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From virtual bars to parking lot food trucks, companies host holiday parties pandemic-style

From Zoom to home-delivered wine to online avatars, some companies are trying to make merry.

Adobe Stock (Custom credit)

To complement a company-wide Zoom call in December, employees at a consulting firm in Connecticut received boxes delivered to their homes that were packed with branded pajama pants and fuzzy socks, silly hats and fake mustaches, cheese and crackers, and a bottle of Prosecco.

Given the restrictions on in-person gatherings because of the pandemic, it was the best the company, OperationsInc, could come up with to replicate its annual holiday party, traditionally held at a bar or restaurant. On those occasions, employees enjoyed a night filled with company swag, drinks, photo booths, karaoke, and ― of course ― co-workers.

This recent Zoom event “wasn’t by any means comparable to what we normally do, but it was extremely well received,” said David Lewis, OperationsInc’s chief executive. “And I don’t think people were expecting it. It’s been a rough year.”

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OperationsInc is not alone, but it doesn’t have a lot of company, either. According to a recent survey from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., of nearly 200 firms, only 23 percent planned a celebration this year. Executives say they are walking a thin line between holding worthwhile events and overwhelming workers with another online session.

David Lewis, the chief executive of consulting firm OperationsInc, sent his employees care packages for an annual holiday party, which was virtual this year.
David Lewis, the chief executive of consulting firm OperationsInc, sent his employees care packages for an annual holiday party, which was virtual this year.Courtesy of OperationsInc (Custom credit)

The internal women’s group at Boston meat delivery startup ButcherBox hosted an online gingerbread house-making event with about 40 employees as a way to continue a tradition that would normally take place in the company’s board room. The marketing team at sports analysis software company Hudl held a $25 secret gift exchange, connecting employees in Boston with those in its Nebraska headquarters. And Boston-based software firm AppNeta planned a virtual event for Monday evening, when it will raffle off prizes, such as headphones and a year’s subscription to Netflix.

Because of the move to online gatherings, employers are, in some cases, mailing items directly to employees’ homes.

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That’s why the backroom of Bauer Wine & Spirits on Newbury Street has looked “like the North Pole,” according to general manager Howie Rubin. He said companies are ordering hundreds of bottles of wine and champagne for home delivery.

Despite the logistical challenges, the absence of in-person holiday parties has been a boon for Bauer: Its corporate gift business has doubled from last year, and the shop is gaining new customers at the same time. After receiving a bottle of wine as a company gift, some people have ordered additional bottles.

“I prefer a good old-fashioned holiday party where you can just drop the stuff off and leave, but those days are gone,” Rubin said.

Some businesses have decided to pass on having large online gatherings. Boston-based online notary service Notarize, for instance, gave some departments a budget to organize smaller celebrations or to send company gifts, such as personalized swag.

“After the year we’ve all had, we’re tired, we have Zoom fatigue, we’re ready for some true relaxation with our families,” said Pat Kinsel, chief executive of Notarize.

The monotony of online meetings is what Boston startup Sophya is looking to remedy with a platform that allows employees to roam around a video game-like online space, mixing and mingling with co-workers, instead of looking at a screen of stagnant video boxes. Employees appear as virtual avatars, and they can use computer arrow keys to move around and approach others, launching and joining mini video conversations as they please.

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With Boston startup Sophya, more than 300 companies have hosted holiday parties in festive virtual rooms.
With Boston startup Sophya, more than 300 companies have hosted holiday parties in festive virtual rooms.Sophya

More than 300 groups have hosted a holiday party using the technology, including Harvard Medical School and venture capital firms, but Sophya is also “renting” out rooms to companies on a monthly and annual basis to use for everyday work. Some holiday parties using the software have featured a “virtual bar” — which is hooked up to a real alcohol delivery service — so attendees can order drinks during the event.

“It has been super fast-paced,” said Vishal Punwani, Sophya’s chief executive. “We’ve gone gangbusters in the corporate world.”

Princeton-based NEADS World Class Service Dogs decided to get real for its holiday celebration ― it hosted a socially distanced event in its parking lot earlier this month. The staff decorated a Christmas tree, held an ugly sweater contest, and ate grilled cheese and pulled pork sandwiches from a food truck.

“We wanted to make it fun and festive, but still safe,” said chief executive Gerry DeRoche.

NEADS World Class Service Dogs in Princeton held a holiday party outdoors this year, which featured an ugly sweater contest.
NEADS World Class Service Dogs in Princeton held a holiday party outdoors this year, which featured an ugly sweater contest.

For DeRoche, it was important to bring his employees together, even if it meant bundling up and making bonfire in an old clothing dryer.

“We have a pretty young staff overall, and they have never experienced anything like this — almost none of them remember 9/11 for example,” he said. “This is really disruptive and scary to them. One thing we have heard is that they miss their friends. I think it weighs heavily on them.”

Lewis, from OperationsInc, which works with more than 1,000 human resources clients, said he recommends employers find a way to celebrate the end of the year with their staff, although he understands that won’t be feasible for some.

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“While it would be a huge boost in morale, and in line with how the organizations have operated in the past, there are a lot of companies we work with that do not have the financial means to do something,” he said.


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.