COVID-19 has taken away many things that we have taken for granted and the recent Stage 4 restrictions in Victoria and border closures have further challenged the lives of Australians. With large gatherings of people likely to be restricted for the foreseeable future, many workplaces are making the tough decision to cancel the annual employee Christmas party.

Just as the shops are preparing to fill their stores with Christmas trees and tinsel, HR departments are having discussions with CEOs about cancelling the employee Christmas party to mitigate risk. 2020 has proven to be a year that will shape the way Australians work forever and with this comes fundamental challenges to workplace rituals.

Many employees have been pushed to their limits this year. Balancing the ‘double duty’ of home schooling and work, overcoming social isolation and facing job and financial uncertainty. For some, the Christmas party has been a glimmer of hope to reunite with our workmates and look back on the 2020 work year as one we would rather forget.

As we enterthe last quarter of the year, the likelihood of securing a venue that is allowed to host a party is slim and, in some states, will not even be permitted. One by one, organisations are accepting that their party plans will not happen. It is a disappointing, but understandable scenario as minimising public health implications needs to be everyone’s top priority.

Alternatives to embrace the Christmas spirit

The COVID Grinch may have stolen Christmas this year, but there are other ways that organisations can embrace the Christmas spirit:

Use the Christmas budget for a much needed charity

Christmas parties don’t come cheap and cancelling the event provides organisations with a choice. Sure, most businesses would benefit from divertingthe funds back into the business, but if ever there was a year to spread the Christmas cheer - this is it. Consider conducting an employee survey asking which charity(s) workers would like their ‘Christmas party’ fund donated to. Alternatively, use the money to buy toys and household essentials for families doing it tough and organise a roster for employees to prepare a ‘heart hamper’ for those in need.

Christmas in July

December has long been the month where workmates come together to celebrate the year that was in the warm weather, but this is no ordinary year and for some businesses and employees there will not be the usual appetite to celebrate. Instead of cancelling Christmas, consider postponing the annual celebration to July 2021. Not only will this provide employers with time to stabilise the ship, but it will create a new and unique way for employees to come together. In anticipation of relaxed restrictions, perhaps it is the perfect time for a hot Christmas dinner around the crackling fire at the local pub.

Host a Secret Santa online gift exchange

Secret Santa is a long standing office tradition, but COVID-19 does not have to be the end of giving and receiving hilarious novelty gifts. Online apps such as Elfster will help to keep the spirit of Secret Santa alive. It features an online gift swap organisers, wish lists, personalised recommendations and charitable giving options. Best of all, it simplifies the entire name swapping process and will ensure that this much loved tradition remains a source of fun and team building. Organisations can consider sharing the present opening via video conferencing and even play festive tunes in the background.

Give the gift of time

Time is a precious commodity and underused as a reward for employees. The festive season is still a busy time, even if we are not rushing between events. Consider providing employees with an agreed amount of time to spend however they choose. Encourage employees to take a day off in lieu of the Christmas party and empower them to do something that makes them happy.

Who cooks the best turkey?

Cooking competitions such as MasterChef, My Kitchen Rules and Plate of Origin, have us all thinking that we can whip up a culinary delight. We may not be able to bring in our food to share, but there are endless opportunities to embrace the Christmas spirit through virtual cooking competitions, sharing of old family recipes and creative cookie making.

Break the online party into small groups

Whilst some organisations will think an online Christmas party is the way to go, participating as one of what feels like a hundred squares on a video conference is likely to leave employees feeling more isolated than connected. Before deciding that the answer is to ‘take the party online’ take a moment to consider that for some this will feel more like a work obligation than an engaging activity. Empower each team to decide as a group how they want to connect over the festive season.

Send a festive hamper or gift voucher

Organisations may feel like employees will be gutted if they don’t get the usual two course menu at the local restaurant for Christmas, but many employees would love that money converted into a festive gift hamper or a voucher to contribute to their grocery shopping. Consider reallocating the ‘per head’ spend into something that directly benefits the employee and their family.

Virtual wine tasting

Sure, nothing beats the fresh air and sensory overload of a group wine tour to some of our country’s best regions, but a closed cellar door doesn’t necessary spell the end of the wine tasting experience. Many wineries have taken the lead by bringing the cellar door experience to your lounge room. Perhaps a virtual wine tasting experience complete with cheese and crackers is the festive team building activity your employees will remember most. Contact your local winery to hear about how they pivoted their business model to create a unique virtual experience.

‘No business’ virtual hangouts

Video conferencing is essential for business, but in this climate, it can also host all sorts of weird and wonderful events. Christmas carol karaoke anyone? Maybe you are more into a Christmas costume competition? The essential ingredient here is to make these events optional and without obligation. Let the employees decide what they opt into and be accepting when they decline the opportunity to sing Jingle Bells with reindeer ears!

Pay it forward

2020 has been a tough year, and most employees have worked and hustled harder than ever before just to keep the same level of sales, productivity and customer retention. Consider setting up an online ‘thank you’ system where employees are provided with a virtual gift card and asked to ‘pay it forward’ to a peer who they believe most deserves it. Organisations can choose the dollar amount, but the true value is in employees taking the time to reflect on who they would like to recognise.

The virtual Christmas lunch

Some businesses have a long standing tradition of preparing a Christmas meal at their workplace to simulate the family Christmas experience. This may be off the table, but why not ask team members to select their favourite meal and organise to have it sent directly to their home for a virtual Christmas lunch. With providers such as Uber Eats and Menu Log, it has never been easier to enjoy your favourite meal at home.

Provide a voucher for a local restaurant

The hospitality industry is on its knees and providing vouchers for employees to use in the local restaurants once restrictions have lifted is a great way to give back to the local community as well as saying thank you to team members for their hard work. This option also provides employees with the choice to enjoy a meal out with their family or friends at a time when discretionary spending is more difficult. Consider sending the voucher with a hand written thank you note from the CEO.

Help employees indulge in a passion

Employees may not be interested in learning more about the organisation’s software, but attending an online course for photography, drawing or wine appreciation may be more their thing. Consider providing a voucher for employees to use at online providers such as Skillshare or Udemy to ignite their passion well beyond the Christmas period.

Be inclusive

A diverse and inclusive workplace means that not everyone’s personal, cultural or religious beliefs have them celebrating Christmas. Before you launch a competition where every staff member is expected to upload a photo of their decorated Christmas tree, take a breath to ensure that you are being sensitive to the beliefs of every employee – not just the majority.

It’s not all bad

There are definitely going to be employees in 2020 who are genuinely upset that the Christmas party will be cancelled, but there will also be a proportion of employees that will be relieved. For some, the work party is an obligation that they would rather avoid and others cringe at the thought of watching Anthony from accounts take the dance floor with a tinsel necklace. Many employees attend work events because they are expected to - but would prefer not to have the pressure of creating small talk with people they would not usually socialise with.

The COVID Grinch may very well have stolen Christmas this year, but it does not mean that all is lost as our traditional approach to workplace celebrations is getting a much needed facelift. The silver lining for the HR community is that they will not lose the first half of January dealing with the fall out of the infamous Christmas party – as this year work colleagues won’t be caught kissing under the mistletoe.

Further information

For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call ourWorkplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice and resources

Ai Group is continually publishing new COVID-19 advice and resources for employers:

  • Specific HR Resource Centre and Health & Safety Resource Centre content to assist members during the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here.
  • DedicatedCOVID-19member advice, industry news, resources andlatest information can be found here.

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior HR Content Editor – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.