Office Holiday Party. 10 Alternatives

By Susan M. Heathfield

Bolstered by an economy that has made some significant strides over the last few years and healthy corporate profits, a survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. shows that more of the nation’s employers are ready to break out their party hats during the holiday season. A new survey shows that not only are companies planning holiday parties this year, but many also expect to increase spending on these employee shindigs.

”In its annual survey on holiday party plans, global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. found that 80 percent of companies are planning to host holiday parties this year. Of these, just over 21 percent are budgeting more for their events.”

But recognize that employers increasingly have less tolerance for annual office party shenanigans involving career busting episodes with alcohol overindulgence.

Employees demonstrate little appreciation for expensive investments in an office party if their personal compensation is affected by slowing company sales that result in low salary increases and the loss of bonuses or profit sharing. The potential for increased costs to employees via Washington initiatives such as the increased costs of Obamacare is also a player in employee thoughts about office parties.

Celebrate Without the Traditional Office Party—or in Addition

It is still the holiday season, an opportunity for employers and employees to participate in team building, morale increasing holiday adventures—together. A time to involve employee families in fun interaction with their coworkers is encouraged and needed.

So, if a holiday office party is affordable and wanted by your employees—hold one. Otherwise,  the emphasis in these alternatives to the holiday office party is on low-cost activities with a big fun kick. The minimal investment of energy and time in planning and execution is also appreciated by stressed-out employees.

You may also find that employees are overrun with celebrations during the holiday season and you may have better luck attracting employees to attend outside of the season from Thanksgiving to January 1. For example, TechSmith Corporation found that the majority of employees and their spouses and partners were able to attend the annual adult party when it became the company birthday party in February.

They still hold a family luncheon on Christmas Eve at noon and many employees, their children, spouses, and partners, who are not traveling for the holiday, attend. In fact, many hit the luncheon and then leave on their holiday journey. (This is another holiday party alternative.)

With all of this in mind, here are ideas about how to embrace the holiday spirit without committing a lot of employee time, hard earned cash, or energy. Your employees and their families will appreciate your low-key alternatives to an expensive, energy-consuming, scary office party.

Make Cookies for a Holiday Cookie Tasting

With company-supplied punch, soft drinks, and mulled cider, ask employees to bring in a plate of cookies to share with their coworkers. Keep the event low pressure by specifying that bakery products are welcome, too. Make sure the company orders a supply of bakery cookies to ensure that every employee has a chance to sample a variety.

Make the event festive with holiday music and gift certificate prizes for the bakers of the employees’ favorite cookies. If your employees are interested, you can also sponsor a cookie exchange.

Schedule an Ugly Holiday Sweater Day

In its sixth year, so well on its way to becoming an annual tradition, employees at TechSmith Corporation select a day to wear and enjoy their favorite glittery, holiday-only, ugly sweaters and sweatshirts.

Selected and loved with poor taste and abandon, the contest to wear the ugliest holiday sweater of all sparks fun and laughter all day long. Accompany the festivity with photos and company-supplied refreshments for all.

Hold an In-House Catered Lunch With Employee Fun and Games

A client company’s annual tradition, instead of an office party, involved closing down production four hours early on an afternoon during the holiday season. Company-supplied beer and wine and a catered sandwich fixings/hot soups or turkey lunch highlighted the festivities, but the emphasis was on employees playing games together.

Card games, shuffleboard, basketball, board games, Pictionary, table tennis, pool, and more, sparked hours of fun and friendly competition and de-emphasized drinking.

Participate in a Holiday Card Exchange

Employees sign up to exchange cards with coworkers. As your company becomes larger, the cost and time involved in sending cards to all coworkers become prohibitive for many employees. Why not pull names from a hat so coworkers can still exchange cards, say 1-5, rather than send to the whole office. Or, limit cards to departments.

Spread the holiday cheer with holiday cards sent in smaller doses. If you are using a drawing, enter the employee names the same number of times as the number of cards each employee agrees to send. Keep your recipients secret. Do the drawing at a company lunch, ugly sweater day, or cookie exchange.

Make a Charitable Contribution in Lieu of an Office Party

Employees find charitable giving motivational and exciting. Pinpoint the charities that your employees support or carry our more giving for the charities identified in your company philanthropic plan if you have one.

Visual giving is most on display during the holidays. Employees enjoy seeing piles of food, gifts, clothing, and household items growing in the company lobby or break room. (But, keep in mind that physical items are difficult for charities to distribute, and most charities will tell you that they prefer gifts of cash.)

Employees build a team when they band together to paint walls for older community members to brighten their holiday season, for example. Whatever charitable pursuits you choose, you can pursue them as an alternative to the office party. Or, charitable giving can supplement any of the other ideas shared here.

Schedule an Employee Potluck Lunch

Employees may enjoy celebrating the holiday season with a potluck lunch at work. If you don’t do these too often, and you alternate them with company-supplied, catered feasts, employees enjoy showing off their culinary skills. Post a sign-up list online or in the lunch room, so employees bring a variety of foods to share.

A potluck lunch is a festive occasion, especially when you combine the potluck with any of these other alternatives to the office party, including Secret Santa and Ugly Holiday Sweater Day.

In an unusual twist to the traditional potluck fare, one client company with a large number of employees from various countries, asked employees to bring a traditional dish that represented their country’s cuisine to the potluck.

The annual holiday season potluck became the most looked forward to event of the year. Employees savored unfamiliar, but delicious dishes, that were native to their coworkers’ countries of origin.

Decorate Your Office, Cubicle, Work Area Contest

In one client company where employees worked in a manufacturing clean room environment, holiday cheer spread every year as teams of employees competed to decorate the windows that looked in on employees from outside the clean room. Employees voted on first, second, and third place winner windows.

You can sponsor a similar contest in your workplace. Positives? Your workplace is the image of holiday cheer throughout the season as employees vie in teams to decorate a work area, an office, a conference room, or a public area.

Winners are generally voted on by other employees and the gift certificate (or another small gift) award ceremony can take place in conjunction with any other activities listed in these alternatives to an office party. Do keep in mind that when a team is competing, the prize must be shared, or the equivalent provided for each team member.

Pick a Secret Santa Pal

Draw one employee name from the names submitted by employees who want to participate. Hold the cost-limited gift exchange at a potluck lunch. Even more fun? Secret Santa was a holiday-long event in one mid-sized company.

Secret Santa, still with a serious expenditure limit, engaged employees for several weeks as the Secret Santa planned a series of little gifts and surprises for their recipient.

Surprises were in employee mailboxes, on employee desks, and hanging on the restroom mirror. Other Santas were even more creative—think ribbon-festooned cubicles. Half the fun was surprising the recipient while keeping the Secret Santa’s identity under wraps.

Another internet twist on Secret Santa requires that participating employees purchase their gifts on eBay with a price limit of $25, including shipping.

Plan an Office Party for a Different Season

Because of competition for employee time, attention, energy, and investment during the December holiday season, some companies schedule a party during another time of year.

Schedule your company’s founding party in April, a mid-summer eve in July, or an early fall harvest in September. Every business has events and associations in its history that employees may want to celebrate with an office party.

Outside of the December holiday season, venues are available and less expensive. Food, dress, decorations, and drinks can be less ambitious and more casual and fun. Run wild with your imagination. Even a picnic on the company grounds may beat the holiday blowout when employees are over-celebrated and over-stressed.

Hold the Office Party – But Keep It Low-Key and Casual

Maybe your organization still wants to hold an office party for the holidays. You can hold fun, less costly alternative to the traditional fancy blowouts. You can even schedule and hold the office party at a time or location to involve families if you wish.

A combination of casual clothes (no glitter clothes to purchase), children invited (no babysitters to find), and fun, comfortable relaxed surroundings make these parties fun for all.

The key to limit alcohol consumption is to provide lots of activities. Adults and children alike enjoy Wii games and other chances to compete for small prizes, such as card games, shuffleboard, darts, and pool tournaments.

Held onsite, or in a local tavern, the key to low key includes a buffet, casual dress, and lots of team building activities to play and share with coworkers, and their families, if you choose. An enterprising employee may even want to play Santa for the kids.