It's that time of year again — when colleagues 'round the world gather in restaurant lounges, hotel bars, and tinseled-up conference rooms for that most eagerly-anticipated of events...the company holiday party!
But wait — what if your company is remote? Are you doomed to sit at home with a lump of coal, feeling Grinchishly un-festive?
Not if you work at Olark. We don't think working remotely should put a damper on anyone's holiday spirits, so for the second year running, we'll be hosting an all-remote holiday hang. And since we've had several folks ask us how we pull off this whole remote party thing, we decided to document a bit of our process for you. Come along for the ride as we prep for a remote celebration that everyone actually, really, truly (we promise) looks forward to all year!
Plan early, plan often
In mid-September, we convened a three-person party planning committee led by our HR and Culture Enthusiast. That's right — we started planning this shindig before the Halloween decorations cleared the department stores.
Why so early? For one thing, even in a company of just a few dozen people, calendars fill up fast — so we wanted to set a date and give everyone notice at least a month or two in advance. We also wanted to give ourselves time to brainstorm fun activities and coordinate with potential activity leads throughout the company. And finally...planning a party is pretty fun, so why not drag it out a little? ;-)
Here's what we discussed during our planning kickoff meeting:
- What date(s) and time(s) would work best for our party?
- Do we need to involve anyone else in the planning process?
- What did we like and dislike about previous celebrations?
- What do we want Olarkers to get out of this celebration?
- What activities should we include, and who might be excited to lead them? This took the form of a brainstorm session — thinking about the skills our coworkers have (artists, cooks, trivia buffs, etc.) and how we might spin them into a holiday-themed event.
By the end of the meeting, we'd set a tentative date and time for the event, and had a solid list of action items:
- Announce the celebration
- Check in with our candidate activity leads
- Set the date for the next check-in
A few weeks later, we held a followup meeting. Each member of the planning committee updated everyone on what we’d accomplished, and we went over open questions and next steps for the activities we'd sketched out. The followup meeting was also a chance to discuss logistics — tech needs, for example, or supplies that might need to be ordered in advance. Our goal was to handle as many of the logistics as possible for our activity leads, so they could focus on having fun on the day of the event without worrying about setup or supplies.
Incorporate lots of variety
Have you ever attended an office event that sounded like fun, but turned out to just not be your thing? Maybe you snuck out after a few minutes...or maybe you stood off to the side for an hour or two, feeling lost and/or trapped. Either way, it was no fun, right?
At Olark, one of our primary goals is to involve everyone. We don't expect 100% attendance at every activity or event, but we do want to offer lots of different ways to get involved, so that everyone can find something they're excited about. That's why our remote celebration includes a variety of activities — from informal chats to craft time, fast-paced quizzes, yoga, and cooking.
One thing we try extra hard to remember is that not everyone is a fan of small talk! While we have some casual chit-chat time built in, we also make a point to offer more structured activities. And, of course, no one is penalized for bowing out of...anything. The nice thing about partying on a Zoom call is that you really, truly can come and go as you please.
Rally for a remote gift exchange
Gift giving is an expected part of holidays, right? That’s still an important part of our remote celebration too. For years, we’ve held the annual Great Olark Secret Gnome Gift Exchange. In early November, our Gnome coordinators send out a questionnaire to find out everyone's interests and ensure addresses are up to date. Then, like in any secret Santa exchange, participants are matched and sent the most important information. To make it more fun for everyone, we host a special Show and Tell in January where all the participants get to show off those awesome gifts they received. Since Olarkers are a pretty creative group of gnomes, the handmade gifts are plentiful. Themed gift sets, gardening supplies, artwork, and donations to favorite charities may also make an appearance. Gnomes often comment that the gift hunt led them to get to know their recipient better, which is a definite bonus.
Provide food — remotely
In a co-located party, you can work with a caterer, have people bring food, or otherwise make sure everyone has something yummy to enjoy. That’s a bit more difficult remotely — but it's not impossible! We've found a couple of great strategies:
- Last year, we all adopted an eggnog recipe from our colleague Kyle’s grandmother. Each of us mixed up a batch of nog (or a similar festive beverage), and Kyle hosted an hour of Nog Chat, during which we sipped our beverages and caught up. How are the kids? What did you do about that tree in the side yard? Nog Chat was a time for the conversations (and the eggnog!) that we otherwise might not have made time for.
- This year, we’re also sharing our favorite recipes with each other in a team cookbook — styled for the holidays by our amazing designer, Tesha. We're all pretty excited to have a copy of Zinger’s best cookies, Betts’ caramel corn, and Matt’s famous pancakes, and the cookbook will be something we can use all year andshare with new hires so they feel connected to our team.
Instead of putting a calendar announcement up and begging people to show up to some sort of unknown event one day in December, the organizing team made sure everyone was super clear about what was happening, and had a chance to get as excited as we were. Here's how we (over)communicated:
- We started with an announcement in our weekly all-hands team sync — and repeated it every week for several weeks in November.
- Before Thanksgiving, we hosted an event "preview" to get everyone excited. We reviewed the history of Lighting of the Redwood and the reasons we make time to hold this celebration, and quickly ran through the agenda of activities so everyone knew what to expect. Announcing the activities in advance gives everyone time to decide what to attend, gather supplies, and clear their schedules — so there's no anxiety day-of, and no one is left out. Finally, we created a Slack room just for the event. People can drop in and out with questions, and activity organizers can get help and send reminders as needed. In short, it’s a place to gather resources and ensure nothing gets lost in the planning flurry.
Lights, Camera, ZOOM!
At long last, the day of the event! Everyone is given the freedom to drop tasks for the day. They have the flexibility to hop in and out of events based on their preferences.
Don’t forget about your support team
Support gets to turn off chat and take a break from email. No one is excluded from the activities. The last event of the day is our AHS extravaganza. We’ll keep Zoom open, keep our beverages filled up, and everyone pitches in to clear our inbox. Since we’ve already trained everyone in how to chip in to support efforts, this is just a way to keep the festive atmosphere. It’s also helpful for those tricky questions that often require the assistance of someone on the support team or a product expert.
That’s a wrap
We end with a hearty farewell and everyone signs off. The planning committee takes a break to decompress and handle their other work tasks. Over the next several weeks, they will gather notes and reminders of what worked and what didn’t while memories are fresh. The cookbook will be distributed.
Mid January we have another short team meeting to show off our new gifts and reminisce over the fun.
At Olark, team events aren’t a once per year thing because we know how important it is to have time to get to know each other outside of our usual work tasks. We hope your team feels the same. Are you planning a holiday event for your remote team? Or do you have a fun tradition that everyone looks forward to? Please share with us, and it might inspire others.