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Don’t Skip the Holiday Office Party This Year

Even if You Feel Zoomed Out, Tune in for the Team, Management Expert Says

By Carrie Handwerker

Virtual holiday party GIF

Illustration by iStock

A holiday party this year is an opportunity for much-needed bonding at a time that we don’t have water-cooler conversations and lunch outings, said Maryland Smith's Vijaya Venkataramani.

Anyone feeling a bit “bah humbug” about the prospect of a work holiday party this year? If the idea of another Zoom call with colleagues—even while wearing your ugliest festive sweaters—has you wanting to feign sickness, don’t underestimate the value of a bit of holiday cheer, says an expert in how people and teams benefit from work relationships. In 2020, even if the fun feels a little forced, we need that spirit more than ever.

“This is the time that you shouldn’t skip the office party,” said Vijaya Venkataramani, an associate professor of management and operations. “After this year that’s had crazy, unprecedented challenges, we’re all wanting to find something to celebrate.”

So make the effort, she says. Whether it’s a big, organization-wide party or a small departmental celebration, it’s an opportunity for leaders and managers to thank team members for their resilience and look ahead to goals for next year, which, at least to start, is going to be a lot like this year. 

While some might prefer just a thank-you gift or the afternoon off, the team-building aspect of a holiday celebration is important, said Venkataramani. It’s an opportunity for much-needed bonding, because right now, we don’t have water-cooler conversations and lunch outings.

“You’re not just efficient because you do your task, it’s also because you have relationships with people, you trust others, you know what they mean when they say something,” she said. “We have to have a chance to not talk about work at all and just get to know each other as normal human beings. A festive atmosphere can do that.”

Beyond team dynamics, the celebration obviously also needs to be about having fun, she said. If your group is small, you could plan a socially distant outdoor activity, such as a scavenger hunt, a round of golf or a hike. “I’ve heard of some teams meeting up to watch a movie together outdoors, enjoy wine-tasting or have a picnic outdoors,” said Venkataramani, who recently hosted a few colleagues for a socially distant outdoor dinner.

Try to get buy-in from the team on the activity in advance, she said. Consider a democratic process and organize an activity that the majority agrees on. But—especially if you plan something in-person—know that not everyone will want to participate.

“If some people are feeling uncomfortable, definitely give them a pass,” she said. “That’s the case with any get-together—not everybody goes.”

Venkataramani said she’s heard a lot of different ideas for virtual group celebrations this year, from online trivia to Zoom karaoke night to a secret-Santa gift exchange 2020-style: everyone sends an anonymous gift to a co-worker via Amazon Prime. 

“What works will depend on the norms you have in the team,” she said. “It’s not for the leaders—it’s for the employees to feel valued and have fun together.”

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