At the Christmas party for broker Aon, staff were treated to magicians doing close-up tricks, comedians and improv rappers over their home computers. Virgin Media teams were invited to virtual escape rooms and a Bake Off challenge with a former show contestant.
Homebound bankers at another online party were entertained from behind their screens by Judge Jules, bringing a new twist to house music.
“It’s not exactly the same,” said the DJ, who is used to playing big crowds at Ibiza. “There’s no goggle-eyed people in front of you, no audience.”
Other companies are offering staff online wine tasting, virtual bingo and wreath and gingerbread house making — often with mandatory Christmas jumpers and homemade mulled wine.
After nine months of remote working, UK businesses are keen to bring some corporate spirit back to far flung teams that have not seen each other in person since the spring.
But traditional end of year festive parties have been replaced with coronavirus-friendly virtual events, sparking a boom for deliveries of wine, meal kits and activities that can be carried out over Zoom. Secret Santas are being delivered to people’s doors, along with Christmas cakes and mince pies.
Staff at law firm Linklaters were offered a range of events — including online painting parties with an art teacher, comedy quizzes, and chocolate tasting with Hotel Chocolat — to boost morale at the end of an unusually tough year.
“While our people have been out of the office this year, it is more important than ever in maintaining our company culture that we keep teams connected,” the firm said.
Law firm Osborne Clarke is holding nearly two weeks of “festive fun” including comedy, magic, a quiz, and a virtual Christmas Jumper Day.
Mayfair wine seller Berry Bros & Rudd is hosting as many as seven virtual wine tastings every evening, with slots now almost fully booked up to Christmas.
“Virtual tastings have gone through the roof,” said Katie Daniel, who helps run events at which partygoers receive wine, glasses and a corkscrew before sampling up to three vintages. “Any more than that on a weekday evening is quite punchy.”
There are also high tech options. Hire Space offers online parties for up to 2,000, where people are taken via a virtual “Uber” — a Zoom chatroom hosted by an actor — passing a “doorman”, and into a Big Top to take part in games, watch comedians and listen to live music in the jazz bar. Guests could even talk to friends privately in the smoking room.
“Companies feel that it’s more important than ever to get people together,” said Edward Poland, co-founder of Hire Space, who is organising one event for 1,500 people across multiple time zones and another for a magic circle law firm. “We offer a virtual extravaganza way beyond the same old tired Zoom drinks.”
Emma Crocombe, founder of Play Dead London, which creates online murder mysteries for companies, is equally busy: “We’ve acted our little socks off on Zoom [from] a kitchen with a ring light.”
The Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company has a week of virtual activities, including painting and a murder mystery, ending in a group-wide international get-together.
Audrey Clegg, group talent director, said the company wanted “to do some kind of celebration and get people to connect in a light-hearted way, and close the year even if it’s different to normal”.
Some employees are not convinced by the new online options: “Jesus, my soul has just died,” said one manager, faced with the prospect of enforced company virtual fun.
Philip Hancock, professor of work and organisation at Essex Business School, is in favour of employers lifting workers’ spirits but warned if it misfired it could compound the isolation. “There is perhaps nothing sadder than sitting in front of a computer screen wearing a paper hat with a glass of wine and a bowl of nuts.”
Entertainers are having to raise their games to keep remote audiences engaged. Comedian Lucy Porter said virtual gigs had been good fun, “and can actually be much more personal and warm than a huge do at the Dorchester”.
At a Zoom event this week for a Canadian bank, her fellow performers included the improv hip hop act Abandoman, who built his act around the lockdown triumphs and tragedies of people on the call.
But she hoped for normality to return next year: “End-of-year dos are a large part of our income, and so the virtual ones are a godsend after a catastrophic year for the industry.”
For bars and restaurants, which would normally make a significant part of their annual sales in the booze-filled run-up to Christmas, ongoing restrictions on socialising have decimated the festive trade.
“It’s absolutely non-existent this year,” said Charlie Gilkes, head of the Inception Group, which owns bars such as Mr Fogg’s in Mayfair. “We would normally be doing exclusive hires and hundreds of corporate groups a night at this time of year. A lot of companies are talking about holding an event post-Covid in the spring or summer instead.”
Smaller festive dinners of up to six can still be held, but, as one senior financier said, “the massive parties in Claridge’s or the Mandarin, then heading to the casino, have all been canned”.
This is not necessarily seen by all as bad, however. “They were on the wane anyway as brokers getting drunk and getting into fights is not a great look. Covid has given a perfect excuse to get rid of them.”
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