It’s not as if Lizzie had high expectations for her office Christmas party. Like everything else, it had been moved to Zoom. Like everything else, it promised to be a slightly weird, slightly awkward approximation of normal life. But the 27-year-old social worker wasn’t prepared for how weird and awkward.
First warning sign: the food. Her employer encouraged people to order a meal and save the receipt. The limit was $10, and the rules were exacting. “They had a separate meeting about how to get reimbursed for that,” said Lizzie, who for obvious reasons asked that her last name and workplace be withheld, “and that was longer than the actual party.”
Then there was the party itself, which featured games such as trying to guess which piece of office decor was from whose office. Lizzie was hired after the coronavirus pandemic sent everyone home, so she had no idea which of her colleagues this mug or that “Live Laugh Love” sign belonged to. Nevertheless, she said, she “got called out for not participating enough.”
Later, there was a slide show of photos of people’s pets, which seemed benign until one dog photo appeared (“Who’s this little guy?”) and the owner informed the group that the dog had died a month earlier. This revelation was met with painful silence.
The coup de grace came when the company announced bonuses, which were correlated to start dates, with a May-June cutoff, and Lizzie found out that her bonus would have been doubled had she not arbitrarily elected to start on a Monday rather than the previous Thursday.
In all, the party was awkward and low-key disappointing. How could it have been any other way? “It was peak 2020,” said Lizzie, “the entire thing.”
Party planners and service journalists have spent the last two months telling us how to host a successful virtual holiday party. Have an ugly sweater contest, they said. Host a cooking class, or do an online escape room. Send everyone a bottle of wine and do a tasting together. Have people give tours of their holiday decorations at home. Hire a DJ or a comedian! Companies rushed to help close the stubborn gap between Zoom and an actual office. There’s Upstream, which separates people into breakout conversations. Or Gather.town, or SpatialChat, both of which give users avatars who can walk up to colleagues in virtual spaces and start conversations with people who are “near” them.
We are innovating new ways for us to be socially awkward with co-workers. And what the COVID-era experts fail to account for is: What happens when you take all of their guidance and your office holiday party still sucked?
Erin, a 36-year-old in Ottawa who works for the Canadian government, attended a party that seemed promising. It had a mixology class — fun! But it quickly became clear that none of the employees purchased the ingredients necessary for the featured drink — a complicated, layered cocktail. Picture a Zoom grid filled with people ignoring the instructors and wandering over to their liquor cabinets to drink whatever they found inside. It had a scavenger hunt — fun! But the organizers weren’t familiar with the “breakout room” function in Zoom. Picture the chaos of 60 participants trying to coordinate with teammates in one large room, then dropping out and opening separate Zoom windows.
Erin, who also spoke under the condition of anonymity (for her sake, and her co-workers’), said the office holiday party culminated in an employee talent show, which featured a guitar dude who had written a parody of “Last Christmas,” a (blessedly brief) magic act, and a manager who could write cursive backward — “Which doesn’t translate well into video,” Erin noted.
“I experienced a lot of secondhand embarrassment, which I think is worse than firsthand embarrassment,” she said. (OK, so at least that part of office-party culture remained intact.)
Counterpoint: Firsthand embarrassment is much worse than secondhand embarrassment. Melissa, 27, works for a property management company in Wilmington, Delaware, where she is on the party-planning committee. Melissa has regrets.
She encouraged everyone to dress up in festive attire, not accounting for the possibility that a party held on Zoom might not get the usual buy-in. When she logged on, she said, “I was wearing an elf outfit and a light-up headband and everybody else was just in their normal work outfits.”
Then she did a giveaway, spinning a wheel to determine which employees would win prizes. There was expensive stuff on the line — TVs, tablets, gift cards — and she had thought people would be excited, “But nobody really reacted to it, so it was just me clapping,” said Melissa. After the wheel landed on one employee who was not present, her boss direct messaged her to tell her to spin it again, but not to tell anyone the reason. That person, she later learned, had been let go that morning. The bosses hadn’t told anyone yet.
Melissa had allotted two hours for the party, thinking people would want to hang out and chat after the drawing, but no one turned on their microphones at all. The whole thing wrapped in about 45 minutes.
“I wish I would have played holiday music or something,” said Melissa, as if “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” could have saved the day.
The Zoom stage is the loneliest place on Earth, especially when you thrive on crowd buzz. Comedian Richard Sarvate has met some tough crowds on the online holiday party circuit. He recently did a 30-minute set for 300 employees in a division of a large accounting firm. Most of the audience was invisible, though; the only people who had their cameras on were the managing partners. “Maybe one person had their mic on. And so, every once in a while, you would just hear” — Sarvate imitated a weak, forlorn chuckle.
“That amount of laughter sounds worse than no laughter,” he said.
Better than nothing, or worse than nothing? This is the question at the heart of the 2020 Zoom holiday party. Any party is better than no party at all, right? Right?
Elana, a 23-year-old in Chicago who works for an international advertising agency, isn’t so sure. Her company hired a DJ (stage name: Hesta Prynn) for its party, which took place on a Tuesday and — for anyone who wasn’t in the New York office — in the middle of the afternoon. She played good music, said Elana. The problem was that there was no way to see other colleagues or even chat with them while Prynn was on the screen for the party, which was hosted on Microsoft Teams.
“She was kind of trying to hype us up, which honestly was the most awkward part, because she’d be like, ‘Happy holidays, I hope everybody is ready to party!’ ” said Elana. “But none of us could respond.”
The agency’s employees spent the party watching DJ Hesta Prynn dance to her own music. Elana had a drink and logged off after an hour because it was making her feel even lonelier.
Maybe that’s the worst part about a Zoom holiday party: how much they remind us of what we’re missing. How they inspire nostalgia for small talk, or the sensation of trying to balance a paper plate full of cheese cubes with a plastic cup of chardonnay. How desperately we’re looking forward to once again sitting in a corner with our best work friend, watching the folks in accounting get loud and hit the dance floor and catching up on all the party gossip in the break room the next morning.
That’s what Leah Boustan, an economics professor at Princeton University, realized when she attended her office holiday party on Gather.town, one of the proximity-chat apps. Someone had taken great care to re-create the precise layout of their office on the virtual meeting space. Employees navigated the simulacrum with avatars. When their avatars approached each other, they could initiate video conversations.
It was awkward at first — but in a familiar way. People clustered in groups, so guests would have to sidle up to join a conversation. There were different events scheduled throughout the virtual space, and guests would have to walk around to attend.
Boustan was meandering down a virtual office hallways, on her way from a magic show to a cocktail mixing lesson, when she passed by the simulated version of her office. It had her desk set up in exactly the right spot. She recognized some of her furniture.
Boustan felt suddenly emotional.
“I just went with my avatar to where my office chair would be, and sat there,” she said. It was the best part of the party.