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Claire’s* 2019 Christmas party was a wash out: she works in a ‘government area’ in Birmingham, a role so secretive that even under anonymity she is not able to share the specifics. Claire’s forced festivities for that year were a disappointing soirée fuelled by corner shop bought sausage rolls and loads of booze. The morning after, as the hangover began to consume her entire being, she thought 2020 had to be better. It couldn’t be worse, at least. “Last year I got horrendously drunk and told everyone what I thought of them,” she says.
It is worse. With her city (and half the UK) on Tier 3 lockdown, Claire’s Christmas party this year will be held over Zoom. Her colleagues have been asked to send their boss a quirky anecdote about themselves for a riveting game of ‘match the fact to the co-worker’ and they’re all allowed one single workplace sanctioned alcoholic beverage as she does.
As if those plans weren’t wild enough, her Christmas party will double as the company’s yearly performance meeting. “It will be the manager telling us our performance statistics for the year and why we need to do better,” she says. “But we’re allowed to wear Christmas jumpers as he tells us.”
Search ‘Zoom Christmas party’ on Twitter and you’ll find dozens of quarantined entertainers advertising their services for your Zoom Christmas party – wedding magicians who’ve pivoted to webcam tricks, comedians testing out new material, Crystal Maze masters recreating the Aztec Zone for teams of market researchers.
That’s not to discredit magicians, comedians or maze masters, but for people who find it more challenging to say no lockdown has brought with it a new type of workplace pressure – the challenge of refusing the virtual Christmas do.
Usually, invitation emails can be ignored, excuses can be made and, in case of an emergency, fictional family members can suddenly have an emergency. Those excuses don’t cut it in lockdown, though. You can’t leave your house and you’ll likely be doing nothing that evening anyway.
When bosses know you’re at home with only Netflix as company there’s a greater expectation to be involved, says Elle Boag, associate professor in Applied Social Psychology at Birmingham City University. “Working from home has allowed people to gain access to you in a way they haven’t before,” she says. “When you’re at the end of a FaceTime or Zoom meeting you can be contacted at the drop of a hat. People gain a sense of ownership, a belief that they have access to you all the time.”
Bosses may peddle out some reasoning as to why you should attend the party they’ve spent hours of their spare time organising for some reason. People don’t need to dress up, they don’t need to buy rounds for the sales team they hate and they don’t even need to leave the house. But these things can make Christmas party anxieties worse.
“People who are more powerful have more influence. Obviously bosses are a key one so saying no is not an easy thing to do,” says Sarah Brooks, lecturer in organisational behaviour specialising and occupational psychology at the University of Sheffield. “People feel pressured to attend these events as they’re worried about ruining career chances or relationships they might need moving forward. They’re scared about being ostracised, retaliation or they could be ganged up against. Nobody wants to be seen as a party pooper so these are powerful things that cause most employees to remain silent in these situations.”
What can people do to get out of them? Some have lobbied their bosses to cancel them entirely. In September, Jake* caught wind of a workplace plan to spice up his lockdown with a virtual Christmas party. Jake and his colleagues at the London asset management company he works for would be serenaded by a singer, honoured with a virtual awards show and given a shout-out from a random celebrity on Cameo.
Jake is already not a fan of Christmas parties – “awkward sober small talk. Secret Santa openings (nearly always socks). Drunk awkward small talk. I hate these things,” he says – but a virtual one would have been far too excruciating. “It just seems sadder doing it virtually,” he says. “Everyone talking over each other, the awkward silences whilst a stranger tries to entertain us…”
Jake decided it was a waste of time and money for everyone and went to his CEO. He pitched his case – cancel the whole thing, donate the money to charity instead – and, to his surprise, his CEO agreed. His colleagues have generally been supportive, too. “If we suggested it in normal times we’d probably get a lot of angry older colleagues demanding their annual work-sponsored three course meal,” he says.
Some bosses simply aren’t as understanding as Jake’s, however. Some may take personal offence to being told their staff don’t want to attend a virtual breadmaking course, but how can you let them down gently without hurting their precious feelings?
Politely tell them to get over it, suggests Boag. “Explain the rationale to the person who’s organised it but remember there’s also nothing to be forgiven for,” she says. “People are allowed to say no. We’re living at work, so people need the opportunity to say no and have their choice respected.” If that doesn’t work, you can always blame the Wi-Fi.
*Some names have been changed
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