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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Did the Grinch come for the office holiday party?

Champagne flutes in Seoul, May 11, 2021. Since remote work emptied out offices, and after years of holiday plans overturned by COVID, companies have been rethinking their festivities. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

By Emma Goldberg

Much like skirt hemlines, which supposedly get shorter in boom times and lengthen when the economy teeters, office holiday parties have never been immune to the flux of the broader corporate world. Since remote work emptied out offices, and after years of holiday plans overturned by COVID, companies have been rethinking their festivities. For some, boozy nighttime parties are out; in their place are conference room lunches and mingling over mocktails.

At GrowthForce, an accounting firm based on the outskirts of Houston, the human resources team decided to do away with the pre-pandemic holiday tradition — an evening at a country club, with passed hors d’oeuvres, a sit-down dinner, free-flowing drinks and dancing. Instead, the firm had a luncheon in the office this year for its 50 employees, with holiday-themed trivia, a gift exchange and community service opportunities. The celebration started at 11 a.m. and ended by 3 p.m., which also helped with the firm’s slightly smaller party budget.

The human resources team, for its part, was thrilled. “You start seeing different teams come together that we didn’t see before,” said Gabriela Sánchez, head of human resources for the firm. “Before, it was people with their significant others, people saying, ‘Let’s just eat and drink and dance.’”

Employees embraced the change, for the most part: “I don’t have to make time outside my already busy day to do that kind of party — a lot of people would be like, ‘Ugh I’ve got a company party to go to tonight after I worked all day,’” said Jamie Dailey, a senior accountant who has been with the firm for nine years. But she added, “I do miss, maybe, our spouses getting involved.”

Corporate party planners have noted a shift since the pandemic in what their clients want for office holiday festivities. They’re seeing more demand for daytime celebrations and parties with reduced alcohol.

“Afternoon parties have 100% taken off since the pandemic,” said Min Brown, a sales manager for corporate event planning group Yaymaker, which mostly serves midsize tech and finance companies.

Many attribute the change to hybrid work, which has made the workforce increasingly resistant to the idea of being away from home in the evenings. There’s also broader popular interest in sobriety: Less than 40% of young Americans say they are regular drinkers, though that’s a lower share than for middle-age Americans. In previous decades, young adults were more likely than older ones to drink regularly, according to Gallup polling. And waves of layoffs in tech — more than 250,000 tech workers cut from jobs this year, according to the website — have probably made companies hesitant to celebrate in flashy ways and eager to slash party budgets.

Conversations about workplace behavior that began with the #MeToo movement in 2017 have also bolstered executives’ commitment to creating wholesome office celebrations in recent years, according to some party-throwing executives.

Hootsuite, a social media company, marked the holidays this year with in-office celebrations in its hub cities that began at 4 p.m., in an effort to accommodate employees with family responsibilities. Both alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks were served — in Vancouver, British Columbia, its largest office, that meant prosecco alongside nosecco.

Carol Waldmann, who runs the facilities and real estate team, said the company used to do nighttime parties with beer kegs and live music. Executives now say that’s not what many employees want. She added that the new approach might have saved a little money, although that wasn’t the primary motive.

“A lot of our employees have small children at home; they’ve got family responsibilities, so being out for the entire evening isn’t really an option for them,” Waldmann said, adding that daytime celebrations have allowed for more mature events. “There just isn’t as much of a focus on drinking as there used to be, which is good from a wellness perspective and from the perspective of not having dancing on the dance floor with your tie on your head.”

Since 2020, Hootsuite has also thrown virtual parties for remote employees, using the platform, with activities like holiday-themed trivia. (The company’s top executives were asked to attend these online gatherings.)

Google, which was known for pre-pandemic blowouts, is holding holiday parties this year primarily by team, with some smaller regional offices also hosting their own get-togethers. The company is trying to avoid any extravagant parties, according to Ryan Lamont, a company spokesperson. The company shared guidelines to help teams host “inclusive events,” which included the suggestion to consider earlier starting times. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, cut some 12,000 jobs at the start of this year.

DoorDash, which cut about 1,250 employees at the end of last year, is hosting happy hours in regional offices — many of them starting early, such as 4:30 p.m. in San Francisco — as well as “WeDash” meetups where employees can compete for prizes including a Vespa scooter. CNBC did a low-key morning celebration in New Jersey, with mimosas, as well as an afternoon party, accommodating employees who work different shifts. Investment firm TIAA did on-site holiday celebrations from 4 to 7 p.m. called “Gratitude Gatherings.”

Of course, some companies, even before the pandemic, were trying to avoid celebrations that were raucous or boozy. Roy Bahat, a venture capital investor with Bloomberg Beta, has held a holiday party for startups since 2014, called Startup Festivus, on the first Friday of December from 3 to 6 p.m., so people can get home to their families.

“We want to throw holiday parties where the next Monday everyone shows up proud of who they were,” Bahat said. “We all know the story where someone goes to the holiday party and ends up doing something that causes a big rift.”

Of course, not all employees are eager to let go of the rowdy old times. Kerrie Shakespeare, chief purpose officer for O2E Brands, which offers services to care for people’s homes including painting and junk removal, said her company held afternoon parties this year, after doing evening ones in the past.

The consensus from staff was clear, she said. “The feedback was that people liked the evening party.”

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