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The office holiday party is back. Kind of.

Hosting holiday parties at the office and during the daytime is a big trend for this year, event planners said.

Like many other aspects of personal and professional life that have been altered by Covid-19, people are taking a variety of different approaches to the office holiday party tradition this year. 

“I wouldn’t say there’s too much back to normal. We saw a really positive increase in the number of companies planning to have a holiday party this year, but it’s still well below the number pre-Covid,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president at executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.  

In a November survey, conducted before the emergence of the omicron variant, Challenger found that 27 percent of companies were planning a holiday party, with an additional 22 percent of respondents saying they were still undecided. 

Last year, “Safety was top of mind for companies and employees,” said Alison Sullivan, a workplace trends expert at jobs platform Glassdoor. “This year’s office holiday party season is really a mixed bag. There are still companies that are having virtual holiday parties… but we do still see some companies finding ways to celebrate their employees in person, still with a lot of precautions and considerations,” she said.

In one survey, only 6 percent said they wanted a virtual shindig — and 49 percent said they would prefer time off.

“We did miss the face-to-face interaction,” said Marissa Hatchett, the 2021 president of the J.L. Turner Legal Association, the African-American bar association in Dallas. The group, which has around 300 members, hosted about 75 at its holiday party in December, which was held at a local restaurant and set up with an open-house schedule so everyone wouldn’t be in the room at the same time. 

“We may have had more people in the past, just because we’ve been shut down for a year and haven’t been able to network and socialize like we normally do,” Hatchett said. 

Event industry pros say two big determining factors are how big the group is, and where it is located. A spokesperson for Wolfgang Puck Catering said the rate at which corporate holiday bookings have resumed varies considerably by location. In Los Angeles, only 15 percent of per-pandemic business has rebounded. In Texas, it ranges from 20 percent to 30 percent, depending on the market, while Atlanta has seen a 50 percent rebound.

Event planners say big companies, in particular, are gun-shy about encouraging or facilitating in-person socialization. “The corporate parties we’re doing that are 25 to 75 guests, those seem to be the ones that are coming back. The ones with larger guest counts or Fortune 500 names are being more cautious,” said Patrick Clayton, founder of Patrick J. Clayton Productions, an event-production firm in New York City. The omicron variant may have injected fresh uncertainty into the decision-making process, but Clayton said it has not triggered a rush of cancellations as of yet. 

Others in the hospitality industry report similar observations. “We’ve had several [parties booked] this year but they’ve been smaller and mostly from local civic organizations,” said Judy Wilbur, director of sales at the Dunes Manor Hotel, Court & Suites in Ocean City, Maryland. Businesses, she said, are either postponing or keeping their gatherings more low-key by holding them at a local restaurant or just in the office. 

Tal Brodsky, senior director of business development at Thriver, a marketplace for corporate service providers such as caterers, also said holding holiday parties at the office and during the daytime is a big trend for this year.

“The biggest change we’ve seen for in-person events is companies are opting to have it in their office,” he said. “Given all the uncertainty, especially now with the new variant, companies have preferred to keep it in-house… so they have a little more flexibility and control.” 

Event industry pros say many companies that are going ahead with in-person gatherings are requiring that employees who attend be vaccinated, provide a negative Covid test, or — increasingly, given the questions about the severity and transmissibility of the omicron variant — both. And for many, it is still too soon to resume in-person revelry with colleagues. 

Brodsky said that about 70 percent of the corporate holiday business on Thriver is for some combination of virtual events and gifts. “They’re trying to be a little bit more thoughtful about the types of gifts, as opposed to the generic chocolate and wine,” he said. Unlike the long virtual parties many companies tried last year, this year’s virtual events are smaller and shorter, Brodsky added. 

There is some evidence indicating that the rank-and-file workforce agrees with this sentiment. According to a poll of LinkedIn users conducted by HR consulting firm Robert Half, 38 percent of respondents said they wanted an in-person holiday party this year, while 49 percent said they would prefer time off. Notably, only 6 percent said they wanted a virtual shindig. 

“There is a segment of people who do want to get together and meet. People still do want the connection and they want to feel part of a community,” said Robert Half district president Chad Leibundguth. To the extent that it ever existed, the appeal of convening via screen has faded, he added. “There’s a bit of a burnout out there in the market. There’s some Zoom fatigue,” he said. 

“We did see a big drop-off in the percentage of companies planning to hold a virtual party,” Challenger said. His firm’s survey found that the percentage of companies holding virtual events dropped by 10 percentage points, down to 7 percent. “Companies had a lot of Zoom parties over the last year and a half. There are diminishing returns to those events. It’s hard to be very social when you gather online,” he said.

Companies had a lot of Zoom parties over the last year and a half. There are diminishing returns to those events.

Wilbur noted that in-person holiday parties can give workers the chance to bond or reconnect with colleagues they might not have seen in person for months. “For companies with a remote workforce, coming together in person can strengthen relationships and a company’s culture through recognition and simply celebrating the season and the year’s accomplishments,” she said.

Smaller companies, in particular, have additional motivation to get employees together in person since the labor market has tightened. “Small organizations don’t always have the same ability to compete with Fortune 500 companies on compensation packages and offerings, especially over the past year and a half,” he said. “I think they’re probably more likely to rely on some of the softer touches when it comes to keeping people connected to their company.”

Clayton sees this as an employer as well as an event producer. He said employees were enthusiastic when he recently reintroduced a pre-pandemic tradition of monthly company happy hours.

“People have said, ‘I never knew how much I needed that happy hour.’ It makes more of a difference than people think,” he said. “People want to get out, they want an experience.”