Sober-curious shindigs: why 2023 was the year Christmas parties ditched the booze

Businesses are shunning the usual alcohol-filled festive celebrations and turning to more inclusive alternatives instead

Sober Christmas Work Party

In previous years, work Christmas parties were filled with the sounds of popping prosecco corks and clinking glasses. However, this December many companies have put down the mugs of mulled wine in favour of more inclusive team-building activities.

One business that deviated from its usual Christmas meal was Bath-based PR consultancy Carnsight Communications. Instead, its small team of four staff were treated to hot chocolates and an afternoon of spa treatments. Explaining the reason for the change, business owner, Jessica Morgan, says: “After completing some big projects this year, it felt like time to relax and rejuvenate. Our culture isn’t really about drinking… it meant that everyone could enjoy the day at their own pace and it was a great way to round off the year!”

Christmas parties get sober-curious

With a growing number of people embracing the sober-curious lifestyle – which is particularly popular among gen-Z workers – businesses have been exploring ways to encourage team bonding which don’t resort to post-work pints. This could be why more companies have been encouraged to go tee-total with this year’s festivities. 

There’s been a real change in attitudes towards work Christmas parties – and potentially a permanent shift in workplace culture

A recent survey from recruitment firm Walters People found that 31% of staff are planning to stay sober at their work Christmas do, outnumbering the 22% that plan to “go all out”. Activity-focused events (10%) and relaxed celebrations with less focus on alcohol, (20%) were also popular alternatives to the usual bar-based parties.

Walters People’s UK director Janine Blacksley says: “Our polls show a real change in attitudes towards how work Christmas parties could be carried out going forward – and potentially a permanent shift in workplace culture.”

Fire and security safety specialist Chubb is another company that got creative with its Christmas plans. Approximately 40 staff took buses from its Staines headquarters to Windsor where teams partook in a scavenger hunt through the market town, answering quiz questions and completing tasks along the way.

According to Chubb’s head of communications, Charlotte Bass, “it was great for bonding, and getting to know our colleagues in a different way.” Although this was followed by a more traditional Christmas lunch, efforts were made to provide plenty of non-alcoholic options for those who didn’t want to drink.

Similarly, network equipment company D-Link hosted a small group of staff and journalists for an afternoon of virtual reality games at SandboxVR in London. While this annual event would normally revolve around drinks and a steak lunch, those in attendance enjoyed the change of pace and there are plans to hold a similar event in the Spring.

How alternative Christmas parties can promote inclusion

But it’s not just employees that are driving this change. Financial constraints have meant that the usual open-bar affair is not an option this year and has forced some companies to pare-back their Christmas celebrations. 

VenueScanner head of B2B Sophie Knight notes that budget considerations are front-of-mind for many companies this winter. “There has been a little bit of belt tightening and more conservative Christmas parties as a result of the financial climate and the cost-of-living crisis,” she adds. 

The venue-booking business has seen a 2.5 times increase in reservations for experience and activity-based venues over the 2023 Christmas period, compared to last year. This includes bookings for clay pigeon shoots, videogame arcades and darts clubs. “While there is still definitely a market for sit-down dinners, there is growing demand, particularly from younger staff, for companies to offer more than a meal and drinks,” adds Knight.

Other business leaders will be conscious that alcohol-fuelled Christmas parties are not always the most inclusive and can create headaches for HR departments in the days following (beyond those from the hangovers). 

“In the spirit of inclusivity and recognising the diverse preferences within our team, we’ve made a deliberate decision to host an alcohol-free Christmas celebration this year,” says Jaskaran Deu, director of Leeds-based property management business DEU Estates. “As a leader, it’s crucial to acknowledge the changing dynamics in how people choose to socialise, with a growing number opting for alcohol-free lifestyles.”

As a leader, it’s crucial to acknowledge the changing dynamics in how people choose to socialise

A third of women polled by the Chartered Management Institute reported witnessing inappropriate behaviour or harassment at work parties and two-fifths said they would prefer work parties to be organised around activities that don’t involve alcohol.

“Younger workers, in particular, and women are more interested in work social activities that do not involve alcohol, and good managers and leaders need to take that into account when deciding how to bring teams together for social gatherings,” says the CMI’s head of public affairs Caroline Mallan. 

“That might mean adding fun activities to an evening, limiting the number of drinks available per person and ensuring that managers are alert to the risk of someone drinking too much and behaving inappropriately, either towards others or by embarrassing themselves in what is, after all, still a professional setting.”

One employee that particularly appreciated their company’s alternative end-of-year event was India Knott, an account manager at LarkHill PR. As a practising Muslim and non-drinker, Knott claims that alcohol-fueled Christmas parties can often be “awkward to navigate”. 

This year, LarkHill PR decided to go on a team trip to Kew Gardens in London to watch its winter light show, followed by a meal at The Ivy restaurant in Richmond. “It was a choice that everyone loved,” Knott adds.

It shows that these alternative takes on festive frivolities can have a positive impact on the whole team and helps ensure those that normally feel excluded are welcomed. With more people dabbling in the sober lifestyle, this may just be the start for the alcohol-free Christmas party.