Virtual holiday parties may be disasters. But they’re also learning experiences for 2021

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Santa Claus, right, and Mrs. Claus, aka Corey and Holly Anderson, participate in a Zoom video from Santa's makeshift office-turned-studio at the Eugene Family YMCA. Photo by Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services, LLC/Reuters.

This pandemic year meant confronting much of the country’s dysfunction and flaws. There’s one final reckoning to end the year: the holiday party.

These celebrations, especially work-related ones, are usually fraught affairs. The social pressure to pretend to be a normal person who knows how much food to pile on a plate without it collapsing — that can drive anyone to alcohol. Which leads to bad dancing or, worse, lawsuits.

This year, that’s all crammed into a Zoom call. 

Technical malfunction, meet the ugly sweater

One report found that fewer than a quarter of surveyed companies planned to hold a holiday party this year. For those who did, some trends emerged: games of trivia, group cookie-baking, bartenders teaching participants how to mix drinks. These parties didn’t all go well, as one employee for office-furniture company One Workplace found out the hard way.

There were many problems, said “Marie” (KCRW is using her middle name because she was concerned about saying publicly that her boss didn’t throw a great holiday party): “People being on mute versus un-muting, and their cameras not working, whoever is the presenter isn't sharing the screen.”

A party game got out of hand, too.

“In order to make it 2020, they decided to do an ugly mask competition,” she said. “But again, there were issues with people having their cameras on and sharing the screen. So they ended up just putting a kibosh to the mask competition in the meeting and then decided to have everyone submit their photos via email.”

Despite the fact that the party started at 9 a.m. (or because of that), “Marie” and her team members decided to make it more … festive. “Some of my friends on the team, we had mimosas,” she said. “Our cameras are off and we're laughing to ourselves at all of this that's going on. … This wraps up 2020 in a nutshell.”

A successful virtual party is a lot like a successful hamster habitat

Humans are mammals. They require stimulating environments. If they get bored, sometimes they'll chew off their own leg, or masturbate on camera during a New Yorker meeting. 

In other words, big chunks of unstructured time are no fun.

“I think everyone feels more comfortable on Zoom when they know what to expect,” said Daryl Twerdal, who runs the Los Angeles School of Etiquette and Protocol. “The successful ones, in my opinion, are the ones where you can have 60 people on the call, but you pre-plan segments of the call that are either entertaining or they are engaging. You're learning something. And then the last 30, 45 minutes is the cocktail party.”

So plan a party like you would plan a hamster habitat: Clearly delineate a time and place for activities and for feeding. But according to some in the events business, beware the booze, or you’ll have drunk hamsters making questionable decisions.

Virtual parties point out the hypothetical elephant in the room

“Sometimes alcohol is used to just cover for a very bad event that is not being planned very well,” said Julius Solaris. He’s the editor-in-chief of EventMB, a think tank for the events industry. He lives in Las Vegas, and he and his team analyze trends in everything from business meetings to trade shows and conventions. This year, a lot of emphasis on the virtual thing.

Solaris asks whether future, in-person events should even serve alcohol. He thinks virtual parties have created an opportunity for a reckoning.

“Virtual is going to help a lot to redefine how we think about our events, and how we rely on alcohol to do the networking or as a social lubricant,” he said.

Maybe it was a disaster, but also a learning experience

As we begin to come back together in 2021 — for parties, for conventions, for all the human stuff we used to take for granted — we may actually be able to apply what we’ve learned during a year of lockdown.

“I feel everybody should be entitled to risk a little bit … without being concerned too much,” Solaris said. “Because it’s what this virtual environment is. It's a big experiment for everybody.”