By Gerri Detweiler

The company holiday party is making a comeback, according to new research by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The 2022 Holiday Party Survey report found that 56.9% of companies report they will be holding in-person holiday parties this year, while 2% of those surveyed will hold virtual events.

“The holiday party has always been a way for companies to show their teams they value them,” says Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Creating a space for employees to have fun together bolsters morale and connection to their employers and their work, so it really is an important retention and leadership tool for employers,” he added.

For employers with remote or hybrid teams, it can be challenging to throw a great holiday party for employees who may be scattered across multiple time zones, or even in different countries.

Here, small business owners share how they create memorable events for their teams outside the office.

How to throw a great remote holiday party

1. Choose a structure

Michael Alexis, CEO, Teambuilding.com

Teambuilding.com hosts team-building experiences for clients like Apple, Amazon, and Google. The company is 80% remote with employees in 21 states and five countries.

“For our own holiday celebration, we hold a virtual holiday party over Zoom and invite all employees. The event includes two hours of structured games and activities that are customized to our company and team members. For example, last year’s holiday party included a ‘rapid-talent’ show, where participants had one minute to show off a talent, and a ‘guess the baby’ game to identify childhood photos. We also had a prize wheel, sent a gift box to all attendees, and provided a budget for food and drink. By including gifts and additional items, you can show your appreciation in a wider range that will appeal to more people.

“Whether you choose to work with an event service or do a DIY holiday party, my number one recommendation is to focus on structure. The most popular format is a 90-minute experience that includes holiday-themed games and activities. We also have add-ons for shipped gifts, cocktails, and other customizations.”

Bonus tip: “It’s never too late to host your own virtual holiday party. If your team is busy through November and December, then it might be better to provide time off to relax and recover at the end of the year. You can always do your remote holiday celebration in January—or even February. As long as the right planning and spirit goes into it, the event will still be successful.”

2. Create memories

Jaleh Bisharat, Cofounder and CEO, NakedPoppy

NakedPoppy is a clean beauty e-tailer and hosts self-care parties over Zoom. NakedPoppy is 100% remote with team members in five major U.S. cities. Each holiday season NakedPoppy gathers the team together remotely over Zoom to celebrate all that they have accomplished and toast each other.

“Follow-up materials are a fun reminder of a special memory. Don’t forget to snap and share a photo! At NakedPoppy we follow up with a short video or written email (depending on preference) reminding everyone of what they learned at the event.”

Bonus tips:

1. People love receiving goodies for the holidays. Thoughtful, pretty packages that arrive in advance and tie to the event have a big impact.

2. Respect people’s time. Start on time; make sure any guided activities are well-rehearsed and keep their attention. As much as possible, engage attendees with hands-on activities.

3. Depending on the size of the event, leave ample time for unstructured party chatter. We schedule time for people to stay on Zoom for an additional 30 minutes to laugh and enjoy.

3. Start planning early

Jonathan Fishbeck, Founder and CEO, EstateSpace

EstateSpace is a secure online platform that helps individuals, business, and family offices simplify how they manage physical assets and estates. It is fully remote with employees in eight states.

“Last year at EstateSpace we facilitated a virtual Secret Santa happy hour as a way to engage our team during the holiday season. We made it optional—all those who wanted to participate created a ‘wish list’ to help their Santa shop, and names were drawn via an online platform.

“We started the event with a year-end update that led into a holiday-themed icebreaker question so that each team member could share their favorite holiday tradition or memory. We then ended the event by opening gifts. We set a $25 price limit, based on feedback from those participating, and the happy hour was scheduled for an hour at the end of a workday (4-5 p.m.). It was especially fun learning about each of the different traditions that our team members look forward to celebrating with their loved ones every year—no two answers were the same!

“My advice to other employers is to start planning your virtual holiday party early! We started this process in early November to allow employees time to budget, plan their wish lists, and shop. Wish lists were then distributed mid-November well ahead of the holiday sales, so that team members could take advantage of these shopping days.”

4. Include games

Antonella Pisani, CEO and Founder, Eyeful Media

Eyeful Media is a digital marketing and consulting firm. The company is fully remote with employees in 16 states and 23 cities.

“We celebrate the holidays with remote employees via an ugly holiday sweater virtual happy hour, paired with an in-person volunteer event for those in Dallas. Last year, we had a special video appearance by the Grinch—but she brought holiday cheer!

“It’s been tricky to find a game that works for a larger group, but one that we like is ‘Two Truths a Lie’ since it allows our team to get to know each other better.” (In the game Two Truths and a Lie, a person shares three things about themselves, except that one of the statements is false. The group tries to guess the lie.)

Bonus tip: “We’ve occasionally used the breakout function (on Zoom) to let smaller groups chat since it can be awkward having a lot of people in the same room.”

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5. Gift cards are great

Dan Manian, CEO and Cofounder, Donut

Donut is a Slack extension that helps companies foster deeper culture, connection, and employee belonging. It is 100% remote with employees in 12 states.

“To help keep our events inclusive for all our team members, we always try to be mindful of our employees’ time and preferences. We don’t plan our parties in the evenings, and we avoid activities that revolve around alcohol. We want everyone at our company to feel like they are able to participate, and decisions like this help remove potential barriers.

“We’ve been remote for a few years now, and digital gift cards are great because they are easy, customizable, and cost-effective. But there’s something nice about getting something physical in the mail once in a while, especially if it’s personalized!

“For our holiday party we plan to switch it out with a baking class or painting activity. Not only are these activities fun and hands-on, but they also give our team something physical to remember the party by, even though we aren’t together in person. We prioritize bonding at Donut, and holiday celebrations are a wonderful time to share our interests and passions outside of work.”

Bonus tip: “We know that folks generally travel to see friends and family in the winter months. We don’t want to add another level of complication to their plans, and we want them to feel free to book travel far in advance, which is another reason for keeping our holiday events virtual.”

6. Be inclusive

Patrick Sheahan, CEO, Circa

Circa is a diversity recruitment and HR compliance technology solution company. It has employees (remote and hybrid) in 19 states.

“This time of the year gives us an opportunity to create awareness and learn about the different expressions of the holidays and how each culture or group celebrates them uniquely, whether religious or non-religious, including those who do not celebrate at all.

“So consider making your office holiday festivities an inclusive celebration for all, just like we did at Circa, where we decked out our office in inclusive décor with a menorah, a Yule log, a kinara—all side-by-side with the Christmas tree. We even had a Festivus tree for those who do not celebrate!

“With inclusivity as a foundation, as we manage an increasingly distributed and hybrid workforce with some employees in the office and some working remotely, it’s important to revisit our practices and adapt them to our hybrid existence.

“Make sure everyone has an opportunity to participate. Consider hybrid gatherings where remote employees can be ‘present’ in the moment while the event is being held in a communal space. In addition to video, utilize the chat room to ‘bring them in’ to the festivities. Assign one or two people on the team who are responsible for engaging the employees attending remotely.”

Bonus tip: “Show your remote employees you care. Whether it is a gift basket, a greeting card, or a gift card, sending something lets them know you are thinking of them.”

7. Try contests, games, and awards

Jason Jani, Entertainer and Owner, SCE Event Group

SCE Event Group is a premier entertainment company specializing in creative and personalized event services from DJs to photo booths. Since the pandemic, 90% of the team is remote and 10% is hybrid.

“Keeping it interactive and engaging is the key to the success of a remote holiday party. By introducing contests, games, awards, and doing a bit of pre-planning, the attendees will see this as more than just another Zoom meeting and will be glad to attend.”

Bonus tips:

1. Hire a virtual DJ to help create the perfect soundtrack for the party and engage the attendees.

2. Have a virtual photo booth to bring a fun “in-person” element to the [computer] screens. Guests can use their phones to create a branded photo booth experience with photos, boomerangs, and even gifs.

3. Implement a food theme and cater [a meal to] the remote employees. A delivery order or credit for Uber Eats or similar means you can deliver food to each person’s house, and have them enjoy it together.

4. Create a theme and have everyone dress up accordingly; even make it a contest: best ugly sweater, most festive, etc.

5. Plan an interactive game like Kahoot! which keeps everyone engaged. Questions can be trivia about the holidays in general, holiday movies, holiday songs, or even about the company. Award winners a gift card or gift of some kind.

6. Have a holiday virtual backdrop contest and make it a game with attendees—whoever has the most festive or creative backdrop wins!

About the Author

Credit and financing expert Gerri Detweiler is the author or coauthor of five books, including Finance Your Own Business: Get on the Financing Fast Track with attorney Garrett Sutton. Her articles have been widely syndicated and she has testified before Congress about credit legislation.

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