No, you don’t have to go to your company’s virtual holiday party

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Some employers are hosting virtual holiday parties this year. Getty Images
  • Only 23% of companies in a survey by the executive-outplacement firm Challenger Grey & Christmas said they were having virtual holiday parties this year.
  • Virtual holiday parties are one creative way employers have adapted during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • But employees are feeling “Zoom fatigue,” or exhaustion from spending so much time on video calls.
  • If you host a virtual holiday party, be flexible, and don’t be hard on employees who aren’t interested in participating.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The holidays are one of my favourite times of the year.

I enjoy doing all the typical activities: spending time with family and friends, baking cookies, and exchanging gifts.

But I also look forward to the holidays for another reason: the company holiday party. Regardless of where I worked, it was a time to catch up with colleagues over a few free cocktails before everyone left for their respective celebrations.

But this year, instead of sipping a drink surrounded by teammates, I found myself alone in my apartment, logging into a livestream from my couch.

Enter the virtual holiday party. Not unlike the virtual happy hour, it’s a trend some employers (mine included) are investing in during the pandemic.

Virtual holiday parties can be fun — but, unsurprisingly, a Zoom meeting pales in comparison to a lively bar decked out with holiday lights and music. Maybe that’s why only 23% of companies in a recent survey by the executive-outplacement firm Challenger Grey & Christmas said they were hosting one this year. Of that group, 74% are having virtual events.

Even as someone who truly loves the holidays, I have found it hard to get myself in the spirit this year. I’m not the only one who feels this way. In a July survey from MetLife, nearly one in three workers said they felt burned out.

So while employers might feel that a virtual holiday party is a great way to get people in the holiday spirit, they still need to be mindful that some employees might not want to celebrate at all.

Virtual holiday parties could exacerbate Zoom fatigue

The virtual holiday party is in line with the many creative strategies companies are using to create some semblance of a culture during the pandemic.

For example, Carbon, a 3D-printing company, hosted a paint night for its interns, and Fivetran, a software company, held a virtual Olympics. OneDay, a video-technology company, gives four employees per month the opportunity to stay in an Airbnb in the US state of their choosing.

Clearly, there are a lot of ways companies can get creative with their virtual culture. And there are benefits to setting aside time for employees to speak face-to-face. Video calls can help employees develop — and nurture — relationships, especially if someone is new to the team. It can also eliminate some of the awkward miscommunications that occur over chat.

But employees are getting tired of video calls. “Zoom fatigue,” or the exhaustion you experience from being on video calls all day, is a legitimate concern.

Laura Dudley, a behaviour analyst at Northeastern University, said that missing the nonverbal cues that you would normally experience in person can be taxing on our brains. It’s hard, for example, to maintain eye contact with someone over video chat.

“You might find yourself toggling back and forth between your webcam and the other person, but this is not the same as sustained, joint eye contact between two people,” Dudley told [email protected] earlier this year. “And keep in mind that the other person is probably doing the same toggling.”

When you spend all day on video calls for work, it also becomes much less enjoyable to use the same platform for fun activities, she said.

“We used to take breaks from people by spending time on our gadgets,” Dudley said. “Now, we take breaks from our gadgets by seeking out real, live human connection.”

Maybe that’s why I felt ambivalent about logging into a virtual holiday party — though I did end up enjoying myself. After spending all day at my computer, the last thing I want to do is spend more time on it.

Plus, the holidays can be a tough time for people in general, especially when the nation is collectively grieving the loss of hundreds of thousands of Americans to the coronavirus.

But there are some benefits to hosting a virtual gathering. In-person holiday parties can be breeding grounds for bad behaviour, which could include everything from awkward conversations to sexual assault.

A virtual party is a good way to minimise some of these problems, though it may not eliminate them entirely.

Some companies have chosen to get rid of parties altogether, opting instead to give employees gift cards or paid time off. If you’re at a loss for how to celebrate, it may be useful to poll your employees to see what they want.

Regardless of what your company chooses, don’t be too down on yourself if you’re not feeling it. And if you’re an employer, be flexible. Leave room for employees to bow out of social activities if they aren’t in the mood, such as by saying explicitly that there’s no pressure to attend.

You might just find these events are more fun, and fulfilling, if you give employees the opportunity to celebrate in the way that works for them.