Whether you call it a holiday celebration, Christmas party or year closing event, each year you and your team likely hold a session to bring everyone together and close the year before heading off for the holidays.
At SessionLab, we felt it was important to hold a team session to close the year, have fun, reflect, and appreciate everything we had achieved. The goal was to raise spirits before people went away for the holidays, celebrate the year, and build team bonds and experiences that would persist into the New Year and beyond.
As a fully remote team, most of our meetings and team building events are virtual by default- our current team of 6 live in 5 different countries! While we usually meet twice a year in a live setting, the global pandemic of 2020 meant we had to find other ways to meet, work and build team spirit in a virtual environment.
This is a challenge for organizations of all different shapes and sizes. Adapting to running events in a remote environment while still making them engaging and meaningful is tricky, but with careful planning and design, you can make your events enjoyable for all involved.
In this post, we’ll walk you through how we designed our virtual holiday party and share some tips and takeaways that can help you create effective, engaging virtual team events of your own!
Nonetheless, the facilitation plan and exercises below work well for a live event, too! In fact, in most of the cases below, we tweaked some of our favorite team building activities to fit the virtual use case.
Before the holiday season started, we knew we wanted to dedicate one afternoon to come together as a team, so we booked a three-hour slot that was fitting for our team across Europe.
Once we’d decided on a time and date for the event, it was vital that we clarify what we wanted to achieve and outline the purpose of the event. As with any workshop, event, or meeting, considered planning is important in ensuring the event will be successful.
What we wanted to achieve:
- Have fun. We wanted to have a light-hearted event to energize the team and make people feel good. Due to the global pandemic, we couldn’t have our usual summer getaway, so it was especially important to have some more virtual occasions during the year for relaxed non-working time together.
- Reflect together on the highs and lows of the past year and create a shared story of the past twelve months.
- Show appreciation. While showing appreciation is something we do year-round, it’s important to find dedicated time to tell each other how much we appreciate working together. Positive feedback creates a lot of energy, and builds bonds – particularly after a challenging year!
- Build connections. Although we are a small team, there are still people in the company working in different roles who don’t usually work with each other. Such events are great opportunities to get those people interacting and help everyone to feel more connected as a team.
While we wondered if it wouldn’t be unusual to have a holiday party in the early afternoon, when we considered the needs and obligations of everyone involved, it made more sense for the whole team to be held during working hours.
With some team members having kids at home or other obligations, it was important to make the event work for everyone. Our advice here would be to plan the event so it doesn’t eat into your employees free time and to consider time-zone implications when choosing when to hold your event. While it might be wine-o-clock for you, your colleagues overseas might just be waking up!
Despite being a fully remote company since the beginning, Zoom-fatigue is something that we also do experience. For our end of year online event, we were looking for something more fun and engaging.
At the recent annual alumni getaway of Startup Wise Guys, we had the chance to try spatial.chat which brings back the element of navigating ‘physical space’ in a virtual meeting. The core concept is simple: you have a meeting room and if you (well, your avatar) stands close to someone, you can hear one another clearly and interact. If you move your avatar far enough away, you don’t hear them at all and as such, your group can move around and have breakout conversations organically.
A couple of other features that came handy:
- Ability for multiple people to share their screen, images or music. We weren’t bound to one person sharing like in most video conference tools and it helped create a more real-life alike atmosphere!
- Pin images and videos to the background – this was particularly useful for some of the exercises we did.
- No app required to download – when it’s yet another video conf tool you’re using, and just for a single meeting, we all appreciate the quick access.
One takeaway here is to be open to changing up your video conferencing software based on the nature or purpose of the event. While there’s obvious value to using a tool everyone is familiar with, easy-to-use tools like spatial.chat (and alternatives such as gather.town) can bring fresh engagement while also keeping the entry barrier low.
It’s also worth noting that just as you would decorate a live space for the holidays, try doing so in a virtual space too! We picked a nice holiday-themed background and set some holiday music playing when we fired up the meeting room and it really helped create the right atmosphere!
When it came to designing and planning the virtual team event, it was important for us to get the right balance and provide space not only for fun but for reflection and appreciation.
Here’s how we approached designing the agenda for our virtual end of year event:
We knew our agenda would have a couple of more thoughtful exercises that included reviewing the year and giving focused appreciation to one another, so we wanted to fill in the gaps before and after them with more active and fun activities including an icebreaker, quiz and awards ceremony.
We also knew that we would split facilitation duties between our two co-founders. Remember that when running any event, it’s always good to have a primary facilitator to make sure the agenda runs smoothly while having a co-facilitator can make the facilitation process even easier.
When planning and designing the agenda, we used SessionLab to block out the facilitation plan and collaborate on creating a virtual event that satisfied our needs and fit neatly into the 3 hours we had allocated. Let’s take a look at the step by step agenda and explain the goal of each section.
We had the following main activities in our year closing session, which we’ll break down for you step-by-step below:
- Gathering & Intro (10 mins)
- Breaking the Ice: Collaborative Song-writing (15 mins)
- Review the Year: History Map (45 mins)
- Fun Competition: Quiz (35 mins)
- Give Appreciation: The Bus Trip Exercise (40 mins)
- Awards (20 mins)
See how this adds up on a timeline:
If you want to use this template for your own session, check out the complete agenda which includes practical tips and tricks for running the session too. (You can create your own copy of the agenda in SessionLab and tweak it to make it fit for your own team event.)
Ensuring everyone knows about the event and can prepare and allocate time accordingly is the first step in making your online party or event happen.
We wanted this to be a light-hearted, fun event. In the invitation, we asked that everyone dress for the fun, holiday theme if they wished. While some of us appeared in fun Xmas sweaters and Santa hats, it’s especially memorable when one of your colleagues turns up in a full-body giraffe outfit!
One final item we included in the invitation was a point of what not to bring. We asked everyone to come to the event with an open mind and heart and to remove other distractions. As with any meeting or workshop, it’s important to set clear expectations of your participants and ensure everyone is on the same page – even if that means getting ready to have fun!
The first step for your virtual party or meeting is bringing everyone together! Assuming it’s a tool that not everyone is familiar with, allow a few minutes of time so everyone can experience using the tool.
Also remember to ask participants to close (minimize) all other apps, tabs, etc. so there are no distractions during the event.
When using our chosen video conferencing tool, spatial.chat, there were some actions we asked everyone to try in order to become comfortable using the app:
- Move your avatar: your volume and what you hear will adjust with the distance
- Try the Megaphone – if you have something important to say
- Zoom in to see people’s face in proper size
- Stay in the first room (since we had multiple rooms in created for the event)
If you’re using any new tool or software for your virtual party, consider having a small checklist of actions to try when starting your event so you can cut down on downtime later.
Even with established teams, it’s important to get people into the holiday mood and encourage creativity and collaboration.
There are a lot of options you can choose from depending on your group size and preference. If you’re looking for more inspiration, check out our blog post on icebreaker games and online energizers for more great activities you can use to kick-off your online office party.
In the holiday spirit, we went with a collaborative song-writing exercise where pairs had to write their own verse of the Jingle Bells song: creating new lyrics that fit the existing rhythm. It’s a nice twist if they incorporate something in the lyrics that is related to your own company and culture:
Steps to take:
- Brief the exercise (make sure everyone is reminded of the rhythm of Jingle Bells!)
- Announce pairs and ask them to create and open a Google Doc per each pair where they can co-edit the lyrics.
- Ask the pairs to move into a separate discussion circle (“breakout room”) in your meeting space so they don’t hear/disturb each other. With our background, we had designated spots such as ‘by the Christmas tree’ or ‘next to the fire.’
- Give 5 minutes to write the new verse in pairs
- Regroup with everyone. Ask each pair to recite their rhyme/verse. Bonus points for singing!
- Congratulate each pair of authors as you create your own company version of Jingle Bells.
- Make sure you capture and save your verses in one place for the future!
And what did we come up with? Here is one of the verses (start humming Jingle Bells before you read it below!
workshops all the way
What fun it is to drag-and-drop,
And timing calculates”
Does it really rhyme? That’s up to you to decide. But it was a fun time spent together creating it!
The main purpose of this activity is to remind and reflect on what group members or participants have been through and to create a collective experience and shared story. It also creates opportunities to celebrate highlights, bring individual experiences to the group, and create closure on the events of the previous year.
Steps to run this exercise:
- As preparation, set up a virtual whiteboard with a timeline representing the last year. Include dates and a few key events, but not too much detail.
- Introduce the exercise to the group and share the link to the virtual whiteboard.
- Invite the team to populate the timeline with their key experiences (give 15 initially + extend with 5 if needed). Ask the group to include highlights and lowlights of the journey as well as insights, emotional highs and lows, challenges, successes, frustrations, stories and surprises, situations, learnings, and anything else that meant something to them in the past year.
- Next, give everyone 5 or 10 minutes to individually reflect on the timeline and see what their colleagues have contributed.
- Pin highlights and have everyone explain the moment that has been the most important or meaningful to them.
The result is a nice visual asset that recaps the year your team left behind while also including space for everyone’s individual perspective. Make sure to have this available for future reference. It’s fun to look back on this a year or so later!
Even at a virtual party, it’s important to include time for a break. This might mean giving participants time to get away from the screen, refill drinks or simply take a comfort break. We found this midway point the perfect time to have a quick break, though you have some wiggle room based on the needs of your group.
As per the flow of the session, it was time to have a lighter exercise after the previous reflection session.
This time we competed in teams while remembering what happened in the past year. We prepared a series of questions, around 15-20, referring to some events and achievements relevant to our team. (Alternatively, you may include some trivia questions, too)
When preparing the questions, make sure that the questions are diverse enough so everyone will have some questions that they have the knowledge to answer on Similarly, make sure you set up diverse groups of 3-4 people.
Practical directions for the groups:
- Arrange yourself so you can hear the facilitator and each other, but not the other group.
- Each group opens a shared document where they will record their answers.(As the facilitator, you can prepare that beforehand for each team with numbers for each question. That saved at least 2-3 minutes if not more during the event)
- Ask that the groups not research online for the answer and just use their own knowledge and best guesses, it’s based on trust.
- When ready, the facilitator starts by reading out the questions one by one.
- Once all questions have been answered by each group, swap the documents between groups and have the other group mark the answers as the facilitator reads them out. Each group gets 1 point for each correct answer.
- Declare a winner! If you have resources, give out prizes or simply give the winning group bragging rights.
Looking for alternatives? Check out our virtual team building activities post to see other games that can work great at your online event or virtual Christmas party! For example, virtual scavenger hunt is a great bet if you have a large number of people you wish to split into multiple groups.
By this point we’d had some fun and reflected broadly on the previous year. Celebrating the accomplishments of the organization as a whole is a vital part of the year end party, but it’s also important to celebrate each other and give appreciation for the work we’ve done together over the year.
Strong and meaningful interpersonal connections are the foundation of any organization and taking time to give positive feedback can help make them stronger. When you hear about your strengths from others and receive acknowledgement of your work and working attitude, it also builds your motivation, self-confidence and sense of psychological safety.
We have several exercises that allow people to express appreciation in the SessionLab library and one of our favorites is the Bus Trip from Thiagi Group.
The Bus Trip is a great exercise to use at the end of a session or as part of a project retrospective. It’s very energizing and produces lots of smiles, laughs, and sometimes even a teardrop or two.
In a live setting, we’d begin by arranging seating to create the impression of an imaginary bus that runs on positive energy. Ask participants in one row to give as much positive feedback as possible to the participants seated in the opposite row in 45 second runs. By rotating seats, you can ensure a great deal of positive feedback is shared among the group.
To recreate this exercise in a virtual environment, we made the following adjustments to simulate the physical environment:
- Add a grid (x times 2 grid depending on how many participants you have) as an image which represents the two rows of ‘seats’ on the bus. These seats are where participants will sit and rotate throughout the exercise.
- The width of each grid cell should be big enough so that if two people position themselves in the middle they won’t hear the conversation of the next pair. While you could achieve this effect by having breakout rooms in other video conferencing tools, spatial.chat made it easy to move between pairs quickly and easily.
- In each appreciation round, each participant has 45 seconds to give appreciation to their partner using prompts such as: What I like about you is; what I appreciate about you is; I feel happy whenever you…
- Bus Trip is a fast-paced activity, so it’s important that everyone is aware of the timing when giving feedback. We opened https://timer.pizza/ in a separate browser and screenshared it to the meeting room so everyone was working from the same timer.
- As facilitator, make sure to give very clear instructions when people rotate: nominate who will stay seated (one person must not rotate while everyone else does, in order for everyone to get to speak with everyone), and confirm when the new rounds are starting. It can also be useful to display prompt sentences in the meeting room to help your group get started.
When you brief the exercise, give 3-5 minutes for people to reflect and note down anything they may want to say to the people they talk to. Feel free to adjust this time based on the size of the group. By giving this prep time, you can help ensure that everyone can give thoughtful and meaningful appreciation to the rest of the team.
The result of the Bus Trip is a fast, uplifting exercise that leaves the group with wide smiles and meaningful feedback.
It’s commonplace to hand out awards at year-closing ceremonies or end of year parties. For us, we didn’t feel that a serious awards ceremony would be fitting for this cheerful holiday event. Acknowledging and rewarding hard work is important for any organization, though this should also be doing at the right time and via the correct channels.
As a small team, we felt that celebrating and promoting collaboration was a better approach than competition. In this case, we decided our end of year event would take a more light-hearted and fun approach to allocating rewards.
As a remote team, it was also interesting to see how we perceive each other. In this sense, the awards format served double duty as a getting to know you better exercise and a fun way to wrap up the session.
For this exercise, we brainstormed a set of offbeat ‘Who is the ….?’ type of questions prior to the session in a shared document. During the session, we then voted on who most likely fit the category using ahaslides.com. This meant that everyone could vote anonymously and we could instantly see results via a screenshare in the meeting room.
The quickfire nature of the exercise and the questions asked injected a sense of fun into the event and hearing who we felt was best dressed, most likely to become a dictator or be abducted by aliens were great conversation starters too!
A couple of practical things to keep in mind:
- If you have a small team, be sure to pick a wide assortment of questions so everyone is likely to ‘win’ some nominations and feel included
- Only include questions that have no negative connotations. This exercise is designed to create a cheerful mood and make everyone feel good
- Invite your team to contribute to creating the questions before the session. This not only helps keep things varied but also helps increase engagement too!
In order to conduct this exercise online, we had to find an app that allowed simple online polling without a need to log in which could then display results immediately after the poll for each question was closed. We went with ahaslides.com for this purpose, though there are other options out there.
(As an alternative you can vote offline prior to the meeting and then present the results at the session. While this saves some time, the dynamics of this exercise are more engaging when you mix vote and result presenting on the spot.)
And what questions did we use?
Who would be the:
- Best dressed?
- Most mysterious?
- Best person to take home to mom?
- Have the most organized workspace?
- Biggest coffee gourmand?
- Would be the DJ at a team event?
- Most likely to be found outdoors?
- Most astute observer? (notices small details – e.g. when you have a new haircut)
- Most likely to be a dictator?
- Best traveled?
- Who would survive best in the post-apocalypse? (mad-max style!)
- Who would be the best poker player/ who has the best poker face?
- Most likely to be abducted by aliens?
- Who is the easiest person to read? (most expressive)
- Most likely to spray hair yellow to attend/rave at a Scooter concert?
We found this exercise a great way to end the event and raise spirits before leaving for the holidays. While we didn’t include any prizes beyond bragging rights for either the quiz or the awards ceremony, in retrospect even a small, symbolic or fun prize would have been a good idea.
After all the uplifting appreciation and award giving, it was a good moment to wrap up the main activities of the session and wish everyone a happy holiday. We were also sure to schedule the event so that anyone who wanted to stay could chat and mingle afterward. Creating space for your team to have more fun and continue conversations from the main activities is time well spent!
On reflection, while the key principles of a holiday team building activity are present in both live and online environments, there is an additional layer of preparation and technical admin to ensure it runs smoothly. Be sure to plan accordingly and do a dry run of any new tools you’ll be using.
There are also a lot of small considerations that can make a remote session more engaging – starting from small things such as ensuring shared documents and assets are properly prepared, to timers, background music and breaks. While it might be tempting to wing-it and just bring everyone together for an end of year event with conversation and drinks, it really helps to plan your agenda and come prepared.
While a virtual party or end of year event might not have been your initial choice, given the global pandemic and increasingly remote nature of work it’s a great way to come together and celebrate the year, whatever the circumstances.
Did you run a holiday team event or to review the year and celebrate? Do you plan on running similar events in the future? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!