Free Zoom office party wallpaper. (Source: The Bash Cute Designs Studio/Shutterstock)

Virtual Office Parties Leave Much to be Desired in the Time of COVID

Party planners and service journalists have spent the past two months telling us how to host a successful virtual holiday party. Have an ugly sweater contest, they said. Host a cooking class, or do an online escape room. Send everyone a bottle of wine and do a tasting together. Have people give tours of their holiday decorations at home. Hire a DJ or a comedian.

New companies are now trying to outdo Zoom. Upstream separates people into breakout conversations. and SpatialChat both give users avatars to meet online with colleagues in virtual spaces and talk to people who are “near” them.

Maura Judkis of the covered the subject of office holiday parties and how they are affected in the world of Covid-19. The results were not encouraging, even though the ideas were entertaining.

“Erin, a 36-year-old in Ottawa who works for the Canadian government, attended a party that seemed promising. It had a mixology class — fun! But it quickly became clear that none of the employees purchased the ingredients necessary for the featured drink — a complicated, layered cocktail. Picture a Zoom grid filled with people ignoring the instructors and wandering over to their liquor cabinets to drink whatever they found inside. It had a scavenger hunt — fun! But the organizers weren’t familiar with the “breakout room” function in Zoom. Picture the chaos of 60 participants trying to coordinate with teammates in one large room, then dropping out and opening separate Zoom windows. Oops.”

Another attempt at holiday cheer resulted in embarrassment. Melissa, 27, works for a property management company in Wilmington, Del., where she is on the party-planning committee. She encouraged everyone to dress up in festive attire, not accounting for the possibility that a party held on Zoom might not get the usual buy-in. When she logged on, she said,

“I was wearing an elf outfit and a light-up headband and everybody else was just in their normal work outfits.”

Yes Melissa, we completely understand. When others don’t play along, it can all go very wrong. Then Melissa did a giveaway, spinning a wheel to determine which employees would win prizes. There was expensive stuff on the line — TVs, tablets, gift cards — and she had thought people would be excited,

“But nobody really reacted to it, so it was just me clapping,” Melissa said.

After the wheel landed on one employee who was not present, her boss direct messaged her to tell her to spin it again, but not to tell anyone the reason. That person, she later learned, had been let go that morning. The bosses hadn’t told anyone yet. Oops.

Melissa had allotted two hours for the party, thinking people would want to hang out and chat after the drawing, but no one turned on their microphones at all. The whole thing wrapped in about 45 minutes.

“I wish I would have played holiday music or something,” said Melissa, as if “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” could have saved the day.

If One Can’t See The Party

Elana, a 23-year-old in Chicago who works for an international advertising agency, isn’t so sure. Her company hired a DJ (stage name: Hesta Prynn) for its party, which took place on a Tuesday and—for anyone who wasn’t in the New York office—in the middle of the afternoon. She played good music, Elana said. The problem was that there was no way to see other colleagues or even chat with them while Prynn was on the screen for the party, which was hosted on Microsoft Teams.

Even a “Jingle Bell Rock” sing-along couldn’t save this virtual party. (Source: TikTok post)

“She was kind of trying to hype us up, which honestly was the most awkward part, because she’d be like, ‘Happy holidays, I hope everybody is ready to party!’ ” Elana said. “But none of us could respond.” Oops.

The agency’s employees spent the party watching DJ Hesta Prynn dance to her own music. Elana had a drink and logged off after an hour—usually the concentration limit for people on Zoom anyway.

“Maybe that’s the worst part about a Zoom holiday party: how much they remind us of what we’re missing. How they inspire nostalgia for small talk or the sensation of trying to balance a paper plate full of cheese cubes with a plastic cup of chardonnay. How desperately we’re looking forward to once again sitting in a corner with our best work friend, watching the folks in accounting get loud and hit the dance floor, and catching up on all the party gossip in the break room the next morning.”

There is no question that Zoom and other platforms have kept the economy in motion thanks to AI and high tech. However high tech by nature is not usually the life of the party, actual or digital. And as good as AI is, it still has not mastered stand-up comedy. Happy Holidays!