Employers are turning to virtual alternatives to replace holiday parties this year

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With large parts of the workforce remote and COVID-19 cases on the rise, corporate parties and social gatherings are off the table this holiday season.

Employers are now tasked with finding new, affordable and safe ways to build engagement with their employees. For many companies, that means turning to virtual alternatives to the traditional holiday party.

“Human beings are social and need avenues to build friendships and grow them,” says Ed Stevens, CEO and founder of Preciate, a virtual socializing platform for businesses. “When we look at how to do that virtually, we know it's possible. We need to create a world where people can come and feel safe, have fun and most importantly know that this is 100% not work time.”

However, holiday parties are “impossible to do well” on video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts, Stevens says. While these are now standard virtual gathering places, they won’t work for an end-of-year bash.

“Those tools only allow one person to speak at a time, you can’t move around and you can't mingle,” Stevens says. “There isn't really a context of a social experience.”

The Preciate platform attempts to replicate the atmosphere of real-life business socials and mixers, using 3D social presence technology. Participants can move away or toward people to start a conversation, hear the background noise of other people chatting and give toasts. The experience can rebuild connections that may have been lost since the start of the pandemic, Stevens says.

“While there's a lot of advantages to remote work, there's also this loneliness epidemic and social deficit for people who are working from home right now,” Stevens says. “There's a lot of people who like going to work and our research found that more than 50% of people have made their best or a very good friend at work.”

See also: Virtual walks and free chocolate? What pros say the new office will look like

While it may be tempting to skip the holiday party entirely in favor of other forms of appreciation like gift cards or baskets, taking away social events altogether is not the way to go, says Bicé Grobstein, executive vice president at LulaFit, an amenities management company.

“Yes, it's going to look and feel different, but we could still make this interesting and fun,” Grobstein says. “[Employers should] do what they can to make the best out of our moment right now, and really lean into it and embrace it.”

LulaFit recently added virtual holiday parties to their online employee experience offerings. The virtual events incorporate a mix of live entertainment and interactive activities to encourage employees to connect in the holiday spirit, including live music, magic shows, wine tastings and wreath-making classes.

LulaFit’s platform also offers the option of having breakout rooms where employees can network and talk to each other.

“Having that optionality instead of it just being a static one screen — where nothing's really changing except for people who are speaking on it — allows you to reimagine and get much more creative and interesting with these parties,” Grobstein says.

Socializing and mingling with peers is not the only perk with virtual holiday parties — they can also be practical, inclusive and convenient for employees, while being cost-effective for employers, Stevens says.

“You don't need to get childcare and you don't have to travel, so there's no drinking and driving,” he says. “If you need to jump out to go take care of something, you can come back five minutes later. A virtual party is much more inclusive and can be just as much fun.”

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