“This is the year to do this, if there was ever a year,” says Helen Lacey. “I know everybody’s ‘Zoomed’ out, but this will be a little bit different.”
Helen is the creative director at Enact Solutions, a drama-based training company in Huddersfield.
This time last year one of its regular actors, Tam Ryan, was appearing as Buddy in Elf – the Musical, in Manchester. But this season, along with fellow actor and comedian Marvin Dickinson, he will be the host of “Virtual Shindig”, a live-streamed office Christmas party.
Virtual Shindig promises companies a bespoke panto-style show with a sprinkling of in-jokes, sketches (who knew England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty was such an accomplished rapper?), songs, Mastermind-style quizzes and awards for team members.
“This is something that will bring work colleagues together in laughter, you know, just proper belly laughs, that’s what we’re really aiming for,” says Helen.
When the team at Enact Solutions dreamed up the idea, they didn’t know if there would be any enthusiasm after such a difficult year. And although the Christmas party is a tax deductible expense, Helen was worried the cost of £1,500 for a team of 30 people might be a deterrent. But, she says, they’ve had a huge response with people saying that this was just what they’d been looking for.
One of those was Kirsty Gaunt, learning and development manager at Anabas facilities management company. She’s been involved in the company’s Christmas plans this year and says she feels “10 stone lighter” knowing that someone else will do a lot of the work.
“The fact that I don’t have to do it all is just amazing. And it looked so much fun,” she says.
The question of this year’s party had become “a little bugbear”, says Kirsty, with the team batting ideas backwards and forwards.
“Let’s be honest, Christmas parties aren’t everybody’s thing either are they? Some people don’t even like Christmas, so it’s been tough to try and find something for everyone. This way people can choose if they want to come to it.”
If you’ve ever had to organise the annual Christmas bash, you’ll understand the dilemma – it’s not a task to be undertaken lightly and there are some people breathing a sigh of relief that they’ve been let off the hook this year.
But that’s not the case for Manchester-based HR technology company Phase 3.
Normally its 38 workers would be treated to a day of exchanging presents and playing games, followed by a night out. But this year they too are going for the virtual option, although the presents will still be real. Each employee will have a Christmas treat box and a Secret Santa present, delivered through the post.
Opening them will be part of a day of online festive activities where everyone will be encouraged to wear a Christmas jumper, given an allowance to create a seasonal sandwich or lunch, and perhaps follow that with a drink and a social catch-up at the end of the day.
Although the company prides itself on looking after its workforce, did it think about not bothering with the party this year?
“No,” says Abigail Silvester, the firm’s PR, social and events manager. “It was always really important for the company to do something like this.
“I think this year, more than any other year, it’s important maybe to go that extra mile and keep people happy, and get people involved in lots of different ways.”
The lockdown in England is due to be lifted on 2 December. But even so, Abigail says, going back to a pre-pandemic-style celebration, with people actually in the same room, is not an option this year, partly because it would involve team members travelling.
“We hope to be back together as a team next year, but it’s hard to say right now.”
There’s an expectation that the tier system will come back into force in England, and with restrictions across the UK, Natalie Haywood, who runs three cafes and two corporate venues in Liverpool, thinks real world parties – even for limited numbers – just won’t chime with the public mood this year.
“I think the office Christmas party is just done. I can’t see how they’re going to do it,” she says.
“I feel to be facilitating gatherings of any size is still frowned upon. It’s better to stay under the radar really and almost write Christmas off.”
The lead-up to Christmas is normally Natalie’s busiest time of year and a chance to build up cash reserves to see her through the leaner winter months.
Her Leaf cafes and the two larger venues were fully booked for Christmas parties almost a year in advance. All of those bookings have been cancelled. She’s hoping to roll some of them over to next year, and if the rules permit this year, to put a Christmas market on in the cafes.
But the virtual route is not for her. “I don’t believe our product really transfers. In either a takeaway or a virtual way,” she says.
“Our product works because the venues are beautiful and great spaces to be in, but if you can’t be in those venues then it’s just not the same thing.”
Many restaurants and cafes have opted to build up the takeaway side of their business while their doors are closed to the public, and one bar in Stretford in Greater Manchester is experimenting with a seasonal variation – a Christmas lunch delivery service.
“The idea is the whole office pre-orders for 20, 30 people, that’d be great. Kind of bring the meals to them,” says Jamie Hoare, co-founder of The Hive, which opened in mid-March for all of two days before lockdown.
It’s not clear how many workers will be back in offices, but Jamie says they’ll give it a try with two Christmas menus.
He and his business partners spent lockdown creating the “perfect space” for office Christmas parties and were planning a “big, big marketing push”, but like so many other businesses, they’ve had to adapt.
“We’re fairly used to being flexible now. We’re forced to be, with all the different restrictions and rules that come in every week,” he says.
“We were meant to be just a bar and a bit of a restaurant, but we’ve turned into a full-on restaurant now. Our original plan was completely different.”