We did it! How we hosted an awesome virtual holiday party in 2020... and you can too!

Over the last year our team has conducted a ton of research with employees across the globe to learn about their lived experiences and how their organizations can better support them. The research clearly illustrated that people are feeling isolated and miss in-person interaction with their colleagues and friends. At the same time, people have video meeting fatigue, and mandated virtual hangouts can feel like a chore.

So, knowing this, how can you throw a virtual holiday party that people will actually like? One that brings people together in an authentic way? That connects us to what we collectively care about (each other)? And that gets to the heart of our values without being clunky and awkward? The answer: give them small, weird gifts, engage their competitive spirit and let them steal from each other!

White elephant to the rescue

Our Calgary and Toronto offices typically host their holiday parties at a generous Hab’s house and use the money saved from a venue rental to buy gifts for a white elephant exchange. If you aren’t familiar with a white elephant exchange, it is a game where everyone gets a gift, but people can steal gifts from each other.

On a camping trip late this summer, three Habs were discussing how we could do something similar this year in a virtual way, if COVID restrictions were still in play. It was at this moment that the Habanero 2020 holiday party was born and successfully delivered in time for the festive season.

Some Habs shared snippets of this year’s experience on social media, and we were overwhelmed with the response from our friends, clients and colleagues. They wanted to know more about what we did and how they could do something similar in their workplaces. So, I thought we’d share our approach... because everyone seems to need a little festive cheer this year, right?

How you can get started

The first thing you need to do is pick your gifts. This can be time consuming, as you want fun, quirky gifts that have a different sort of appeal. Don’t worry, though, our Master Elf Craig has curated a list of 60 gifts that we used for our gift exchange. From a 1,000-piece Yoda puzzle to Snoop Dogg’s latest cookbook (yes, it’s a thing) and everything in between, your gift exchange will be a hit.

It’s a good idea to kick off the party with everyone together. Then break the event out into smaller teams or rooms for the actual exchange to keep the experience manageable and so everyone can interact. You’ll also want to select hosts for each breakout room and figure out what technology you will use to run your exchange. We built our own app (sorry it is not production-level quality; we’re perfectionists, and we wouldn’t want to ruin your holiday party), but there are different tools that you can use, like White Elephant Online, MURAL or Miro could also work (your host would control the board).

The main event

At our event, everyone started by joining an all-company video conference. This was a chance for our team to say a few words and for everyone to raise a glass (and laugh at the holiday sweaters and costumes). Once the pleasantries were out of the way, we explained the rules of the game.

Photos courtesy of Amazon

Then everyone joined their assigned breakout rooms and the Habanero Hunger Games (erhm, holiday party) began.

The breakout rooms

There were about 20 people in each room, plus a host. Before the game began, the host reminded everyone to get a drink and go to the bathroom and made sure that everyone understood the rules of the game.

We wanted all the breakout rooms to finish the exchange at the same time, so the host had to control timing. We found it helpful to have a set of questions to ask people, like:

  • Have you participated in a gift swap/white elephant gift exchange before?
  • What gifts have you received in past gift swaps?
  • What's your favourite Habanero holiday party memory?
  • Who would win in a prison fight between Kevin McCallister (Home Alone) and John McClane (Die Hard)? Kevin gets four hours or more of prep time.
  • Who would win in a fight between Jack the Pumpkin King and the Grinch?
  • What is a Christmas song that makes you cringe?
  • What is your favorite Christmas movie?
  • Finish this thought, “It wouldn't be Christmas without _____.”
  • What is your favourite winter activity?

Before a Hab selected a random gift, the host asked them one of the questions. It was a great way to make sure everyone got a chance to speak, and we all got to learn a little about each other. There were some funny stories, too.

If you work with nice, polite people, the stealing might take a while to happen. You want to encourage people to steal. The game isn’t fun when everyone is too nice. You want a little more Krampus and a little less Santa.

Once you get going, the game is an absolute blast! Our exchange lasted about an hour and a half, including a 10-minute intermission to allow people to refill their glasses, take a quick bathroom break and catch-up with others in the room.

One gift in each room was also a “mystery gift,” which was revealed only at the end of event.

Once all the gifts had been gifted, we provided employees with a way to enter their shipping address so the gifts could be delivered straight to them.

All together again

At a designated time, room hosts directed everyone to rejoin the main room. People shared some cheer, the surprise gifts were revealed (ooohhhh an InstantPot) and everyone had a final hurrah before signing off. People left happy, a few left their computers a little tipsy, and everyone was excited about the gift heading their way.

This is a tough time for everyone right now – and it likely will continue to be for a while yet. Laughter and connection really are the remedy we all need in this moment! With a little creativity and effort, we can create great experiences that help our people connect to each other in a truly entertaining and energizing way– a way that fuels us forward, ready for whatever 2021 presents.

Hopefully sharing our experience helps you if you are stuck on how to make your holiday party a little more engaging.

Additional tips:

  • The gifts don’t need to be too expensive. We’ve found that approximately $30 per gift is the perfect amount.
  • We averaged four minutes per person including breaks: good info when estimating how long a game will go for.
  • Most of the fun moments came from people stealing coveted gifts. And people up-selling unwanted gifts.

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