Christmas parties are being organised virtually by businesses whose offices are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A vaccine will arrive too late for office parties, so companies have invested in digital events and activities.
Food deliveries, workshops and live entertainment have been planned virtually for staff.
The aim is to boost morale, when some home-workers are feeling isolated.
Hire Space has pivoted from organising events at large venues, to hosting virtual parties with a difference.
Clients begin by selecting an entrance experience – for example a comedy bouncer who checks dress code on the way in – and then choose from more than thirty immersive rooms, from burlesque to dance floors.
Guests can move between rooms using a clickable party map, showing the different performances and where the guests are.
Virtual toilets and smoking areas are even included.
“It has been a huge success for us after a really difficult year,” Will Swannell, co-founder at Hire Space, says, adding that they’re now hiring again after previous job losses.
For those tired of online quizzes, there are escape rooms and other immersive experiences.
Digital Murder Mystery Co. plans virtual murder mystery parties, hosted by an actor. Guests are sent character details in advance.
“It helps to keep team-building alive and kicking,” Christina Rhodes, co-founder, says.
“It is crucial that teams still feel that they belong, even though they can’t interact outside of work.”
Food and drink
The culture of a working lunch continues – with many restaurants, chefs and caterers moving to takeaways and deliveries.
One Fine Dine delivers freshly cooked, haute cuisine meals simultaneously to guests as part of its Christmas party offering, meaning no awkward pauses on the video call.
“We had one company of 70 who all got on Zoom together,” Daniel Hulme, founder of One Fine Dine, says.
“Food is a universal language – it connects people. You can share the experience virtually.”
South Catering usually supplies corporate clients with food for meetings, training, events and away-days.
It now provides boxes of meals and snacks for staff working from home and has launched a three-course Christmas meal for its clients.
“The last few months has been about adjusting to a radical change, with companies realising that some of their employees are struggling with working from home,” Justin Gilchrist, chief executive of South Catering, explains.
“Many offices have perks that include heavily subsidised meals and in-office snacks and drinks.
“We try to make it easy to reward and motivate staff working at home who are missing their pre-pandemic office activities.”
But other offices will be working for their supper, through live cooking events.
Jane Smart runs Soho 15, which delivers leadership training.
Normally, she would plan a two-day event with speakers, sessions and down-time.
This year, she’s booked a team cookery class through Cookalong.tv.
The menu is arranged, ingredients and wine pairings delivered, and live coaching given by professional chefs on video call.
“Everyone loves the fact that it will be a shared experience, that we will be learning some new skills from our expert chef and having great fun in the process,” she says.
“We will be in our own homes, with partners joining in, and it will be a unique experience.”
Other companies have arranged workshops, including cocktail-mixing, wreath-making and beauty treatments.
“We have done quite a few corporate events so far for advertising agencies, wellness brands and fashion labels,” Katie White, facialist and founder of Re:lax London, says.
“It’s a great way for firms to boost morale and do something enjoyable as a team and it shows that the employers are interested in their employees’ wellbeing.”
The sessions cover everything from mindful breathing to facial massage.
Jo Woodward, founder of Wreath Making Delivered, adds that her business has been “completely overwhelmed with demand” and has already reached capacity on most dates.
It sends wreath kits to staff, who then follow a tutorial on video call.
“We also have some international events, which means that colleagues from all over Europe can get together, virtually, to enjoy their Christmas parties for the first time,” she adds.
Although lockdown has shut live entertainment venues, private gigs are being held online for businesses.
NextUp hosts virtual comedy events from comedians’ homes, some featuring Eddie Izzard and Richard Herring.
Performances have varied from traditional stand-up to interactive quizzes.
“When a company moves online virtually – the social side has to as well, not just the work,” Dan Berg co-founder of NextUp says.
“Comedy is needed more than ever, it’s been a challenging time.”
And live music is also catering to virtual office parties.
Encore hires around 500 musicians per month to deliver virtual live music packages.
One of its most popular offerings is a Zoom Bomb experience, in which musicians appear via a video call to surprise employees with a song.
“Am now totally obsessed,” Emma Sinclair, co-founder of Enterprise Alumni tweeted, after organising a surprise rap performance in a virtual meeting.
“Companies are keen to keep their workforces engaged and happy, especially during the winter months when we are locked down,” James McAuley, chief executive of Encore, adds.
“Crucially, January is a time when many employees start to look for a new role, and so it’s vital that companies keep their teams happy and cohesive in the run-up to Christmas.”