The holiday season is on the horizon, and COVID fatigue is a thing. We miss our friends, our lives, and maybe even our colleagues. Photos of kids at school, dinners out, and birthdays are out in full force on Instagram. While the majority of our network's office-based businesses are still WFH, many teams are intending to break the monotony by ending 2021 with a year-end hangout of some form.

As we baby-step our way back to making more plans with family and friends, there can be a big gap between what different people are comfortable doing. There is a new variant afoot, and while some colleagues might be double-vaxxed and eager to party, others are anxious, immunocompromised, or otherwise just not ready. And that is 100% fine.

However, not everyone is comfortable saying no to the boss who’s making big in-person holiday plans. It's a different beast to decline your CEO's invitation than, say, your sister-in-law's. And if you're the boss, there's an art to planning an event that doesn't make people feel obligated or uneasy.

If You're The Attendee

On the fence about attending?

If you’re trying to scope out how distanced the event will be, it can be tricky to ask without feeling like you’re offending. Asking questions can feel like you don’t trust your boss to be a conscious and hygienic host.

If this is the case for you, you can simply say “no thanks” (see below) or, since different people have different ideas of “safe” and “distanced”, try using yes-or-no questions based on what you are personally comfortable with.

For example, instead of, "Will we be practicing social distancing?" Try, "Will everyone be wearing masks?" Or, "Will everyone be bringing their own food?"

In the end, you may feel totally comfortable with the situation and end up looking forward to reuniting. But if you feel like you’re only saying yes to please others, listen to your gut.

If you just want to say no, period.

You might have perfected your kind but firm “no” when it comes to family and friends. But power structures mean that saying no to the person who writes your performance review might be a bit more difficult. People are feeling more pressure than ever to get back together in-person and if it’s during the workday, you can't exactly say you have other plans. Being the odd one out not attending can be hard but, again, listen to your gut.

If you have a medical reason not to attend, you can talk about it, but don’t feel pressure to. Zaira, a Marketing Manager who is immunocompromised, says she tends to take a direct approach.

“I’d say something like ‘Hey, listen, I would love to attend but I’m quite high risk, and while I realize the risk is relatively low and I completely appreciate that precautions will be taken, I don’t yet feel comfortable attending gatherings’. So far, no one has given me grief about it”

That said, there’s no need to share your health status with your coworkers. A simple “no thanks, I can’t make it” is perfectly fine. If you’re pushed, you can always say you’ve got family members you’re worried about (don’t we all, in some way?) and leave it at that.

If you’re healthy but simply not cool with in-person events, know that you’re not alone. Steph, an HR manager, says she just doesn’t feel right getting social yet.

“I miss my team members incredibly and I can’t wait until it’s safe to see them. But COVID-19 scares the crap out of me—both the thought of catching it and the thought that I could unknowingly spread it to others. I still love my colleagues, but they’ll have to gather without me!”

Avoid shaming folks who make different decisions than you are comfortable with. It might be infuriating to see people not following the same rules that you are, but unless it’s an extreme situation, it’s unlikely to be the right call in a professional setting.

If you're game to party!

First, don’t judge those that sit it out. This isn't the place for toxic workplace gossip about why Frank is at home instead. You never know what’s going on in someone’s life, and everyone has different comfort levels that should be respected.

Next, do your part. Stay apart, and wear a mask inside when not eating or drinking. Remember that alcohol can lower inhibitions, so if drinks are part of the plan, remember to stay diligent.

Finally, don’t force people to share your space, offer them a sip of your rosé, or tease them if they bring a measuring tape. This is not the time to push boundaries.

Uh oh, you’re there and distancing is SO not a thing...

The invite said all the right things, your questions were answered to your liking, and you felt ready. But you get to the event and everyone’s sitting around the table next to each other, mask-free, sharing some nachos.

If you’re uncomfortable piping up to ask them to respect the rules, just pack up and go. Thank your boss for organizing the event, and say you had a great time but have to get going. Depending on your relationship with your manager, explaining why (and risking criticizing their hosting skills in the process) could get awkward. Feel free to fake a phone call and jet.

If You’re the Boss

Give invitees an easy opt-out

Set very clear expectations about the gathering. Emphasize that attendance is completely optional, and that no questions will be asked if people don’t want to attend. Be clear and detailed with all of the safety precautions attendees can expect.

Don't force public responses or RSVP's

Consider using an invite that does not show invitees responses. Or inviting folks 1:1 in a private chat, so that someone who cannot or does not feel comfortable attending doesn’t have to announce their reasoning (and possibly defend it) in front of the whole team.

Consider power structures when planning

While you plan, be aware of power structures, and know that not everyone will be comfortable saying no to you. Jason, a manager at a tech firm, recently got together with colleagues, but kept it to folks who he shared equal status with.

“I would definitely take seniority/experience level into account before proposing anything. Someone early in their career is likely to have a hard time saying ‘no’ to a manager or other higher-up, even if you reassure them over and over. I’d be too worried that they’d let the fear of disappointing the boss override their wishes, and I don’t want to be the one who pushed them to do something that makes them uncomfortable”.

That said, if you’re not inviting everyone, be aware that access to social events can reinforce power structures, too. Stick to casual “life” talk and don’t make business decisions that would otherwise involve those who decline or are not included.

Proper food and beverage safety measures

No double dipping! Some folks might not be comfortable sharing food or digging into a communal charcuterie board, so if you're serving food, plan for separate plates. Hosting at a restaurant can make this easier. Bonus: they'll take care of the vaccination screening!

Be diligent while the event is happening

Remember that enforcing the rules is YOUR job, and people will be looking for you to lead.

Have someone (even yourself) welcome and check everyone upon entry. You can greet everyone personally, and it doubles as a perfect time to do a rule reminder. Consider marking properly distanced space as easy as possible — you can pre-place seating a measured 6 feet apart, and mark directional paths with tape. Make sure to enforce mask-wearing whenever people are not eating or drinking, and even put up signage to remind everyone. And always provide hand sanitizer at several high-touch locations for ease of use!

Keep it digital instead!

You can also consider having a virtual event in addition (or instead), so that team members who cannot attend an in-person gathering can still bond with the team. Services like Wavy and Care/Of are offering fun team adventures that happen completely online.

Whatever you choose, have fun! When planned well and executed with finesse, a distanced team event with safety as priority #1 can be a fantastic way to bond, have fun, and say goodbye to 2021.

Happy (safe) planning!