check in on employees who seem to be struggling. Ask how they’re doing, but don’t pressure them to participate in events, even remotely,” she says.

Malin Teles

Tim Sackett, CEO of the staffing agency hrutech.com, expresses the hope that companies will not simply cancel holiday gatherings and instead get creative to celebrate employees’ accomplishments. Holiday parties are about celebrating the year and the season as a team,” he says. “In many organizations it’s about annual holiday bonuses, which are hugely important. I do not think the answer to is just cancel.”

Tim Sackett

Sackett shares how two companies are going about holiday events. “One is doing a [virtual] wine tasting with an actual sommelier leading the party, and another brought in a mixologist to show attendees how to make their own great at-home cocktails. Both organizations sent out boxes with all the need ingredients beforehand.”

If you’re seeking a more sober tone, you can’t go wrong with employee recognition. Your 2020 holiday party could be simply a Zoom call where you ask team members to shout-out each other’s accomplishments. It might also be more of a therapeutic sharing of the biggest takeaways, lessons or victories from 2020.

Regardless, the journey has been difficult. Ignoring this fact will make any year-end messaging or event fall flat. Lean into the emotion of 2020, and use that emotion to forge more meaningful, personal connections.

Also, don’t be afraid to try something new as we finish the year. Mike Klein, principal of the business culture and communications research firm Changing The Terms, says don’t be afraid to try something new. Holiday parties, he says, are a “great way to experiment with improving the repertoire of experiences available through online channels. “Rather than a one-off, seek to learn and integrate elements for ongoing online business activities,” he suggests.

Mike Klein

With the pandemic still surging, and with remote work becoming more entrenched, it’s crucial to find new ways to engage weary workers and keep them feeling motivated and connected. It’s vital for employees to interact in “non-work” contexts, Thumbtack’s J.D. Norton counseled recently. His company has seen success with a program that matches employees up to meet, get to know one another, and “talk about anything other than work,” as he puts it. Thumbtack has also started scheduling Zoom concerts and talent shows where any employee can sign up to show off his or her skills. That’s all fair game for an end-of-year event feature—and good fodder for 2021 planning.

Before you launch into 2021, however, take time to process the year we’ve all just lived through. Changing the Terms’ Klein notes, “It’s tempting to want to forget the year and not be reminded that not everyone is here.” But, amid all the pain, struggle and frustration of 2020, we persevere and carry on. That, in itself, merits celebration.

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