‘Tis the season to be jolly! Historically, the end of the year was when employees across the country were most likely donning their silly hats, looking forward to a stress-free festive break and heading off to the company’s end of year party.

This year however… well… it’s all a little uncertain, isn’t it? Uncertain if there’ll be another winter lockdown, uncertain what the effects of the new ‘Omicron’ COVID variant will be, and uncertain just what 2022 will bring. One thing’s certain though, and that is ‘Uncertainty’ is here to stay.

With uncertainty about the new COVID Omicron variant, should businesses be celebrating with an end of year party this festive season?

Return of restrictions

In recent weeks, we’ve seen COVID cases surge due to the spread of the more transmissible Omicron variant. As a result, the UK Government is reintroducing restrictions to help slow it’s spread and speed up the highly successful vaccine booster drive.

As it stands here in England, face coverings will now be mandatory for most indoor public venues and public transport, whilst a so-called ‘vaccine passport’ will be required for people to gain entry into specific public venues, such as nightclubs and large-scale indoor and outdoor events.

However, despite the reintroduction of restrictions, there are no limits on socialising with friends, families or colleagues. In fact, the Health Secretary has said people should carry on their plans for the festive season – including Christmas parties. In Scotland, the advice is somewhat different with people urged to cancel parties, whilst the Welsh Health Board is also discouraging traditional festive parties.

This potentially puts employers in something of a quandary: on the one hand, you may have employees who are looking forward to seeing their colleagues, having some fun and celebrating the end of a tough year.

On the other, every business has a duty of care to the safety and wellbeing of their staff. Plus, can businesses really afford to have potentially large swathes of their workforce needing to self-isolate or take sick leave? A party could result in just one person unwittingly infecting an entire workforce!

End-of-year parties: a disaster waiting to happen?

Despite parties and gatherings being allowed (at the time of writing at least), perhaps it’s a question of not whether you can have a party; but rather, whether you should.

While there are no restrictions on people meeting in public or shared spaces – aside from wearing masks in most indoor public places and on public transport – businesses can still throw a party for their employees to celebrate the end of the year. But, given the need to restrict the spread of this variant, is it worth the risk given how much more transmissible the new Omicron variant appears to be?

It’s already being reported that many companies have cancelled their physical end-of-year  parties this year and instead, are holding them virtually. Usually, costs are the main reason for not having a traditional company party, but now, it’s also being dictated by the need to protect employees from the risk of COVID.

Virtually fatigued

Whilst the move to a virtual party is reasonable, it could be argued that it’s a bit of a let-down; with the chance to celebrate, lighten up and have fun now reduced to just another Zoom call or Teams meeting. And, with evidence to show that many employees are experiencing ‘Zoom fatigue’, is it any wonder that the thought of having a virtual end-of-year celebration may not be greeted with the same enthusiasm as the chance to meet up face to face.

Perhaps there’s a need for balance: the option for a virtual gathering for those who feel they want to minimise risk to themselves and others. And, for those who want to do something ‘for real’, you might encourage small teams to make their own informal arrangements – remembering to urge your employees to take the necessary precautions before and during any get-together (such as taking a COVID test before and after an event, encouraging mask-wearing and hand washing).

Alternatively, why not re-arrange your party altogether? None of us can say for certain what will happen over the course of the next few months; but moving it to a later date certainly wouldn’t do any harm. Not only may there be a significant improvement in the COVID situation, but also, it will give your people something to look forward to in the new year.

What would your employees really value?

If there’s no appetite for a party, be it virtual or in-person, you could forego either option altogether! But that doesn’t mean you should forget it altogether.

Instead, why not use any budget set aside for a festive bash to give employees gift cards or paid time off? Alternatively, if you’re at a loss for how to celebrate your employees’ efforts this year, it might be useful to ask them straight up to see what they would enjoy or value.

Remember: the end-of-year party is traditionally seen as the chance for a business to give thanks to its most vital asset – its employees. It’s the perfect time to celebrate the achievements of the past year and to thank staff for their hard work and support. It’s also a great opportunity to build team spirit, for managers to maybe lighten up a little and allow colleagues to socialise away from the pressures of work and to perhaps see each other in a different light.

So, don’t simply relegate it to just another virtual meeting or forget about it altogether. Think about what your employees would really value as a ‘thank you’ this year, whilst keeping them safe, too.

Paul Bauer author image

Paul Bauer

Paul Bauer is the Head of Content at Cezanne HR. Based in the Utopia of Milton Keynes (his words, not ours!) he’s worked within the employee benefits, engagement and HR sectors for over four years. He's also earned multiple industry awards for his work - including a coveted Roses Creative Award.

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