I recently conducted an informal survey on what people hated most about their company holiday party. Of course, you expect people to complain about the food or the venue – and they did. They also complained about not allowing spouses (who are an integral part of an employee’s success). If you allowed spouses, they then complained that you didn’t allow the kids to attend. Some preferred getting money and recommended splitting the potential cost of the party as a bonus among employees. Yet there was one thing that kept topping the list – and that’s how much people generally hated mingling with their coworkers. People had a surprising disdain for additional outside-work social time that required them to spend more time with people they couldn’t stand. This was shocking to me and it should be to you. If your employees hate spending time with their co-workers, it means you have a serious morale problem and likely less than optimal earnings and an alarming turn around.

The real goal is to have your employees love your company so much that they welcome to chance to meet in a social settings. Then again, not every company is Benchmark – whose company parties look like a clan of best friends who find it difficult to separate as the evening winds to an end. For companies riddled with petty squabbles, divisional rivalries, and departmental cliques, a holiday party can mean a step in the rehabilitated direction.

The Location
Where you host defines you as a company just as much as any other element of your party. Hosting as a cheap restaurant shows your team members you’re not really invested in them. Alternatively, a restaurant with a high-price point isn’t that impressive either. What really gets results is having great food at a great venue that allows people to mingle freely – one that encourages movement and conversation and helps build bonds while breaking down barriers. Think of a zoo, a museum, an aquarium, a lounge or club or even a more outdoorsy venue like a farm or an arboretum. It’s creative, it’s different, and it gets people excited.

Food
Never force a potluck. It’s tacky and it adds to a long list of things your employees already have to do during the holidays. This is the one time of year you can show your employees how much you appreciate them, and a potluck doesn’t really communicate value.

Laurels and Other Forms of Recognition
I also don’t recommend using this time of year to particularly highlight any special employees. Unless everyone is getting a nice Christmas bonus, and one or two other people deserve something extra, it’s inadvisable to selectively reward employees. It’s a move that breeds resentment and dampens the spirit of the party. Just remember how you felt at a school awards ceremony, having to sit there and watch other kids get recognized; you already didn’t want to be there and now you had to listen to this.

Entertainment
If budget is an issue and you’re going to have to have an in-office holiday potluck, then you can at least make your entertainment count for something. The best and most cost effective way to do this is through karaoke. In fact, it might even be a good idea to shift your entire holiday party to a karaoke bar. It’s dirt cheap to host (including food), and everyone is guaranteed to have a good time (and be involved).

Most companies are now in a post-recession that isn’t speckled with layoffs, allowing them to invest and enjoy more extravagantly during the 2013 holiday season. Whatever you end up doing, remember that a holiday party is about your company and the team that goes into making it successful. It’s about creating a statement that lets employees know they’re valued. If it’s within your budget and relative to your industry, your holiday party is also an opportunity to mingle with clients. So make it count.