United Wholesale Mortgage had a big reason to celebrate at this year’s holiday party.
Employees walked a red carpet lined with “paparazzi” and posed for pictures in front of Maseratis, Porsches and limousines. They sipped cocktails and dined on lobster pot pie. After speeches and toasts, the big surprise: performances from the rapper Ludacris and the country-pop duo Dan + Shay.
“You know you’ve hit a home run when you see all your team members singing every lyric along with Ludacris,” said UWM’s chief people officer, Laura Lawson.
The comeback of the in-person holiday party — think ugly-sweater contests and secret-Santa gift exchanges — marks a return to the kinds of gatherings that have traditionally punctuated the year’s end in the workplace. It’s a chance for companies, especially those with hybrid or remote staffs, to bring employees together in one place after a challenging and change-filled few years. For some workers who have yet to return to the office, it may be their first in-person introduction to colleagues or bosses.
In-person holiday gatherings are returning at a strange moment, as the tug of war over hybrid work continues and the specter of a 2023 recession looms in the form of layoffs and hiring freezes.
But many companies, big and small, are deciding to host year-end parties, some with impressive pizazz. PitchBook is expecting more than 1,100 guests at its 007-James Bond-themed celebration in a warehouse-turned-concert-venue in Seattle. (The entertainment is still under wraps, but the firm’s last party featured Flo Rida.) Others are taking a more reserved route. Google warned its employees earlier this year to temper expectations for end-of-year celebrations, according to CNBC. Ryan Lamont, a spokesman for Google, confirmed that the company is hosting some small in-person holiday gatherings.
For its first holiday party since 2019, the Society for Human Resource Management isn’t holding back. The group’s log-cabin-themed celebration on the rooftop of the Hall of the States in Washington is expected to draw 400, more than twice the attendance of its last holiday shindig, according to Donté Clavo, owner of the Clavo Group, who planned the affair. Employees can experiment with make-your-own hot chocolate, cider and s’mores and ham it up in a 360-degree photo booth. The party will feature heated tents, fire pits, corporate-branded blankets and live music.
“We’re using this as an opportunity to get people excited about our future,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., SHRM’s chief executive.
Not all companies are celebrating, though. Several months ago, companies were overwhelmingly planning to assemble their workforces for end-of-the-year parties, Taylor said. But in the past few weeks, Taylor has heard from some corporate executives who are rethinking. Some are concerned about a cold-weather coronavirus surge; others, worried about the optics of throwing elaborate soirees after trimming head counts and sounding off about economic woes, are scrapping the holiday party altogether.
“It isn’t that we can’t afford it,” Taylor said. “It’s the message, the perception that we can’t, on the one hand, sell an environment of austerity and then have a holiday party.”
Kelly Scheib, chief people officer at Crunchbase, a prospecting software platform, should have been on a plane to California this week for the company’s holiday masquerade ball. It was going to be a “grandiose” event for 500 guests to celebrate the season and the emergence from the pandemic.
But last month, as the tech space was rattled by layoff announcements from giants like Meta and Twitter and scores of smaller firms, the company’s executive team decided to cancel.
Crunchbase will be celebrating virtually with a “hot cocoa cozy party,” Scheib said. Employees have been asked to wear comfy clothes and to “purchase all the elements for a killer hot cocoa.”
“It just felt wrong to be throwing a party considering what was happening in the economy,” Scheib said. “Right now it’s about being responsible.”
Holiday party plans wax and wane with the labor market, according to Andy Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which has surveyed firms on their end-of-year celebrations for nearly 20 years.
Despite the economic storm clouds, few companies are going virtual with celebrations this year, Challenger said, with the majority opting for in-person events for the first time since 2019. The number of firms planning to serve alcohol is the highest since the company started tracking holiday party planning, Challenger said.
At a time of heightened tension over return-to-office policies, many companies are eager to use holiday parties as a way to highlight the virtues of being in person, Challenger said. Executives he spoke with seemed particularly hopeful about the chance to connect with Generation Z employees, some of whom have never attended an in-person office celebration before.
“We see companies spend money on their parties when they want to invest in their culture,” Challenger said. “They’re trying to sell the idea of coming back to the office again.”
Pivot Design’s holiday party is “very serious business,” said Topher McCulloch, director of development and technology at the Chicago firm. The company nearly doubled its ranks during the pandemic. Yet, with most employees coming into the office only once a week, many hadn’t experienced being alongside all their colleagues.
The company has outgrown its office space and not all employees have desks full-time, so on the day of the holiday party, employees packed into conference rooms and the kitchen. The fullness gave the office a “festive feel,” McCulloch said.
The all-day affair began with mimosas and doughnuts and progressed to a catered taco lunch and the company’s “Secret Santa extravaganza” in the afternoon. Later, the party moved to a tiki bar for dinner and drinks, where plus-ones were invited to join.
“It’s nice putting some intentionality behind reasons to be in person, rather than just being there five days a week because that’s what you do,” McCulloch said.
Despite an ongoing push by executives to return, many downtown offices remain about half as full as in pre-pandemic times, according to security swipe data tracked by Kastle Systems across 10 of the country’s top metro areas.
But holiday parties are incredibly popular this year. From Fortune 500 companies to small businesses, in-person parties almost seem to have returned to pre-pandemic numbers, according to Ari Driessen, chief executive of event software company RSVPify.
“Really everybody who used to host a holiday party is considering coming back into the fold,” Driessen said.
Few of RSVPify’s clients are hosting virtual gatherings. Some are going classic, with ugly-sweater contests and karaoke at the office. Some companies that have grown their ranks but ditched their offices are turning holiday celebrations into multiday destination events. They’re renting out swanky venues such as conference centers or museums, taking advantage of unused party budgets from the past few years.
“You may have your headquarters in Chicago but decide, ‘Hey, let’s meet up in Austin, or somewhere warm like Miami,’” Driessen said. “We’ll have a holiday party, but we’re also going to use it as a two-day opportunity to have a lot of in-person meetings.”
Basic Fun — home to the popular Care Bears, Tonka trucks and Lite-Brite toys — is hosting its first holiday party since 2019 at an upscale bowling bar in Boca Raton, Fla., with a DJ, dartboards and raffle prizes such as gift cards and fitness equipment.
Its Florida employees have been back in the office four days a week for well over a year, but this will be the first time since the pandemic that everyone has come together from all of Basic Fun’s offices, said chief executive Jay Foreman. He expects 120 people and hopes employees can enjoy the chance to let loose.
“I think the theme is really just leave the mask at home,” Foreman said. “It’s time to move forward.”
ClaimsXchange, a trade group for lawyers and insurance claims professionals, held its party at Tiro a Segno in New York, a private Italian club that boasts an underground, black-tie rifle range. The Nov. 30 party coincided with the Rockefeller tree-lighting ceremony, said chief executive Sydney Posner.
The group held a party last year, but covid concerns still weighed on attendance. This year, people flew in from all over, and the vibe was undeniably “warm and fuzzy,” Posner said. Her favorite part was the after-party at a pub down the street.
“This year there were hugs,” Posner said. “Last year it was, ‘Maybe I need a fist bump.’”
A previous version of this article mistakenly said that United Wholesale Mortgage was celebrating its rank as the nation's top lender in 2022. In fact, it reached that ranking in the third quarter. The story has been updated.