The office Christmas party is an existential exerciseHeat Profit
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One December, a friend’s office Christmas lunch was booked at a central London hotel. There was great excitement all morning. Colleagues put on party frocks and snowman jumpers. The occasion promised unlimited prosecco, food and an afternoon off work.
But on arrival she found a Christmas party industrial complex. The banqueting hall was set for hundreds of Christmas lunches for staff parties from many companies. The turkey, sausages and roast potatoes were served from an assembly line, slopped out by bored kitchen staff who had seen it all before, and were about to see it all again.
As she ate her pale lunch, she was struck by how boring the conversation was. So she topped up her glass, then had another. When the meal was over, everyone exchanged Secret Santa gifts. Hers was tat. Then she watched as a colleague discarded her carefully chosen present.
A moment of clarity struck: I need to leave the company, she thought. And so in the new year she did just that. My friend had been coasting in the job.
The work Christmas party, as described by André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City University London, is a “cultural event”. It reflects both the official workplace culture — perhaps with a speech from the chief executive — and the unofficial culture, which can be fun or toxic.
“It shows you in one place and time the official and unofficial culture, and gives you the opportunity to take stock,” he says. It can have a “gestalt effect” on people — “where everything comes together, [to] remind them they love or hate the place”.
Philip Hancock, professor of work and organisation at the University of Essex, has studied jobbing Father Christmases and is working on a book about Christmas. He sees office parties as a “barometer”: if a party is cancelled then it sends out a worrying signal to employees.
Charles Cotton, senior performance and reward adviser at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, agrees: “A Christmas party can be effective in marking the end of a tough year and recognising and rewarding employee contribution. Particularly in the face of tighter budgets, it is one way of reminding staff that they are part of a common endeavour.”
The office party reflects ‘official’ workplace culture — perhaps with a speech from the chief executive — and the unofficial culture, which can be fun or toxic
The mark of a good party is not necessarily a huge budget. One friend who works in public relations says she prefers recent austerity-era Christmas parties to the lavish pre-financial crisis ones. Organisers have to be more creative and focus on things people actually like, she says, such as “plentiful drinks and LOLs”.
A few years ago, after returning to work from maternity leave, I began to turn down almost all work-related evening events. As Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, the employers’ organisation, once observed: “Maybe the business dinner is a vestige of old business life.” I refuse to feel bad about being a work-drinks refusenik. Instead I could email contacts, seek them out for coffees or call them. I don’t think it made much difference to my job, although during this time I wasn’t promoted to chief executive (or at all).
A study published in Administrative Science Quarterly in 2007 cast doubt on the usefulness of parties as networking opportunities. Researchers put electronic name tags on guests. It found the partygoers preferred to mingle with “their pre-mixer friends, even though they overwhelmingly stated before the event that their goal was to meet new people”. A better way to approach such events, it concluded, was as a way to reinforce existing relationships.
Now I go out to a few select events, often to do just this — which is why I will be joining my colleagues at our departmental Christmas drinks. [Budget: modest].