For most of us, 2020 has been an unprecedented, challenging year. At Kalderos, those challenges included the shift to a fully virtual office, with dozens of new teammates joining remotely. As the holiday season rolled around, we faced another challenge: converting the annual party into a virtual event to foster connections, build memories and bring us all together (if only in spirit!).
As the people team’s manager of organization & cultural design, it is important to me to foster belonging, satisfaction, growth and joy across every employee experience. I knew after a long year of unexpected stay-at-home orders, and with a workforce who only knew each other as small rectangle windows on Hangout, the holiday party was an opportunity to do something special.
First step, assembling a team
To plan the event, I was fortunate to collaborate with my colleague on the people team, Steven Stojak, as well as company volunteers Jyoti Gill and Allison Vides. We started with some guidance from Kalderos leadership: first, the event should be fully virtual; the team’s safety comes first. Second, it should be fun; after a day in front of a screen and Google Meet, the holiday party should feel like a break — not more of the same. Third, it should be connecting, creating a space for us to come together as a community.
Gill and Vides, who have been at Kalderos long enough to participate in company parties before COVID, looked to past events for inspiration. “We reflected on what made historical parties really fun,” says Vides, a business operations analyst. They particularly loved a September ’19 conference party where good food and drink, cheesy industry puns, and great views of the Chicago skyline all came together.
Defining the virtual holiday party experience
Our next problem to solve: how to integrate these elements into a virtual event. The whole team quickly turned to the idea of a cooking or cocktail class… spaced out over multiple evenings to enable more flexible participation. We liked the idea of creating a series of events for employees to look forward to. Additionally, with the current challenges facing restaurants and bars, we were excited about the opportunity to support some local institutions.
As one of Kalderos’ passionate foodies, customer relationship manager Gill drew on her extensive knowledge of Chicago’s restaurant and cocktail scene, reaching out to favorite local spots about their options for virtual experiences for big groups. The two that stood out were Boka, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and Kumiko, a cocktail bar in the West Loop. Both are home to talented experts with impressive accolades, and both were enthusiastic about working with Kalderos to create a one-of-a-kind holiday experience.
Meanwhile, we began searching for alternative ways to replicate a more classic online gathering. We decided against Google Meet or Zoom, which are linear in their conversation structure, versus that flexibility and flow of being able to walk around a space and choose your own adventure. This led us to the online platform Wonder, which enables users to create multiple spaces where participants can easily come and go. Here, we also found an opportunity to deploy the Kalderos-themed puns that everyone loved at past parties, by naming our breakout spaces things like CE-lebration, Grappa Valley Wine and Total Request Live. All fun inside jokes.
The plan came together: first, a virtual cocktail class on Thursday, taught by Kumiko’s Julia Momose. Then, a virtual cooking class on Friday, led by Boka’s Chef Lee Wolen. Afterwards, a company-wide gathering in the custom-designed Kalderos lounge on the Wonder platform. And, for the night owls, an afterparty in Jackbox, hosted by Kalderos CEO Jeremy Docken.
Kumiko virtual cocktail making class with our team and Julia Momose.
With little precedent to draw on for our virtual event series, there were definitely a few small obstacles along the way. The main challenge turned out to be logistical: each class required a box of perishable supplies, distributed to Kalderos employees all over the country. But both vendors came through with above-and-beyond enthusiasm. And when a few of the cocktail packages were misplaced by the shipper, Julia Momose and her colleague delivered replacement boxes by hand.
Bringing it all together
On the evenings of the events, everything went according to plan, with some moments of serendipity along the way. We all enjoyed an impromptu lesson on the history of Japanese whiskeys while sipping an exquisite sweet potato old-fashioned. We raced to hand-shape pasta dough and created a transcendent dish of ricotta cavatelli served with browned butter, butternut squash and oyster mushrooms. And we got a little glimpse into each other’s lives as coworkers’ families joined them on screen to share in the goodies. More than 80% of employees participated each night.