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Regardless of one’s personal feelings regarding Christmas, the annual workplace Christmas party is usually well received. After all, it is perhaps the one time of year when employees can let their hair down, enjoy good food and drink without personal expense. Any other year, businesses would already be busy finalising their party plans. However, this is 2020, and unfortunately the likelihood of a traditional Christmas party is looking about as likely as snow in July.

A series of recent polls run by Insight HR uncovered that only 8% of respondents were planning a Covid-safe, in-person event this year, with most of those respondents being based abroad. Meanwhile, 17% of respondents said they will be having a virtual event, with a whopping 43% stating that they are not running any kind of event. 32% said they simply didn’t know their plans yet.

This kind of result is understandable, really, given the current climate. However, the annual Christmas party is usually a time for celebration of year end. It is a great way for management to show their appreciation and for colleagues to get to know one another. Without it, teams that have already gone through the mill this year may sorely miss the value it can bring. Of course, the big question is, if we can’t celebrate in person then what CAN we do?

Christmas in the time of Covid-19

An essential start is to consider how much you are able to spend and what employees may have come to expect. What kind of budget do you normally have for the party? If there were no restrictions in place, what would you have planned for this year?  If your business is used to throwing lavish affairs complete with overnight stays and a free bar all night, then it’s fair to say expectations may be high.

Once you have decided on budget, then there are a range of options you can consider, most of which take place in a virtual setting. However, there are some things you may need to think about. Running regular team meetings using video conferencing is one thing, but running a virtual event is a completely different kettle of fish. To keep employees engaged throughout requires a certain level of planning and customisation. After all, encouraging your employees to partake in an online party is one thing, but you can’t exactly force them. Many of them may already be suffering from Zoom fatigue. So how can you create an event your employees will engage with?

Tips from the experts

As this is new territory for us all, we caught up with expert event planner, Caroline Gardiner, who runs the event management company, The Party Pros. Caroline and her team have been busy running virtual events via online platforms for their clients, with entertainment ranging from magicians to cocktail making classes. Caroline says this style of event is proving hugely popular for remote teams, and the company is embracing this new format.

We asked Caroline for her expert advice when it comes to making your virtual Christmas event a success, and she shared the following tips with us:

  • Set the tone. “It’s important to treat this as you would a normal event such as sending a well-designed invitation to the teams in advance of the event as this sets the scene for the event and creates a buzz for the evening.”
  • Scrap the Friday night event. “Be open to running your virtual party any day of the week, as nobody needs to get home to bed that night nor do they have to get up extra early to get themselves into the office. Feedback from Party Pros’ recent clients tell us that company employees are more eager to do a virtual event from their homes mid-week as this frees them up on Fridays & weekends for friends and family. Without worrying about the commute in the morning you can now consider your Christmas party for any day of the week.”

(We think it may also be worth considering working the Christmas event into a normal working day. How about organising the event for a Friday afternoon during work hours, letting everyone finish early? That way, your employees may be more likely to engage with the party and will already be in a good mood for finishing work early!)

  • Structure the event as you would a normal one. “Have a few breaks [scheduled throughout the virtual event] and give yourselves some time for a possible speech or some chitchat with colleagues, just as you would at the drinks reception at your annual Christmas party.”
  • Know your audience. “Look at the demographic profile of your group. This is very important as choosing a virtual event to suit the group is paramount.”
  • Ensure employees have all they need. “Arranging a party hamper to match the occasion, the team and the virtual event is key. Having a surprise party hamper arrive to all participants door in time for the event creates that feeling of excitement for the event ahead. A party hamper that can be enjoyed while doing your virtual event can include treats, drinks, novelty items such as fun glasses, feather boas or silly costumes & accessories is a great ice breaker and a welcomed and appreciated gesture made by the company.”

Heeding these tips could potentially make all the difference when it comes to making your virtual event stand out from the crowd. As well as organising events, Party Pros also create hampers which can be delivered to employees’ doorsteps and have offerings to suit all budgets. It’s well worth checking out their website, where you can find more information on planning a virtual event:

Another company offering this kind of format is Brand Rocket, an event management company that works with the likes of comedian Joe Rooney and professional magician, Joe Daly, to emulate the spirit of a Christmas party from the comfort of one’s own home. You can find more about Brand Rocket here – Another initiative on offer is the Christmas Party in a Box For Two from the ecommerce arm of Fitzer’s Catering,, which comes complete with a prosecco and a three course dinner all ready to pop in the oven.

Meanwhile, tech start-up company Tribalee have developed an innovative platform for coffee, breakfast and lunch roulette. The idea is that employees from different departments who don’t know each other are scheduled by HR to have a physical or virtual meet up with suggested icebreakers, questions or themes for their discussion. At Insight HR we can really see how something like this could be adapted for the Christmas party, for instance in a ‘speed networking’ type of scenario where participants drink mulled wine and have different meet-ups with colleagues over the course of the event.

If you’re looking for gift ideas for employees, then a gift card is always a winner. Just make sure you’re getting one that they will use. A gift card from Kildare Village, for example, allows your employees to take their pick of 100 different boutiques to spend it in. Remember too that you can also take advantage of the small benefit exemption for gifts to employees. Employees can receive a bonus or non-cash gift of up to €500 without paying PAYE, PRSI or USC on the amount. Check out Kildare Village’s gift cards here.

Given the limitations of the polling platform we used, it’s hard to get to the bottom of why such a large number of businesses are not planning an event. However, anecdotally it seems that many businesses are choosing instead to send out hampers to employees for their family Christmas instead. This is a lovely idea, however we still think there is room for some kind of virtual event with colleagues too, to get the best of both worlds.

Of course, the real purpose of the Christmas party is to bring colleagues and managers together in a non-working environment. To that end, we love the simplicity of simply organising for your employees’ favourite takeout to be delivered along with their favourite tipple, to be enjoyed together via whatever online platform you’re used to. Why not consider including partners too, if they wish to join? After all, this is a different kind of year, so we might as well embrace it.

We know that employee engagement is difficult during these times. However, we would urge employers not to let the opportunity of celebrating with their employees pass them by, which is far more important this year than ever.

For more inspiration, check out the podcast “A Better HR Business” next month, where host Ben Geoghan will be interviewing the CEO of virtual events company Find it on Spotify here

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