Coronavirus Didn’t Kill The Office Holiday Party. It’s Just Making It Smaller.

Published 2 years ago
Office Christmas

In the before times, when December meant holiday parties packed with coworkers crowded around canapés, SAP North America had regional events in hotel ballrooms or office buildings that could host thousands of workers in black tie dress and live bands. Then last year, when the pandemic ushered corporate soirees online, SAP hosted its own version of the virtual fȇte: An online concert where Sting performed.  

This year, says the division’s president, DJ Paoni, the company considered hiring another musician or entertainer for a virtual event, but decided against it. “That was fun, that was great, but we all acknowledged we’re staring at the computer screen all day long anyways,” he says. 

Instead, SAP will reimburse each employee nearly $100 for the celebration of their choosing, with most planning some kind of small team get together, such as dinner and drinks or volunteering at a food bank before going to a restaurant. “There wasn’t a big appetite for large group gatherings, but people still wanted to get together and enjoy some festivities, if on a smaller scale.” 


This year, small is in when it comes to in-person office holiday parties—if they’re happening at all.

As 2021 ends and the work world enters its second holiday season upended by Covid, companies are tiptoeing back to in-person gatherings, substituting all-out soirees with much more modest affairs. A fall survey of 182 human resources executives by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that 7% of respondents said they are having virtual events this year, down from 17% in 2020. Nearly 27% said they are having some kind of in-person party, with or without Covid-19 modifications, compared to about 5% last year. (Most others were unsure, making local plans or not hosting an event at all.)

“The corporate market, although it feels like they want to, are not throwing large holiday parties this year,” Andrea Correale, founder of New York-based caterer Elegant Affairs, said in an email. “We are catering to smaller yet special in-office events.”

Meanwhile, some are shifting their plans amid concerns about the new omicron variant. Reports that at least 50 people in Oslo, Norway infected with the variant are connected to a corporation’s recent Christmas party may be giving some pause.


“We’re hearing that [companies are] having to make difficult decisions,” says Jim Emanuel, an advisor with the Society for Human Resources Management. “There’s a [desire] to engage and bring people back together. However there’s a risk: Do we do it at the cost of exposing employees to this variant that we know little about?”

Expedia Group says they are doing smaller, team-driven, end-of-year celebrations, rather than a large centralized event. Okta, the identity management company, never planned a large, company-wide party for its more than 4,500 employees, but offices and teams are arranging for smaller celebrations, some of which will be in-person or hybrid, as well as giving people more time off, including the week of Thanksgiving and the week after Christmas.

Catherine Lenson, managing partner and chief people officer for SoftBank Investment Advisers, says its U.S. teams aren’t doing much beyond small informal outdoor gatherings, while in the U.K. there are some low-key dinners planned.

She doesn’t know of any teams planning a virtual event like they had last year, which included a “well-intentioned” virtual quiz. “It was peak 2020,” Lenson says.


Some companies are postponing their events out of concern over the new variant. Simply Business, a Boston-based online business insurance brokerage with 250 employees, was going to fly in employees from cities like Atlanta and host a party at the bowling alley and arcade Lucky Strike, requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative test, as well as masks when not eating or drinking.

But Missy Steiman, the company’s vice president of people, says concerns over the new variant prompted them to postpone the larger event until January and send out gift baskets and allow teams to plan small dinners for 10 people or less if interested. “We want to do this—we want to get together—but we don’t know how long the variant is going to take to dissipate.”

SourceCode Communications, a 40-person public relations firm based in New York, was also going to fly in out-of-town staffers and had planned an in-person party in a private room at the Empire Diner followed by singing at a private karaoke room. Yet despite plans to require proof of vaccination and an onsite negative rapid test, the omicron variant prompted them to postpone their plans. 

“Holidays are time for friends and family and loved ones to be together,” says Jeanne Hernandez, who leads human resources. “We don’t want to impact the health and safety of our team members or that they’d possibly take something home.”


Walter Foster, an employment lawyer in Boston, says the new variant is “causing agita” for the companies he advises. For “most of my clients, that’s the major question. They were really hopeful they could do something this year.”

Others say the omicron variant isn’t having a huge effect. Tal Brodsky, the senior director of business development at Thriver, an online marketplace for workplace services, says he’s not seeing clients change their plans. Many large Fortune 100 companies are already offering workers the choice of attending a slightly larger celebration, a small team outing or a virtual event, he says, depending on their comfort level. 

Yet many are also planning in-person events in their office suites, where there’s less exposure to outsiders and no contracts to cancel if cases pile up. “The variant is a perfect example: If something changes, you might want to change headcount, and that’s very hard to do when you have deposits down.”

Greg Jenkins, an event planner based in Los Angeles, says his clients haven’t changed plans due to the variant either, though at least one has recently reminded employees to get booster shots. “It’s not the five alarm fire here [in Los Angeles],” he says. “Part of that is because the vaccination rate is fairly high.” He says many are hosting events that don’t include significant others and are held during work hours as employees increasingly value time with family. 


Foster, the employment lawyer, says there’s yet another type of holiday party his clients are considering this year: None at all. Uninspired by planning another virtual event, and nervous about hosting something in person, they’re planning charitable donations, giving out extra bonuses or sharing gift certificates to pick out swag—and then calling it a day. “There’s a number of companies that are just throwing in the towel because of the logistics,” he says. “Covid exhaustion is very, very real.” 

By Jena McGregor, Forbes Staff