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Canadian workers have a message for employers that are considering hosting a virtual holiday party this year: please don’t.

According to a recent study conducted by professional recruitment firm Robert Half Canada, 43 per cent of employees want to celebrate the holidays with their colleagues in person, and another 40 per cent would prefer time off in lieu of a party. Nine per cent would rather take part in a charitable activity, and only 8 per cent are interested in gathering virtually.

“Many professionals have experienced major Zoom fatigue,” says Mike Shekhtman the regional director of Robert Half Canada. “It’s very hard to build relationships and reconnect with people [remotely], especially with larger cohorts.”

Mr. Shekhtman says that employers are facing a difficult choice this holiday season. While celebrating in person is safer now than it was 12 months ago thanks to the arrival of coronavirus vaccines, there are still many Canadians who don’t feel comfortable attending large gatherings. At the same time, many employers are struggling with hiring and retention, and are under added pressure to demonstrate appreciation for their workers.

“The last thing you want in this market, where unemployment is back to pre-pandemic levels, is somebody going into the holidays not feeling engaged or recognized for the hard they’ve done over the last year,” he says.

Mr. Shekhtman advises employers to consider alternatives to virtual holiday events, or use online gatherings as a supplement to other activities, in order to give employees options within their comfort levels.

“Everybody is still on a different journey navigating through the pandemic, so it’s important organizations understand that, and put the question out there to find out what people want to do,” he said. “You need to find that balance, and giving people the choice empowers them to do what’s right for them.”

Employers that elect to celebrate virtually are encouraged to make those events optional, as simply having a choice can itself drive participation and engagement.

“Psychological control can play a huge role in how you feel about any event,” says Jeff Hancock, the founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab. “That ability to feel like you have some control over the way you’re going to engage with your colleagues can bring back a sense of agency, and reduce that cognitive load.”

Mr. Hancock – a B.C.-native who coined the term “Zoom fatigue” early in the pandemic – says feeling stuck in place is a significant contributor to the phenomenon. He adds that turning off the self-view feature, using a wireless keyboard, mouse and camera, and moving further away from the screen can help in limiting its effects. When it comes to hosting virtual holiday parties, he says it’s important to make the event feel distinct from everyday work interactions.

“There are ways to do things together [remotely] in order get out of that work context,” he said. “Zoom is only as good or bad as what you do with it – if you say ‘Zoom event’ I assume the worst – so the findings make complete sense.”

Mr. Hancock explains that when people are invited to a virtual event they have low expectations and therefore little enthusiasm, especially if attendance is mandatory.

“It can be so damaging if your employees feel like ‘oh, that was dumb; you don’t care about me,” says Courtney McNamara, an event producer for Toronto-based King Events. “If you’re going to do a virtual holiday event, you need to put the same care and planning and thought into it as you would if you were hosting a physical holiday party.”

Ms. McNamara says the bar for hosting virtual events is low, which provides employers the opportunity to surprise and delight with a truly engaging virtual experience. She explains that the key to hosting a successful online event is a virtual venue, offering a range of activities, allowing for smaller, more intimate gatherings within that venue, and most importantly, giving attendees plenty of options.

“Having people feel like they’re moving around, even if they’re not physically moving from their chair, creating those different environments within a virtual venue, really go a long way in making people feel like they have some variety in their day,” she says.

“For example, everyone goes to the kickoff event, but after that you can go to the casino, you can go to the mixology demo, you can go meet Santa, you can go listen to live music, the choice is yours.”

Ms. McNamara adds that many corporate clients, and especially those with offices in different locations, are finding success hosting smaller, more intimate in-person gatherings coupled with larger virtual events. Over all, however, she acknowledges that most employers haven’t yet cracked the code for facilitating an engaging virtual experience.

“A lot of virtual events are awful,” she said. “People can’t even fathom what a virtual holiday party could be, so it’s no surprise they’re saying ‘no thank you.’”

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