Virtual celebrations and outdoor parties: How the office Christmas party will be different this year

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of daily life, and experts say Canadians can also expect it to alter their office Christmas parties this year with many companies shifting to online celebrations or outdoor gatherings.

While some people may be feeling "Zoomed out," event planner Lisa Peters told CTVNews.ca that she is working with companies to host virtual office parties that can still be fun and different from previous online get-togethers.

Peters, who runs Eye Inspire Events in White City, Sask., said in a telephone interview that companies with a budget to do so should consider hiring a video production team to handle the logistics of a virtual party.

"Whatever platform the client chooses, you need someone to run the backend, to switch the cameras, go live here, go live there, do the interviews, do the graphics. Don't think your staff should run a Zoom call. This is not that, this is a party, this is your Christmas party," Peters said.

She added that companies should also consider hiring an emcee or a host to run the online event.

"You really need someone to engage them, you need someone that's going to keep the party going," Peters explained. "Again, don't leave this to your staff who want to have a good time. Get someone in there who can be interactive and engaging."

When planning a virtual holiday party, Peters said it is important that the celebration is tailored to the company. She suggests that senior staff get involved by recording video messages looking back at the company’s past year or announce any company awards during the event.

Peters also recommends keeping certain elements of a traditional, in-person work party but modifying them for an online audience. This includes a digital photo booth, having a dress code and dropping off party favours to employees’ houses either before or after the event.

While some companies may feel limited with what they can provide for an online party, Peters says there are plenty of entertainment opportunities to ensure a virtual event does not get boring such as hiring a magician, comedian or singer to perform during the stream.

For those interested in doing an activity for their office party, Peters recommends a guided virtual tour of a foreign city or playing trivia games with prizes that can be sent later in the mail or electronically.

Some companies including Microsoft, BDO Canada, Wilson Human Capital Group and the Royal Bank of Canada are planning virtual Christmas parties this year that will involve employee awards, motivational speakers and various games.

Peters also suggests companies look into online cooking classes or virtual wine and whiskey tastings for their holiday parties.

"You can log on and some awesome fun chef teaches you how to make supper for the party, so at least you’re doing something. You're not out with all the people, but you get to interact, all the people are online and experiencing this together though physically apart," Peters said.

She added that employers can either give their staff the recipe beforehand so they can purchase the cooking supplies, or they can arrange to have the ingredients delivered to everyone’s homes. Peters also said that companies could hire a catering team instead to deliver full meals to staff ahead of the event.

INDOOR AND OUTDOOR CELEBRATIONS

Depending on which province or territory Canadians are located in, some may still be able to get together in certain environments for an in-person holiday party.

Claudia Faustino, an event planner in Toronto and owner of Claudia & Co., told CTVNews.ca that it is possible to host an in-person holiday party amid the pandemic while still adhering to public health measures.

Faustino says that she has helped clients organize events during the pandemic into shifts so cohorts of guests can celebrate at different times throughout the day. She said the same can be done for holiday parties.

"Some of the guests come for the morning, have a breakfast to celebrate then they leave and the next set of people would come, but you're separating them into their social bubbles," she explained, adding that the event organizer would have to check beforehand which staff are in the same bubble, and have assigned seating. Tables would also have to be spread out in a larger venue, she said.

While Faustino admits that having a party in shifts isn’t for everyone, she said it is a good compromise for companies who still want to have some sort of in-person celebration.

"Doing the event in shifts makes sure that everyone's still safe. You can celebrate this Christmas, you just have to do it safely and physically distanced," Faustino said.

Despite some holiday office parties being able to happen indoors, Faustino says companies should have their parties outdoors if they want to celebrate more freely.

"We found that people are having tents and they just get a bunch of heaters and do it that way… Maybe engage in some team building activities or even go skating or skiing," she said.

Calgary event planner Lesley Plumley, who owns LP Events, said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca that having a Christmas party outside will depend on where in the country you live.

"We are allowed to have gatherings outside, and I think if people can handle the elements and you have enough heating areas or fire pits where you can do some s ‘mores and have hot chocolate, you can host a Christmas party outside," Plumley said.

While an outdoor party in Canada during the winter months isn’t typical, Plumley said if everyone dresses warm it can successfully be done. She says staff can even build snowmen or snow forts and actually "go back to being a kid and forget work for a bit."

Plumley said she has also heard of companies renting large, inflatable LED screens so they can host a movie night for employees outdoors.

"You can park in your car in a parking lot and play a movie so the staff member and their significant other or even their entire family can watch a film at the drive-in which is another type of an experience," she said.

Additionally, Plumley said some companies have chosen not to have a Christmas party amid the pandemic and are instead putting the funding towards those in need this holiday season.

"They're pulling that money together and they're giving it to a charity because the charities certainly are hurting because of COVID and not being able to have fundraising events. So I think we're going to see a little bit more of giving, rather than receiving this year," Plumley said.

KEEPING THE PARTY SAFE

Regardless of how companies choose to celebrate the holiday season, Plumley said employees’ safety should be top of mind.

"The bottom line is if you are wanting to do something, you're going to find a way to do it, whether it is virtually or whether it's in-person. I do think people can do something, but they have to do it safely," Plumley said.

While COVID-19 restrictions vary between each province and territory, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) recommends all Canadians avoid closed spaces, crowded places, and close contact with others. The agency says that Canadians should keep a distance of approximately two metres from others and stick to a small, consistent social circle to avoid gathering in large groups.

When physical distancing cannot be maintained, PHAC recommends face coverings be worn.

Plumley said these measures need to be followed whether an office Christmas party is held indoors or outdoors.

"The government has given us these guidelines and they've given the guidelines for a reason," Plumley said. "It's really important that for office parties you still follow and adhere to those bylaws."

"I do think people do need to get out and do something, but they have to do it safely," she added.

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