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10 Alternatives to the Holiday Office Party

Keep the Ho-Ho-Ho Low Cost, Low Key, and Fun for Time Challenged Employees

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Money is in short supply this year in many organizations. So is energy, time, and employee engagement. "Only 79% of organizations are holding an office party for the holidays, according to Joel Stein, writing in BusinessWeek.com. International executive search firm Amrop Battalia Winston says it's the lowest percentage in the 30 years that the company has conducted its poll.

"The figure is also down 2% from last year and 16 percent from 2002-04. Almost as bad, 27% of celebrating companies say their event will be more modest than last year's." The same article says that: “Even more disturbingly, Arlington (Va.)-based publishing company Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) claims that only 58% of company holiday parties will serve alcohol this year—down from an already startling 61% last year."

The loss of the holiday office party may be symptomatic of the continuing economic woes. It may also reflect 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 when their personal compensation is already affected – and may be affected even more severely, by the upcoming healthcare overhaul and other Washington initiatives.

Employees are working with low salary increase expectations. Coworkers laid off have not been replaced, and the work has multiplied to fill more than the available time. Employees are working harder to accomplish the same goals. And, employee finances outside of work, are stretched to cover family holiday celebrations.

Celebrate Without the Traditional Office Party

But, 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 when holiday traditions, like the holiday office party, are on the skids. But, the emphasis for alternatives to the office party, is on low-cost activities with a big fun kick. Minimal investment of energy and time in planning and execution is also appreciated by stressed-out employees.

Here are ideas to create the merry, merry in the ho-ho-ho season, 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 office party.

Make Cookies for a Holiday Cookie Tasting

Exchange Cookies as an Office Party Alternative
Copyright Kelly Talele
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 – and do ask, not assume interest from holiday-stressed bakers – you can also sponsor a cookie exchange.

Schedule an Ugly Holiday Sweater Day

Ugly Holiday Sweater Day Is an Alternative to an Office Party
Scott Kleinman
In its third 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

In-House Lunch and Games Are an Office Party Alternative
Image Copyright Jack Puccio
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

A Holiday Card Exchange Is an Office Party Alternative
Employees sign up to exchange cards with coworkers. As your company becomes larger, the cost and time involved in sending cards to all coworkers becomes prohibitive for many employees. Why not pull names from a hat so coworkers can still exchange cards, say 1-5, rather than sending to the whole office. Or, limit cards to departments. Spread the holiday cheer with holiday cards sent in smaller doses. If using a drawing, names should be entered 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

Consider Charitable Alternatives to an Office Party
Paul Burns / Getty Images

Employees find charitable giving motivational and exciting. Pinpoint the charities 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.

Employees build 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

Hold an Office Potluck in Lieu of a Holiday Office Party
Kelly Mullins

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 a special 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

Woman Decorating the Office as an Alternative to an Office Party
Tomaz Levstek

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 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 other 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

Secret Santa Is an Alternative to an Office Party

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 of my client companies. 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.

I remember coming in to surprises in my mail box, on my desk, 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

Schedule a Party Later in the Year as a Holiday Office Party Alternative
Copyright Michael Smith

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. Each company 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 blow out when employees are over-celebrated and over-stressed.

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

Low-Key and Casual Is the Office Party Theme
Copyright Nina Kaiser

Maybe your organization still wants to hold an office party for the holidays. You can hold a fun, less costly alternative to the traditional fancy blow outs. 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 casual surroundings make these parties fun for all.

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...

How do you celebrate holidays and events in your workplace? Please share.

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