COVID-friendly Holiday Parties: A Checklist for Keeping Employees Safe

Protect employees this holiday season by following these guidelines for holiday festivities.

christmas decorations
Safety-first tips for celebrating the holiday season with employees

The end of the year is typically a time to wind down, reflect on past events, and spend quality time with family and loved ones. Holiday work events are no exception, representing an opportunity for companies to promote their preferred business culture, solidify their commitment to their employees, and encourage positive socialization across all hierarchy levels.

According to the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness (CMOE), planning a holiday office party can significantly improve your organization’s culture.

“The end of the year often consists of meeting many simultaneous deadlines, tying up loose ends, and pushing harder to meet end-of-year goals. Even employees who work at companies with strong cultures will often feel a dip in morale as December comes to a close. Holiday parties are an opportunity to reinvigorate employees and remind them of the reasons why they chose to work for your company.”

Holiday parties are an opportunity to reinvigorate employees and remind them of the reasons why they chose to work for your company.”

But the mounting travel and gathering restrictions due to rising COVID-19 infection rates worldwide spell disaster for most company celebrations, particularly if multiple people from different households attend them.

2020 holiday parties

The Challenger, Grey, and Christmas, Inc 2020 Holiday Party Survey conducted on 189 HR professionals from companies across the U.S. found that only 23% of companies plan to hold holiday celebrations at all this year compared to 76% last year, and out of those almost 3/4 (74%) will make their event exclusively virtual. But these numbers aren’t really surprising. According to Andrew Challenger, Senior VP, “It’s difficult to celebrate and implement all the precautions needed to keep everyone safe. The last thing any employer wants is an outbreak due to their year-end party.”

While it might be tempting (and simply easier) to simply cancel work-related celebrations until after the pandemic is over, it would be a mistake to not rise to the challenge and strive to find alternative ways in which to spread holiday cheer, whether in person or remotely.

“Millions of Americans are still out of work and many others are waiting to hear if their jobs still exist. Of those who are employed, many may be experiencing survivor syndrome or are dealing with other energy- and morale-sapping issues at home. It is imperative that companies look for ways to celebrate their employees,”concludes the 2020 Challenger Holiday Party Survey team.

While it might be tempting (and simply easier) to simply cancel work-related celebrations until after the pandemic is over, it would be a mistake to not rise to the challenge and strive to find alternative ways in which to spread holiday cheer.

So if you are planning an in-person party (and your local and state rules allow you to), be sure to follow these tips.

Conduct a hazard assessment of the party location

Each location comes with its own set of risks and advantages to evaluate:

  • Is the space indoors or outdoors?
  • Are there enough bathrooms?
  • Does everyone need to take the same elevator?
  • Would the food be brought to each place setting or is the catering buffet style?
  • Can you modify the seating arrangement to accommodate social distancing?

Try to foresee potential hazards before making important decisions.

Once the risk factors are identified, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends developing hazard controls to mitigate the risks each of them poses. For instance, if the weather allows it, host an open air celebration rather than an indoors one. The latest studies show that the chance for coronavirus transmission is 20 times higher indoors than it is outdoors, so congregating in well-ventilated areas is a preferable route.

However if outdoor temperatures are far too frigid, shift your strategy and focus on finding an interior space with a modern HVAC system and plenty of cohabitable space. Further reduce the risks by allowing guests to spread out and keep constant 6-foot distances from others by changing the seating arrangements and avoiding serving food and drinks on a single surface. Even implementing simple measures such as encouraging guests to mark their cups and plates while enforcing mask wearing can significantly lower the collective risk for the group overall.

Stagger arrival times or group people into smaller teams

Ask guests to arrive and leave at different times in order to reduce the total headcount in a room by using an online invitation system. You can do this randomly (to encourage co-mingling between departments) or deliberately by dividing attendees into their respective work teams or units. Host the event over several days or book more than 1 room at a time for single day, limited time events.

It goes without saying that invitations should only be among workers — do not extend the invite to families, friends, or guests. Invitations should be rescinded for employees who have a record of COVID-19 exposure in the past month as well as those who must travel extensively (such as via air travel) in order to attend.

Clean high-touch areas often and repeatedly

It’s important to note that the aforementioned strategies to control attendance only work if you combine them with a strenuous cleaning schedule both before, during, and after the day’s events. Isolate high-traffic, high-touch areas and follow the CDC/EPA Cleaning and Disinfection Guidelines to determine the best way to sterilize surfaces. Insist on specific cleaning protocols and communicate them with the venue and attendees so everyone will be on board with the measures in advance.

Pick hygienic food choices and distribution methods

It’s time to say bye-bye buffet. Opt-out of formal dishware and metal cutlery and opt in for individually-wrapped food, disposable plates, and eating implements. Have 1 masked person serve all the food to limit handling and insist on regular hand washing from guests and wait staff by designating special areas to do so. Utilize contactless technology whenever possible by using spaces with sensor lights and contactless trash cans to limit the transmission of germs and viruses, and plan to designate places for attendees to safely store their face coverings while eating (such as in a zip lock bag or sterile container).

For even more best-practices on how to make your corporate holiday gathering a safety success, please consult this comprehensive CDC article.

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