Baby, There’s COVID Outside! Tips for Workplace Holiday Celebrations: The 2020 Pandemic Edition

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virtual holiday party

Let’s face it: 2020 has been hard. We’d all like the year to be done. Good riddance. The US workforce has seen furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts — plus the challenges to working parents posed by the lack of childcare and the stress of managing remote learning.

It’s the end of the year, we all hope we’ll never have to do 2020 again, and employers are looking to celebrate with their employees who have worked so hard over the past months. As COVID-19 cases rise, however, employers must rethink their typical holiday plans and get creative to safely celebrate with employees.

What should employers do? Good question. Many are still trying to figure that out. In a recent survey of 189 companies, only 23 percent reported they are planning a holiday party this year; 54 percent are not, and 23 percent are undecided or waiting for guidance. Of the 23 percent planning to celebrate, 74 percent will do so virtually. While it appears that a very small number of companies anticipate holding in-person events, given the multitude of new or revived COVID-19 mitigation orders, those in-person plans will likely change.

If your company is still trying to figure out a safe way to show your appreciation for your employees, here are some tips for your 2020 workplace holiday celebrations:

Tip No. 1: Think Creatively

We are 10 months into this pandemic, and at this point, most people are Zoomed out. Sitting through another happy hour sounds less than appealing. Employers need to think outside the box when it comes to interacting with employees. Here are a few ideas some businesses have come up with:

  1. Elevate Your Zoom: Do an engaging activity together. Hire a performer to put on a show for participants — voilà — a virtual magic show. Or hire an artist or chef to guide the party through a craft or cooking lesson. Businesses can send supplies to employees ahead of time to ensure everyone can participate. Virtual trivia nights are another crowd favorite, or even a virtual murder mystery party. Think breakout rooms, plotting, and employee engagement. Look for something that your workers may find interesting, and be sure to get employees’ input.
  2. Include the Family: Childcare is hard to come by during the pandemic. Offering a family-oriented option, like a Santa story time, allows employees to participate with their whole families. You could even set up an on-your-own-time gingerbread house contest and ask employees to record their submissions and share them with everyone.
  3. Take the Screen Out of the Equation: After spending most of their days staring at a monitor, employees may appreciate a non-screen option like a customized gift basket or a Secret Santa exchange where employees deliver gifts to one another.
  4. Offer What Employees Really Want: Use the money set aside for the holiday party to cover a year-end bonus or gift card for each employee. Alternatively, offer employees paid leave so they can celebrate however they want with their families.
  5. Donate in Their Names: Increase company matches on employee charitable contributions. This encourages employees to engage in the community and allows the company to support the employee’s charity of choice.
  6. Encourage Health and Wellness: Physical and emotional health have been top of mind in 2020. Support employee wellness with the year-end gift of a subscription to a meditation course, at-home exercise program, or healthy meal kits.

Tip No. 2: Make It Voluntary

While holiday parties are work-related, they should remain optional for all employees. Let’s not add any stress to workers’ lives by pressuring them to attend.

Tip No. 3: Broaden the Menu of Options

Not every employee will enjoy a virtual craft project, so offer multiple options. Set up the party so that no one feels left out due to their age, gender, religious views, health concerns, or simple preferences. Wine tastings are great, but they may exclude employees who do not drink. Get input from a diverse group of employees to help choose a multitude of options.

Tip No. 4: Don’t Forget About Company Policies

Even though we are all at home, employees are engaging in a work-related event. That means the company policies still apply. Whether in-person or on-screen, a person’s actions can be in violation of company policy and result in a harassment claim. (Think the unfortunate New Yorker incident ). Even at home, employees should be dressed appropriately and take it easy on the drinks. Send out your harassment, drug and alcohol, and social media policies as a reminder before the event.

This year has been a year of unprecedented change. Businesses that can quickly adapt and support their workforces are more likely to be successful when the pandemic subsides and we all come up for air. The company’s holiday celebration is one more way to support your workforce and show your appreciation for all their efforts in this long, difficult year.

Emily N. Litzinger is an attorney in the Louisville office of Fisher Phillips. Contact her at  or 502-561-3978.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

By Emily N. Litzinger