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The Virtual Office Holiday Party — How Does That Work, Exactly?

Some companies have taken their office holiday parties online — be it for financial or geographic reasons, or simply for the convenience.

Photo by: Micheal Crom

A virtual office holiday party? It sounds like it has the potential to be the coolest — or uncoolest — party ever.

On the plus side, what other party can you attend in your PJs with a glass of wine? And, you have to admit, the ride home will be sweet! Just don't slip on the carpet going up the stairs and you’re all set. Also — no waiting in line for the bathroom.

“It’s a great way to spend some time with co-workers in a different way,” said Michael Crom, the chief learning officer at the Dale Carnegie Institute, which held its first online holiday party this year. “Plus, it challenges their creativity — how do you make this a fun experience, getting to know your colleagues in a non-business setting?”

So how does a virtual office holiday party work, exactly?

First, you have to pick a time and date and invite a list of guests, just as you would for a regular party. And, while parties can and do take on a life of their own, it’s important for the organizers to have some sort of itinerary to keep the festivities moving.

At the Dale Carnegie Institute party, staffers started with a gift exchange that was planned in advance. Everyone got the name of a co-worker, and their task was to think of what that person was like as a child and then buy a gift for that child. The toys were then donated to “Toys for Tots” or some other charity. During the party, they went around the “room” and each person talked about what he or she thought that person was like as a child, and then presented the co-worker with a photo of the gift.

Crom got a Matchbox command center for jets that included 10 aircraft, with the clever salutation, “For Our Mission Commander-in-Chief.” He said he absolutely would’ve loved the gift when he was a kid — and admitted that even the adult him would enjoy it!

There were planes, robots, and even a “Wisecracking Spider-Man” with “10 heroic phrases!”

If only we all put that much thought into our gifts for "Toys for Tots."

The attendees were also asked to share pictures of themselves when they were kids. One employee showed two childhood pictures — one of her and one of her “future husband.”

A lot of office parties start off with good intentions of leaving work at the office and focusing on casual chitchat but, given that the one thing you have in common with these people is work, they often devolve into the Niagara Falls of work brain drains and gossip sessions. But between the childhood pics and the gifts for the childhood version of their co-workers, Crom said their virtual party was never at risk for spiraling the work drain.

“I don’t think work came up at all!” he said.

In addition to the gift "exchange," they had a virtual whiteboard where everyone shared their holiday traditions. Simultaneously, they had a live chat where everyone could comment.

One co-worker shared a tradition of hanging stockings for Christmas — and then hanging them again on New Year’s. Another worker's family sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus with a cake in the shape of a lamb, and another had a tradition of getting new PJs every year and wearing them on Christmas day.

The company didn't provide food and drinks as they would at a traditional holiday party, Crom said — no gift baskets with wine and snacks to all of the attendees. When he first started at the company, it used to give turkeys to employees at the holidays, but now they just get cash. (Wow, these virtual holiday parties are sounding better and better!)

Though it wasn't provided by the company, there was food at the party. Workers shared family recipes on the traditions whiteboard — everything from cinnamon rolls to crabmeat casserole!

The Dale Carnegie party used the same software they use for online training so, in a way, they had a technological advantage. But you don’t have to invite techies to make an online party a success. The key is in the creativity — and planning.

1,400 Words, a small marketing business in Dallas, held a virtual party on Facebook this year.

At regular office holiday parties, there’s always that stomach-churning possibility that one guy — the guy everyone loves who just so happens to sound like a young Frank Sinatra — might start up an impromptu karaoke or sing-along on the dance floor.

1,400 Words nipped that in the bud early at their Facebook party. They opened the party with a few Christmas carol videos — Stephen Colbert’s ski cabin razzle dazzle number, “Another Christmas Song,” and, just to make everyone feel good about their own singing abilities, Chewbacca singing Christmas carols.

Phew! I don’t know about you, but I think I need to hit the digital punch bowl again.

Photo: Don Bayley | Getty Images

Yep, they posted a photo of a multitiered punch bowl, followed by photos of a giant dining table, a wall of booze, and a modern gingerbread house.

Of course, one of the great perks of online parties — no awkward silences. Still, it helps if the organizers move the party along.

After posting the funny videos and an unexpected but hilarious Burt Reynolds photo, 1,400 Words asked the guests what was the worst Christmas gift they’d ever received. The answers ranged from an introduction to Burt Reynolds (nice callback — hey, who invited the pros?) to festive Christmas socks.

And, of course, the nice thing about having a party from the comfort of your own computer — you can always upload pics of your dog wearing a funny Santa hat, as one guest did at the 1,400 Words party. Let’s be honest, describing that pic at a real party would be awkward and rob the pet owner of the collective "Awwwwwwwwww!" they so desperately crave. Upload the pic to a Facebook party and LIKE! — we’ve got your "Awwwwwwwwww!" right here.

Of course, the beauty of the online holiday party — aside from the fact that you can attend in your PJs with a glass of wine AND upload adorable photos of your dog — is that sky’s the limit. 1,400 Words gave out virtual goodie bags at the end of the party: photos of a luxury car with a big, red bow on top.

Finally! A car with a giant bow on top that makes sense!

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  • Cindy Perman is a writer at CNBC.com, covering jobs, real estate, retirement and personal finance.

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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