Photo by Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images Holiday parties may look different this year as COVID-19 continues to spread in the US at an alarming rate.
Photo by Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

“We want to be really conscientious and respectful of all parties, but at the same point in time, afford people the opportunity to get together.”

The staff at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Scottsdale was planning to go ahead with its annual office Christmas party this year—but with social distancing and other COVID-19 precautions in place.

As coronavirus cases continue to surge in Arizona and across the country, however, the Rev. Thomas Hallsten and parish manager Lynda Melton decided it was safer to pull the plug.

“As much as we’d like to have that bonding and social time, it’s really not essential,” Melton said. “We’ll do it down the road when things improve.”

Holiday Precautions

The church joins offices across the country that are canceling holiday parties this year, finding ways to celebrate virtually or with other precautions in place, like holding the party outdoors and taking partygoers’ temperatures.

Just 23% of companies who responded to a survey by the outplacement company Challenger, Gray and Christmas said they plan a year-end celebration this year, a complete reversal from the 76% who held parties last year. Of the 189 businesses that responded to the annual survey, just 1.3% said they planned to go ahead with a traditional party with no restrictions.

That doesn’t mean the desire for a holiday party is any less, said Andrew Challenger, the senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“I think the idea is companies still would like to try to get people together,” Challenger said. “Even if it’s only virtually to do something other than talk about business, like getting people together within an organization to connect with each other, in some way is meaningful.”

The annual holiday party is important to staff at the Phoenix IT company Adopt Technologies, said Brett Helgeson, its president and CEO.

“We genuinely like hanging out with each other,” Helgeson said.

Finding Ways to Stay Close

Office culture is vital and the office party is one way for co-workers to connect, he said. With so many employees working from home because of the pandemic, he said it “was even more critical that we get together in some fashion and have some sort of event.”

But not everyone in the office is comfortable with larger gatherings, so this year’s party will be shaped by COVID-19.

“We want to be really conscientious and respectful of all parties, but at the same point in time, afford people the opportunity to get together,” Helgeson said.

“Kind of the first thing that we’re going to be doing is a virtual happy hour where we’re hiring a mixologist,” he said. “Then the second thing that we’re going to do, which will include the families, is going to be a pop-up movie, where we’re all going to go to a drive-in theater.”

Challenger agreed that holiday parties are an integral part of an office environment. He said workers may spend about eight hours a day with their officemates, but the holiday party, and other gatherings, help create stronger bonds.

“There’s all these just really human, community elements of a holiday party that you don’t get to see almost any other time of the year,” Challenger said.

Even though St. Maria Goretti has only a handful of staff members, Melton understands the need to get together after months of distance work.

“I think there is a lot of screen time,” Melton said. “It doesn’t replace being able to gather together … I don’t think Zoom fills that.”

No Such Thing as a Socially-Distant Buffet

In previous years, staffers exchanged presents in a game of secret Santa and had a team-building activity. She tried to think of ways to pull it off this year, but always came back to the health risk.

“You might be 6 feet apart or you might have a covering over your buffet,” she said. “But again, you’re still introducing that element of potential risk.”

So now, she said, it’s time to reinvent. Melton said she will still bring staff their end-of-year gifts, but they will be delivered to the employee’s office, or might be distributed outdoors.

Melton said she has even considered a virtual party. For the church, she said, Christmas holds a deeper meaning.

“For us, it’s not simply a Christmas party,” Melton said. “Christmas has a different meaning for us than it does in the secular world.”

But the social aspect of the season is the same everywhere, and Melton said a holiday gathering is vital to staff morale and bonding.

Because of that, Challenger believes the holiday party will come back as soon as companies feel safe.

“I think there’s a real loss this year for not being able to have it,” he said. “There’s all these just really human community elements of a holiday party that you don’t get to see almost any other time of the year.”