7 COVID-friendly holiday party alternatives

‘Tis the season to figure out how to navigate the holidays during a pandemic.

While the world is battling pretty big challenges, the thought of not having an office holiday party might seem trivial. But when considering the positive effects on employee engagement and morale and the team-building benefits of having holiday traditions at work, it becomes a pretty big deal.

“Like so many companies, we are grappling with the ramifications of COVID-19 and balancing that harsh reality with the need to help our employees feel connected and engaged during the holiday season. This is a time of year when people typically spend more time with their family, friends and colleagues. So the absence of those social connections is amplified right now,” says Cara Smith, people & culture representative at Invoca.

“With everyone remote, we can’t hold a holiday party as a way of showing our employees our appreciation and support. You have to throw out the old playbook and rewrite it.”

Celine Harwood, senior manager of people & culture at Jonar, agrees:
“Whether your organization has turned to a virtual office, or adapted to become a more socially distanced one, one thing is clear: Work-life looks very different this holiday season,” she says.

According to her, the solution is not to simply translate in-person events to virtual ones, as the results can be disappointing — a weekly happy hour event doesn’t quite feel the same behind your computer screen.

“To be honest, this year has been rough and this holiday season doesn’t feel as festive as it has in previous years. In order to combat this, companies are looking to create virtual experiences that actually bring value to their team members, whether it teaches them something new or offers them an opportunity to let loose or connect with their colleagues in a genuine way,” says Harwood.

“Ultimately, it’s about laying the foundation with the right policies that create understanding and patience and then following that up with a variety of activities, so your employees can choose how they want to engage,” says Smith.

If you’re looking for Covid-friendly holiday party alternatives, we’ve picked the brain of these two HR experts to inspire your own festivities.


Firing up your team’s competitive spirit is a good way to turn an average virtual gathering into an engaging one. For example, Invoca is organizing an ugly Christmas sweater contest for its employees.

And Jonar is spicing up the holiday season with a hot sauce eating contest. “It’s best done in breakout rooms with smaller groups around an activity (hot sauce roulette or another type of team-building activity that can be coupled with eating chicken wings with increasingly spicy hot sauce),” says Harwood.

White Elephant gift exchange

Both Harwood and Smith recommend hosting a White Elephant gift exchange, a fun gifting game where each participant brings a gift (gag gifts are absolutely encouraged) and others are allowed to steal opened gifts if they get their pick later in the rotation.

Use a platform such as White Elephant Online to organize your virtual gift exchange party — it allows you to open and steal gifts remotely while attending on Zoom.

Care packages

“As companies will be moving away from large expensive corporate events, there’s an opportunity to put that money towards other cultural initiatives,” says Harwood, whose company is sending parcels to employees’ homes filled with festive goodies.

The best part? Not only do people love receiving packages, but you also get to support small businesses that way. And you can include self-care-inspired gifts such as subscriptions to wellness apps.

“If you’re looking for a creative way to tie all of these small gift ideas together, corporate advent calendars definitely seem to be a hit this year!” says Harwood.

Cooking and baking

“We are hosting a cookie-decorating party on December 15th and went so far as mailing employees decorating kits so that it’s that much easier for them to connect and join the fun,” says Smith.

Harwood recommends activities such as gingerbread house making, a mixology class or cooking with a local chef.

When it comes to food and drinks, the options for entertaining virtual activities are endless.

Holiday movie watch party

“My favorite is our holiday movie watch party: We have three different classic films and two viewing times to accommodate our dispersed workforce coast to coast, so people can cozy up around their screen of choice and get into the spirit with other Invocans,” says Smith.

“On top of all of the events, employees will also receive a holiday gift that will come in handy during the watch party — a cozy blanket and a Yeti mug with hot chocolate fixings.”

Magic show

Who says you have to stick to classic holiday activities? Organizing things that are off the beaten path can actually help infuse some cheer in a dreary year — you won’t be comparing the virtual activity to the in-person one that you’re missing out on.

“This year our company will have a trained magician teach us some tricks to impress our friends, family or even just our pets during this holiday season,” says Harwood.

Escape room

Escape rooms can be equally fun when executed remotely. It’s all about flexing your problem-solving muscles and once you get started, it’s easy to get super into it from home.

Plus, the bonus of doing it virtually means you can mix and match departments and bond with coworkers you wouldn’t usually get the chance to know as well.

“There are many virtual options out there to get people working in teams they wouldn’t normally interact with to collaborate and figure out the enigma,” says Harwood.

Giving back

It’s been a tough year for many, especially seniors who are struggling with loneliness and fears of catching the virus. Taking a moment to give back alongside your coworkers can be an incredibly powerful initiative.

“This holiday season is a season of giving so encouraging employees to give back by choosing charities or even writing letters to lonely senior citizens through 1letter1smile, is another great way to infuse some holiday spirit,” says Harwood.