How to throw a good farewell party for a remote colleague

Balloons optional.
Balloons optional.
Image: Reuters/Samsul Said
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If I were creating a really honest resume, “throwing farewell parties” would be near the top of my list of skills.

I didn’t set out to make this a personal specialty. But I’ve been working at my current company for six years, which means that I’ve seen a lot of colleagues I care about move on to other jobs—and I’ve gotten a lot of practice organizing celebratory sendoffs, both in person, and on Zoom.

Virtual parties can be particularly tricky to manage. But it’s a talent that’s become increasingly relevant in the past year or so, as more people switch jobs in search of greener pastures. Here are a few tips for anyone looking to bid their far-flung colleagues adieu.

The best activities for a remote farewell party

The main difference between an in-person farewell and a remote farewell event is that the latter needs to be more structured. In the office, all you need is food, drinks, and a toast or two paying tribute to the departing colleague. Then you just let people mill around. If your co-workers are already generally friendly with one another, they’ll create their own atmosphere of festivity.

But with a remote party, you’ve got to have some activities planned, or you’ll end up with 20 faces blinking at each other expectantly from their Zoom boxes. (It’s hard to have a conversation with more than four people at once, and break-out rooms don’t really make sense for farewells.)

One fail-safe activity is a quiz about the departing co-worker. The quiz can go in a number of different directions. Sometimes it’s trivia-focused—say, multiple-choice questions about projects they worked on, the name of their dog, what their grammatical pet peeve is, and what instrument they play in their punk-rock band. If a couple of people are leaving around the same time, party-planners might take inspiration from BuzzFeed’s personality quizzes, asking questions intended to figure out if you’re, say, a Steve or an Amy (ie, “what kind of soup would you be?” and “how would you describe your personal style?”).

It’s also a good idea to ask at least one person to give a toast (typically the departing colleague’s manager or another higher-up who knows them pretty well), and to give the person who’s leaving a chance to say a few words if they’d like. It can make sense to open the floor for round-robin tributes to the person, with different colleagues sharing a favorite memory or a story about how the other person has helped them.

If you’re still worried about running out of things to say, and the remote party will still devolve into one big awkward staring contest, it never hurts to have a couple more activity options in your back pocket. For one lovably opinionated colleague, I created a game where we each had to write a sentence in her voice, predicting her thoughts on topics like Paris Hilton or owning a bird as a pet. I read the answers aloud, including her real responses, and then we all had to guess which was hers.

Inviting alumni to company parties

When a departing colleague has been at the organization for a while, it can be fun to invite former co-workers to the farewell, too. It turns the Zoom gathering into a mini-reunion, as well as a sort of retrospective This Is Your Life moment. Even if they can’t attend, they may be able to  share stories or tributes about the departing colleague that can be included in a goodbye card or read aloud during a Zoom call.

Why it’s important to throw goodbye parties for co-workers

Some might point out that throwing goodbye parties can be a lot of work, and that it’s the kind of uncompensated, unrecognized emotional labor that often gets shouldered by women. To those people, I say: Good point!

There are a couple ways to address the issue. Managers can consider the work that goes into throwing goodbye parties (and doing other tasks that contribute to a convivial workplace culture) when determining promotions and raises. They can assign office parties to an employee focused on internal talent as part of their formal job description. Or they can ask different people to take charge of farewell parties on a rotating basis, so the work doesn’t fall disproportionately on just one or two employees.

But goodbye parties are important—critical, even. A fond farewell lets the person who’s leaving the company know how much they’ve been appreciated, and affirms that the parting is on good terms. The decision to leave a job can be kind of like a birthday—a moment when we take stock of our lives and do a lot of existential pondering. In both cases, a celebration can help people feel supported at a time when they may be a bit vulnerable.

A party gives people who still work at the company an opportunity to feel a sense of closure, too. Some people may feel quite sad when a co-worker they’re close to leaves; others may worry about the future of the team or their company, particularly if the departing person is someone who’s influential and has been with the organization for a long time. A farewell gathering creates a space where people can bond with other colleagues experiencing similar emotions, instead of leaving everyone to feel stressed and teary-eyed alone.

Goodbye party traditions also perpetuate a workplace culture where people don’t just disappear without a word, which tends to freak out the employees who are left behind.

For me, the point of throwing office goodbye parties isn’t about how it benefits the organization—though I believe there are real benefits. It’s about bringing humanity to the workplace. As the past few years have hammered home, it’s a hard, sad, fragile world out there. A goodbye party is a chance for people to show that they care about one another. Why not seize it?