Office Holiday Parties Really Might Never Be the Same

’Tis the season of tiny get-togethers and gifts mailed out to workers.

An image of balloons in an office.
IPG Gutenberg / Getty

For companies with the cash to go all out on a holiday party, the ideal spot might look something like Freehold. The industrial-chic venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is equipped with everything an urban Millennial could want: It has a coffee shop, a lounge, a courtyard with twinkly lights, and a Ping-Pong table. The last holiday party I went to in the Before Times was there. It wasn’t exactly a raucous bash—in an effort to cut down on the risk of drunken misconduct, the company limited everyone to two drinks—but the turnout was easily in the hundreds. I remember a line down the block to get in, the press of bodies on the way to the bathroom, and making small talk in a distracted manner, as you do in any large crowd.

Brad Gallagher, a co-founder of Freehold, remembers this party too: He wound up working the door because so many people showed up. For obvious reasons, it’s been a while since the venue hosted a holiday party of that magnitude, he told me. Among all of the other things the pandemic did last year, it forced companies to forgo the December tradition of the office holiday party, whether that meant an unfussy, in-office gathering or an extravagant function costing tens of thousands of dollars or more. “Last year I really look at as a mulligan,” Gallagher said. “It really didn’t happen.” With no other option, companies trying to round out a terrible year with something nice for their workers went the route of Zoom parties (somewhat of an oxymoron) or, if they had the budget, gifts.

But things are different this year. Only 11.3 percent of employed Americans are still working from home because of the pandemic, and thanks to vaccines, getting together in person is no longer the COVID threat it once was. The nature of holiday parties has gradually been changing for years, and exactly how—and whether—companies decide to ring in the holidays this year is the first step in figuring out yet another pandemic unknown: Will the office holiday party ever be the same?

The HR experts and event professionals I reached out to agreed on this: The company holiday party has officially returned, though in fits and starts. Elissa Jessup, an HR adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management, told me that even pre-Omicron she’d heard of fewer in-person parties overall, and that those still happening are generally smaller than they were before the pandemic. She said that in-person parties seem to be concentrated among companies that have fewer than 50 employees and those based in places with a warm climate that allows for gathering outdoors. At Freehold, Gallagher is also seeing holiday parties coming back in a smaller, more intimate form. These micro-parties are a far cry from the ones with hundreds of attendees that the venue hosted pre-pandemic: “I’d say 10-to-30-person parties are really what we’re seeing, and then the 40-to-70 [range],” Gallagher said. He’s getting more inquiries from start-ups with small staffs, and the relatively few large companies that have reached out tend to be interested in breaking up their parties by team to keep the gatherings as small as possible.

But while many companies want to do something for employees to boost morale and end the year on a positive note, in-person parties are far from the obvious choice. “I don’t think it’s a priority in 2021,” Bronson van Wyck, an event planner based in New York, told me. So far, his brand-events firm, Workshop, has been asked to do about half as many corporate holiday parties as it did in 2019. Now that Omicron is here and COVID-19 cases are rising, even more companies may opt out of the in-person party. While van Wyck and Gallagher said they hadn’t seen any cancellations or revised plans in recent days, the Society for Human Resource Management’s Ruhal Dooley told me that “not an insignificant” number of companies are changing their plans as a direct result of the variant.

Every possible alternative to the traditional party is in play: Jessup has heard from companies doing hybrid parties, fully virtual parties, or gifts for employees. (Hybrid options tend to involve a separate Zoom party or remote employees tuning in to watch portions of an in-person gathering, not, as I was hoping, workers having their faces projected onto a wall above the partygoers like the Wizard of Oz.) Companies are requesting van Wyck’s help in figuring out exactly what to send their workers. They did the same last year, and popular presents included garlands, wreaths, and even powder that can be thrown into a fire to turn it amethyst purple or sapphire blue. Jessup, too, has heard about employers giving staffers everything from gift cards and baskets to virtual cooking classes and wine tastings.

As companies experiment with how they celebrate the holidays during a pandemic, it’s not clear that they’ll snap back to their pre-pandemic routines next year, or the year after that. In the same way that employers are rethinking the value of offices and in-person work, they may reevaluate what they’re really achieving with their wintertime festivities. Holiday parties have been trending in a more restrained direction for years, and the pandemic’s shake-up of the tradition provides a natural and perhaps needed opportunity to consider whether a traditional party is indeed the best way to invest in company culture.

The office holiday party has a reputation for being either a painfully awkward form of social purgatory or a messy bacchanal—or both. In decades past, it was more common to encounter holiday parties that were blowout affairs with lots of free drinks, expensive food, dancing, inappropriate behavior, and next-day embarrassment, Peter Cappelli, an HR expert and a business professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “They were much more like college parties than adult parties,” he said, noting that out-of-control work events date back to the days when corporations were exclusively male at the management level.

That didn’t change when women entered the ranks of corporate America. But over the past few decades, businesses have gradually scaled back their holiday celebrations, first because of pushback against Christmas decorations during the 1990s and later due to liability concerns when it comes to drunken behavior. The #MeToo movement pushed things in an even more toned-down direction, with employers cutting back on alcohol and dancing. Cappelli believes that the social atmosphere of a holiday party can have a useful humanizing effect among managers and colleagues. But achieving that doesn’t require getting drunk and making a fool of oneself.

Though it’s not necessarily in his best interest to say so, van Wyck feels that volunteer days and team activities can have a better return on investment than a holiday party. In recent years, his own team has done service work instead of having a party. “Another party can, for us, be exhausting,” he explained. By being forced to come up with new ways to celebrate, companies will possibly move out of the pandemic with a better, safer, more enjoyable—and perhaps less expensive—approach to holiday gatherings. Gallagher, for one, is hopeful that this year’s smaller parties will prove to be more special than massive events, with employees getting meaningful face time with the higher-ups. And if we continue to see COVID surges in the winter for years to come, companies may have little choice but to eschew large indoor holiday parties like the one I went to at Freehold.

Whether companies hold in-person affairs, bring back the dreaded Zoom party, or send out treats to their employees, finding some way to celebrate is probably better than letting the year slip away without any kind of acknowledgment. Sure, the free drinks can be nice, but the opportunity to bond with your colleagues in a casual way is what really matters. “It could very well be that nobody wants parties anymore and it’s not a good use of money,” Cappelli said. “You could say that not everybody benefited and not everybody liked them. But nobody likes nothing.”