Newsletter: How to make your virtual office holiday party worthwhile

Drawing of a videoconference
If your office is planning a virtual party that you can influence, or if you’ve just decided to throw one together, try to maximize the benefits without making attendance a burden.
(Steve Breen / San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times Business section’s audience engagement editor, with our weekly newsletter. For many working professionals, mid-December is synonymous with the office holiday party. But this year, for obvious reasons, these in-person get-togethers are off the table.

In a year in which many have lost so much, it may seem silly to reflect on what skipped holiday parties mean for work culture. But these events do serve a function, experts say. “You get to see people more as full humans,” says Kristen Shockley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. “That’s really important for letting people break out of their shell and connect in a way that they might not during the normal workday.”

Some employers have pivoted to virtual holiday parties to facilitate this type of connection — connection that may be especially lacking if employees have been working remotely during the pandemic. “The idea of having these virtual holiday parties is in part to try to combat some of that isolation that people are feeling,” says Bradford Bell, a professor of strategic human resources at Cornell University. In addition, Bell says, virtual parties are intended to “build or maintain some of those connections that employees had established when they worked together in the office.”

Shockley studied adjustment to remote work during the pandemic and found that the more socially isolated workers felt during the pandemic, the worse they typically adjusted to the shift to remote work. “We need that connection,” she says. Office parties, “even if they don’t happen a lot, are critical, and people are going to miss that this year.”


It’s not clear whether virtual holiday parties can closely approximate the connections made during typical in-person events. “As good as the technology’s gotten, it still falls short,” Bell says. “But do I think it’s better than nothing? Probably, in terms of trying to maintain some of that sense of community.”

If your office has a virtual party coming up that you can influence, or if you’ve just decided to throw one together, here are a few ways to maximize the benefits without weighing people down.

Eliminate pressure to participate

In a time when many workers are feeling overburdened and burned out, participating in a virtual holiday party may feel like just another chore. “Right now people just don’t need another thing on their plate,” Shockley says.

A potential solution: Make the event optional and don’t pressure anyone on your team to attend, Bell says. “For those that want to come, even if it’s just for a little bit to connect and socialize, feel free … [but] if you want that time back to yourself, feel free to do that as well.”

Make it low-effort


This year, some employers are organizing virtual ugly sweater parties and other quintessential holiday events to carry on the workplace traditions from years past. But feeling obligated to decorate a sweater, bake cookies or even go out to buy alcohol can feel like added work.

That’s why it’s good to make virtual events as easy as possible, Shockley says, and not worry about re-creating all the bells and whistles of an in-person holiday party.

A simpler alternative to an ugly sweater party? Find the ugliest holiday Zoom background you can, my editor suggested.

Shockley also points to employers sending each worker a pizza or a bottle of wine before a virtual holiday party “so you can all have that shared experience” without the hassle of running to the store.

Focus on expressing gratitude

Although in-person holiday parties can be fun ways to connect with co-workers and mark the holiday season, they’re “as much about recognizing employees and their contributions and all they’ve done for the organization over the past year,” Bell says. “You could imagine a company just sending out like a virtual holiday greeting and conveying that message to employees.”


It may also be helpful to simply reach out to colleagues as the year comes to an end, just to check in. In Shockley’s research during the pandemic, she found that several workers specifically pointed to simple check-ins with their manager as a means of facilitating worker well-being. “It’s a little thing that goes a long way,” Shockley says.

This doesn’t apply only to managers: Colleagues may wish to send messages of gratitude to one another as well. A message could take the shape of a traditional holiday card — or something as simple as a Slack message to let your co-worker know you care.

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Programming note

This newsletter is taking a break next week. We’ll be back Dec. 29. Wishing you a happy, healthy holiday season!