If the office holiday party is dinner and dancing you're doing it wrong

Appealing to millennials and cutting costs requires creativity. Axe throwing, anyone?

Man wearing reindeer ears, sipping coffee

(Jason Todd/Getty)

It’s boisterous, boozy, sometimes a little out of hand, and it takes a big bite out of corporate budgets—it’s the office Christmas party! Are holiday festivities really worth the time and effort that your beleaguered admin staff are pouring into Secret Santa spreadsheets?

A staple of corporate culture, year-end parties aren’t what they were back in the heady days before the financial crisis, when Bloomberg reportedly spent £1 million on lavish tributes to the seven deadly sins (complete with a “lust room” decked out with a purple satin-covered bed) and Deutsche Bank hired R&B singer Robbie Williams to entertain staff. But they’re still a drain on staff time and resources.

The conventional sit-down dinner at a swanky restaurant or hotel, followed by a live band and dancing, typically runs $150per head or higher, says event planner Grail Noble, CEO of Yellow House Events. And though a party budget of $15,000 or higher for a staff of 100 may be worth it to some CEOs, Noble says she’s noticed companies moving away from traditional party-room bashes, sometimes to cut costs, but often to reflect the changing values of employees—especially millennials.

Younger staff find conventional three-course dinner parties too stiff and formal, she says. This year’s trendy alternative? Axe-throwing parties—because what says Christmas better than having a few drinks and tossing sharp objects? Toronto-based BATL (Backyard Axe-Throwing League) says it regularly hosts parties for companies like Microsoft’s Xbox Canada unit, which recently held its year-end gathering at a BATL venue. “The last three months of the year are an extremely busy time for gamers and gaming media,” says Robert Sauer, a communications spokesman for Xbox. “We wanted to host a celebration that would be fun and help everyone kick back and relax.” Instead of turkey or beef with all the trimmings, the Xbox crew ate burritos. And instead of raising a glass to toast the year’s successes, the staff hurled axes at big wooden targets. “We had an amazing time and we’re thinking of making it an annual event.”

To Noble, that makes sense. “Young employees really respond positively to this sort of thing. They don’t want something that feels buttoned-down—they’re not as corporate as previous generations were.” Another popular option she’s seeing: ugly sweater parties, a tongue in cheek way to mark the season. “This type of event may sound wacky, but it’s fun and actually more meaningful to them,” Noble says. Still, it’s important to know where to draw the line between unorthodox and inappropriate. Urban Outfitters faced pointed criticism this season after it sent out  invitations that inexplicably urged employees to “break out your juttis, kurtis, turbans, saris, lehenga cholis and harem pants” for the company’s annual holiday party.

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Another way to make staff events more meaningful for millennials is to incorporate a giving component—something Noble has decided to try with her own team this year—since the generation typically values companies that align profits with social purpose. Yellow House launched a 12 Days of Christmas Kindness campaign on December 1 as a lead-up to the office holiday part. Each day, staff can volunteer to take part in activities that include making food for soup kitchens and buying gifts for needy kids. Noble and her team designed a digital Christmas tree/advent calendar that reveals a different act of kindness each day. “We’ve been having such a blast with it,” she says. “And it has been such an unexpected team builder for staff as well.”

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Yellow House has been promoting the initiative via a digital microsite and hashtags on Twitter (#12DAYSxK), because as Noble points out, to make an experience meaningful to millennials, it needs to be shareable.
“There has to be moment that they can capture, because their experience is all about social media. They’re thinking, I’m going to post on Facebook that I went axe-throwing with my team. I’m not going to post that I’m at the convention centre. That’s why no party can be without a photo booth either. It’s a huge thing for millennials.”

Whether you decide to change your corporate traditions or not, there’s one thing you shouldn’t consider: calling off your year-end celebration altogether. The annual staff gathering is a great way to say thank you to your staff that can offer huge payoffs that extend into the new year, says Glenn Rowe, Paul McPherson chair in strategic leadership at Ivey Business School. “I tend to think of it this way: Employees who feel appreciated won’t be grasping for the last cent in negotiations and collective agreements if they feel appreciated. They’ll be more willing to give of their time, and their skills.”

So even if you’ve had a bad year in 2014, Rowe suggests you shouldn’t on the holiday social. “I’ve never seen research on this, but I would bet that companies who are going through a tough time and claw back on their party could end up with a lot of staff who are quietly polishing their resumes.”