How to Host a Holiday Party (Sort of) in a Pandemic

Bye-bye, eggnog. Hello, nasal swab.

By Nicole Pajer

The safest route is virtual. “Cases of COVID-19 are rising across the country to record levels,” said Dr. Alan Taege, an infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. “Therefore, in-person holiday parties are not recommended, particularly when many people are currently working remotely.” If you do opt for in-person, he’d like you to do it outside, which is “safer than an indoor venue, but still carries risk.”

Be smart on site. Even when outdoors, people need to be six feet apart and continue to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Wear a mask, maintain a physical distance, and wash or sanitize your hands frequently,” Dr. Taege said. He stressed that it’s particularly important to maintain distance when eating or drinking, as you cannot wear a mask then. Employers should have extra masks, face shields and hand sanitizer available. Cynika Drake, an event planner, advised to “use individual paper towels in the restrooms along with contactless trash cans.”

Have guests get tested before. Ms. Drake suggested having guests take a PCR (nasal swab) test once a week leading up to the event and a rapid test the day of. “However, this still isn’t a green light to let one’s guard down, as the test is only as accurate as the day it was given,” she said, noting that you can get infected the next day and subsequently test positive. “We recommend clients refer to their health care providers for the most up-to-date information and protocols,” she said.

Try a hybrid party. Many of Ms. Drake’s clients are opting for events that mix in-person and remote elements (more successfully, one hopes, than schools). You could have a smaller crew working together on site in accordance with Covid-19 precautions gather for a holiday Zoom and then Zoom in the remote teams. Some of Ms. Drake’s customers are in positions where the partners and senior management are gathering to make toasts to the staff, who will raise glasses of champagne along with them from home.

Get people engaged. “People aren’t sick of Zoom, they’re sick of logging into Zoom for boring content,” said Russell Pinto Jr., 36, the founder of Little Red Bean Productions in New York City. “Your virtual office holiday party shouldn’t be an excuse for another snooze-fest of a Zoom meeting.” He suggested making things as interactive as possible: playing games or doing a well-planned activity together.

Send fun in a box. “The most successful virtual office parties are those that incorporate an in-real-life component to engage your employees’ senses,” Mr. Pinto said. He suggested pairing your virtual event with “a customized ‘experience kit’ delivered to your guests’ doorsteps, including things like gourmet treats, gifts, cocktail kits or wine samplings.”

Make it personal. Gillian Small McNamara, 33, the president of Gillian Small PR in Hoboken, N.J., is using Cameo to have celebs “make short videos to surprise her staff,” she said. Cast members from “The Office” “will offer funny ‘advice’ to each person for 2021,” she said. And a former Bachelor will congratulate a “Bachelor”-obsessed employee on a lucrative year.

Give employees a choice. Kimberly Penharlow, an organizational psychologist in New York City, recommended letting your staff decide how to spend this year’s holiday budget. “Perhaps they want to donate to local or national causes. Maybe they want to hire a dance or theater company to perform and invite their family members to the holiday Zoom party. Maybe they want to invest in a series of holiday cooking/baking lessons from a food expert for their family members,” she said, noting that this is a way to continue to put employee well-being first. Or maybe they just want gift cards.

Forget the party. Maleeka Hollaway, 30, the founder and C.E.O. of The Official Maleeka Group, a public relations and brand communications agency in Atlanta, is giving her eight employees additional paid days off throughout the holidays and sending them a self-care package. “A virtual celebration simply felt exhausting, as we spend 90 percent of our working days in front of the screen,” she said. “We want to make sure that our team is practicing self-care and taking time to unplug from work.”

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