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Why ‘hybrid’ Xmas parties, events divide the office

10:05am December 03 2021

“It's definitely something new and perhaps some people will feel uncomfortable,” Jessica Bilston-Gourley says of hybrid parties. (Supplied)  

In the past two years, “hybrid” working has gone from a relatively obscure way of doing an office job to one of the most discussed – and lasting – workplace trends. 

And now, like it or loathe it, even end of year functions and Christmas parties are going hybrid.

But making a success of a hybrid format party requires far more planning than scheduling a Zoom call or stringing up some tinsel and gathering people in a room for a bit of eggnog, says Jessica Bilston-Gourley, the founder and director of Positive HR, which provides client support for events. 

“This year is definitely more challenging,” she says. “Parties are harder to recreate online. You have to get creative to make it interactive.”

It is critical to make it ‘digital first’ – those attending virtually must be front of mind, rather than an afterthought. Bilston-Gourley is in the midst of planning a hybrid Christmas party with a massive, three-and-a-half metre screen to project the virtual attendees. Those physically present in the room can walk up to the screen and interact with them

It contrasts to last year when many Christmas parties were cancelled or held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A year on, while vaccination rates are rising and lockdowns have been lifted, not all employees have returned to the office or do so on different days, spurring companies to contemplate the hybrid option of to allow for both online and in-person attendance.

“It's definitely something new and perhaps some people will feel uncomfortable,” Bilston-Gourley says.  

“Those who are introverted or perhaps less adventurous with change may take a bit of a backseat. We've selected a few ‘champions’ who will be up at the screen and encouraging others to get engaged.”

Activities that can work well at hybrid events include food and drinks tastings, photo booths, Christmas bingo (with parallel matches for in-person and online attendees) yoga and meditation, or creating a company-themed Christmas carol. Software like Kahoot! and Mentimeter can be a better alternative to Zoom for trivia and other games. 

Mentimeter can also capture real-time feedback from party attendees.

The founder and managing director of OZparty Events, Daniel Udall, says the hybrid Christmas party is less popular than the alternatives. 

Daniel Udall says the hybrid format doesn't lend itself as well to a Christmas party as other meetings and events. (Supplied) 

This year, many of his larger clients are opting to segment their celebrations into parties for teams in particular states.

He says that while the hybrid format can work well for a more structured event like an awards ceremony, sales kickoff, conference or large-scale team meeting, a hybrid Christmas party comes with inherent challenges. 

“A hybrid format doesn't lend itself as well to a Christmas party, which is all about coming together and letting your hair down a little,” he says. “If someone's at home with a premix cocktail kit while someone else is hitting the dance floor, it isn’t really a fair balance.” 

Content delivered to an online audience, such as a magic show or stand-up comedy routines, needs to be delivered in short bursts, as an hour-long performance may lead to disengagement, he says.

However, Uddal and Bilston-Gourley agree that hybrid social events are worth getting right because they are likely here to stay. 

“I think it's good to allow employees to choose whether they would like to attend in person or virtually,” says Bilston-Gourley. 

“I also think the pandemic has opened us up to new experiences and to hiring talent from all over the world. If you have an employee that's in the UK or the Philippines, you want to include them, but they're not going to be flying down for a Christmas party. So it's going to have to be a hybrid party.”

The views expressed are those of the author and individuals quoted, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westpac Group.

Jessica Mudditt is the author of Our Home in Myanmar. She is based in Sydney and as a freelance journalist, she has an interest in workplace issues and technology.

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