‘Our social skills are like any other muscle’: Are you attending your first office party of the pandemic? It’s time to strategize.  

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If you graduated and joined the workforce during the pandemic, chances are office parties are still a novel idea to you.

The gradual return to the office brought the idea of office parties back this holiday season. For many, it could be the first large-scale workplace social event since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, and since the era of remote working.

“I remember going to my first office party, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m the only Latina in this room. What is this going to be like?” Lesley Alegria, founder, principal consultant and career coach at Alegria HR Consulting, told MarketWatch. 

Alegria was a first-generation college graduate and the first generation in her family to work in an office. She wondered, “Are people going to point out the fact that I’m so different from everybody else? And that can be really nerve-racking.”

The lack of social events over the past two years has put many of us out of practice. For that reason, it’s always good to be a little strategic. For example, enjoy some lighthearted face time with your boss, and don’t get stuck in a corner. 

— Melissa Palmer, executive career coach in the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

“Our social skills are like any other muscle, they can atrophy if we don’t use them, but they also will recover and get stronger if we practice,” said Daniel Post Senning, author and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute.

But we could all use some guidance navigating the end-of-year office party. Workplace and etiquette experts said office parties are a gray area between work and personal life. They are casual, but have a degree of professionalism.

As such, don’t overdo it at the end-of-year knees-up: The food and drink is sponsored by your company, and this is an extension of your workplace, said Melissa Palmer, executive career coach in the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

So how do you navigate your office party successfully if you just entered the workplace, or if you’re simply just rusty after spending two years working from your sofa? Career coaches and etiquette experts offered these tips to MarketWatch:

What do I want to achieve at this event?

Office parties are a great time for networking and getting to know colleagues you may have only seen over Zoom

or Google Meets
if you are a new employee. They could bring opportunities to increase your profile at the firm.

Everyone is in the same boat. “There might be people who are still experiencing some anxiety about getting together, and there might be some people that are just really enthusiastic about it,” Post Senning said, “and that’s OK.”

For Alegria’s first office party, she got there early. “I was like, OK, I’m going to show up on time because I want to be there,” she said. “And I remember reaching out to my manager first when I got there to say hi to make that connection.”

Second, she endeavored to use the party to build a community and find people with common ground. “I mentioned I’m Latina, I’m the first generation, but I’m also from San Francisco. And I identify as a woman, I love to talk about food.”

How do I approach office-party small talk?

Small talk can be fun, but office parties are a good opportunity to ask for advice and seek inspiration, Palmer said. Some people love to talk about themselves, and their experience and trajectory could spark ideas for your own career, she added.

Spread your net wide, Alegria said. “When you’re an early grad or you’re trying to figure out your career path, having meaningful conversations with people from different departments could also give you some insight into their career paths.”

Ask people about the projects they are currently working on, said Jill Tipograph, a career coach for young professionals. This is a chance to learn about other initiatives and ideas floating about, but don’t be too pushy, she added.

In a tight labor market, employers are always looking out for agile learners. “So while you’re demonstrating that you can learn easily, show your value beyond what your current job is,” she added. (And obviously: no gossip and off-color jokes.)

How do I deal with the risk of COVID-19?

Coronavirus has not gone away, but there is some good news. New cases have broadly plateaued in recent weeks after rising in early December. Some questions: Are people wearing face masks? Are colleagues testing for COVID-19 beforehand?

If you feel sick, or have any symptoms, practice social distancing and stay home, and if needed, notify your doctor. But different people have different levels of comfort due to health issues, and other concerns. 

If you are wearing a face mask, bring it up in conversation to avoid awkwardness and disarm the other person, Tipograph said. “You just say upfront, ‘I’m wearing a mask because this is my comfort level and I hope you’re OK with that.’”

Sometimes, the music is loud and conversations are hard to hear. To avoid compromising someone else’s personal space, Tipograph recommends inviting your conversation partner to step away to a quieter area.

Should I bring a plus-one for security?

Ask before you bring a plus-one. If colleagues are bringing guests, choose carefully. A plus-one could also be a mentor, friend or family member. Whoever you choose, they should represent you well, and not be there to network for themselves. 

If you have a loud and aggressive friend who tends to drink too much, don’t feel under pressure to say, “Why don’t you come along?” You may end up regretting it later, and their bad behavior will reflect badly on you.

“You want to make sure if you’re going to invite someone to be your plus-one, that they are willing to understand the context,” Palmer said. That means they are briefed on attire, time, venue, and the other attendees. 

But this is not a time to help out a friend who’s at a loose end. “If it’s gonna bring you ease, bring them. If it’s gonna bring you stress, don’t bring them,” Alegria said. But if you are going to feel secure, supported, and part of a unit? “Bring them,” she added.

How do I make a seamless exit?

When Alegria attended her first office party, she planned to meet a friend afterwards. She resolved to stay just two hours. That night, she made new friends and connections from different departments before she made her timely exit.

Bookending the night put her at ease. “Two hours for me was what I felt comfortable with. That’s where I was like, OK, my social meter is going to be at zero after two hours. So I’m gonna go ahead and gracefully exit,” Alegria said.

What if you get stuck next to someone or you need to exit a conversation that makes you uncomfortable? Say “I need to…” and fill in the blank, Alegria said. Whether it’s using the restroom or refilling your drink, it provides a quick escape.

“Having those go-to phrases for me in my back pocket also helped me feel really stable in those conversations,” Alegria said. “We don’t really know what the other person is going to say in these spaces, especially when there’s drinking involved.”

Finally, it’s still a party. So remember to relax — and have fun.

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