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‘Tis the season to be cautious

4 min read

By Laura Coombs, Megan Berry

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Office party season is upon us, and while there are limited government restrictions this year, particularly in England, many businesses are ditching the pre-Covid-19 office-wide parties. In fact, The Times asked all FTSE 100 companies whether they were having a Festive/Christmas party this year and, of those who responded, there was a 50:50 split between those who were going ahead and those who were cancelling their party. Those who were proceeding also tended to be hosting a number of smaller events rather than one big party.  

It is clear there are a lot more considerations for employers this year when it comes to planning their office party.  We have therefore set out some factors which businesses should consider when planning their festivities in the 'new normal':

Fostering inclusivity

Employers should be mindful that some employees will likely be nervous about attending an office party for a number of reasons, including if they are vulnerable to Covid-19 or have regular contact with someone who is. Some of the considerations we explore below may help make employees feel more comfortable and able to attend.

More generally, employers should also consider the following to try and ensure no one in their workforce feels excluded:

  • make enquiries of the venue to ensure that it is accessible for all.
  • plan the office-party to take account of other religious holidays as well as just Christmas, for example, Hanukkah or Bodhi Day.
  • ensure that there are food and drink options which cater for all employees.
  • if employees will be meeting some or all of the costs, try to ensure that the costs are reasonable for all - the festive period is often an expensive time of year!
Engaging

One thing employers obviously don’t want to do is put on an event that people are very uncomfortable about or simply don’t want to attend.  Before going too far down the path therefore, it would certainly be sensible to consider entering into some form of meaningful discussion with staff around what they would like to do and what they would feel comfortable with.  The current situation is ever evolving and so employers should also make it clear that people can change their mind as time goes on – everyone has different personal circumstances and views as to what is "safe" for them.

Choosing the right venue

We also recommend that employers check Covid-19 policy at their chosen venue.  Most venues have clear policy statements, but the culture of a venue is key as to how "Covid safe" it is.  Do they make it clear to staff on a regular basis that they are not to present for work in certain situations - encouraging them to act within guidance? Ask what they would do if a member of staff attended work with a continuous cough?  Are they aware that that this member of staff should be self-isolating and booking a PCR test or do they simply accept the explanation of "I've done a lateral flow and it's negative" (not in line with guidance)?  A few sensible questions can provide a good sense of how Covid-safe a venue is and employers can then share this with their teams.

Timing

Some businesses are opting to have their office parties early or in January rather than in the run up to Christmas. Having parties early or after Christmas may benefit both the business and employees. For businesses, it avoids disruption which may be caused by an outbreak of Covid-19, at what may be a very busy time in the festive period. Whereas, for employees, it reduces the risk of them getting Covid-19 and having to isolate over the Christmas period and may therefore encourage more people to attend.

Numbers

Swapping large scale events for smaller 'team' or 'location' based events will also reduce the risk of a large scale Covid-19 outbreak across a business' workforce and is an approach many companies are taking. Smaller events in less crowded venues may also make employees feel more comfortable about attending.

It may also be worth considering conducting an additional event via teams/zoom etc so that those who feel uncomfortable attending an in-person event don't feel they have been completely excluded.

Vaccines

It may be tempting to look to set a requirement that people may only attend if fully vaccinated. There would however be some significant risks in adopting such a strategy from a discrimination and data protection perspective. Setting such a requirement therefore would probably be best avoided.

Testing

Many businesses are asking their employees to take lateral flow tests, before attending their festive event. Taking a lateral flow test before an office party is something which the government have also urged people to do.

We would not necessarily recommend making testing mandatory as this may present a risk from both an employment and data protection perspective. However, just encouraging employees to take a lateral flow test may increase the number who will test before the event and again, hopefully reduce the risk of an outbreak and make employees attending feel more comfortable.

It would however be worth looking to issue some guidance in advance to set wider expectations around elements such as mask wearing and social distancing (as well as not attending if symptomatic).

Some employees may also want to ask others to discreetly let them know if they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive.  The rules may allow for all to attend but some may have different levels of what they consider to be "safe" and so be mindful if getting the balance right between fostering an inclusive culture whilst not mandating too many set requirements – encouraging voluntary discussions if necessary.

The 'normal' considerations

As well as making plans to minimise the impact of Covid-19 on the workforce, businesses should also be thinking about the usual things when planning their office-party, including issuing a reminder to employees about the standards of general behaviour the business expects from them.

If you are planning an office-party (or if you've had one and things have gone awry) and you'd like further advice, please do get in touch with your usual Foot Anstey contact or a member of the Employment team.