Last month, after four and a half years, I said goodbye to Pinterest. Though I loved my team of UX researchers and was grateful for my experience, I knew it was time for a change. (As it has for so many of us, the pandemic had given me ample opportunity for reflection.) So I gave my formal notice and began the process of rolling out the news to my peers, direct reports, and the larger organization.
It’s hard enough to say goodbye to coworkers under normal circumstances. How do you say goodbye, then, to a colleague—whether they’ll be gone for a few months on parental leave or are moving on entirely—when we’re all remote? How do you plan a proper send-off from afar?
The pandemic and widespread remote work that came with it have changed what options we can even consider. We can no longer easily grab a coffee with a colleague we’ve come to admire or a final lunch with our favorite work wife. Nor can we happily and luckily bump into a work friend in the communal kitchen one last time or enjoy cake and bubbly with the coworkers we’ve spent so much of our day-to-day lives with. And there’s certainly no way to have an in-person happy hour or dinner as a final goodbye, either.
But a farewell event is an important ritual that helps us process transitions. For the foreseeable future, most of us will need to be prepared to say our farewell over video call. Though the nature of a virtual event is necessarily different, you can still get creative with it, and even have a little fun.
Whether you’re planning someone else's farewell event or providing input to your team on your own, here are a few things I’ve learned about what makes a good virtual goodbye—through my own departure and those of fellow colleagues.
1. Plan Ahead
Just as you would for any meeting, you’ll want to plan ahead to ensure this farewell event goes off without a hitch.
That means covering the basics like how many people to invite (less is more here, since too many attendees can make it impossible to get a word in edgewise), “where” the event will take place (custom Zoom backgrounds, anyone?), and what activities will be included (I recommend having more structured time than not, since the serendipitousness of a casual in-person conversation rarely translates on video calls—more on suggested activities below).
Then think about what help you’ll need to pull this event off (such as a partner in crime to collect contributions for a small gift or a teammate to send tchotchkes, tees, or other accessories for each teammate to show up in style and on theme).
Finally, consider the timing of this event: Many in-person goodbyes are scheduled at the end of the week as an additional or extra event after work hours. But because so many of us are experiencing Zoom fatigue, you might consider slotting your farewell event into an existing team meeting instead.
2. Keep It Short and Sweet
Shorter is better, especially when remote. Though it might be tempting to book a full hour, it’s best to reserve 30 minutes. Attention may begin to wane, awkwardness can begin to set in, and conversation can feel forced. Better to leave on a high note rather than drag things out. Besides, if the conversation is still flowing at 30 minutes, those who would like to keep chatting can stay longer.
3. Set the Tone to Celebrate
Send-offs can be awkward, especially virtually. The best ones I’ve attended have struck the right tone. Think: joyful, appreciative, optional, and celebratory, not grudging, aloof, mandatory, or impersonal.
To set the right tone, get attendees in the right mindset ahead of time. Send a note out in your meeting invite that makes it clear this is a celebratory send-off, or pepper your Slack channel with the appropriate emoji and GIF-byes to get the energy going in advance of the event. You can even share a teaser of what’s to come—in pre-pandemic days, this might have meant promising cupcakes, but you can still build excitement by asking attendees to bring their own festive attire, accessories, or, yes, even their own cupcakes!
Remember to reinforce the celebratory nature of the farewell at the start of the event, too, to ensure the mood is right. You can be explicit about striking a positive tone by saying something like: “OK, so-and-so is leaving us but we are so excited for their next adventure. We’ll miss you but today we’re here to celebrate!” You can also do this by highlighting the departing employee’s contributions to the team, the qualities you admire in them that you’ll miss, and the gratitude you feel for having had the chance to work with them, before inviting others to do the same.
4. Personalize It
The best goodbyes are specific to the person leaving (all eyes on the departing employee if they love being the focus of attention vs. a brief mention if they don’t) and unique to your company culture (“roasting” a colleague may be appropriate at one company, while sending “love letters” may be appropriate at another).
My manager did a great job of sending me off with a heartfelt prompt to our team: Each member was asked to share something they learned from me or valued about me along with advice for my next adventure. Listening to others share what they admire about me and receiving their well wishes for 30 minutes was enough to leave me teary-eyed and filled with warm fuzzies. As someone who loves a good look back and opportunity for introspection, it was right on target for me.
But for the colleague who hates being the center of attention, this approach could easily backfire; here, try sending warm fuzzies asynchronously instead. With their permission, you can mail postcards that your colleague can read on their own time. This analog approach is a nice substitute for the team cards that used to get circulated around the office. Though it’s possible to circulate and send a virtual card, there’s nothing like seeing people’s real handwriting and message on the page to make it feel more personal.
5. Make It Visual
A remote send-off will never be the same as an in-person one. Rather than try to replicate what worked in the office on the screen, lean into what makes video unique.
Go visual by presenting a slideshow that everyone can see (and even contribute to in advance) that highlight funny memories and accomplishments to remember from your departing teammate. Or try gathering video messages from coworkers to create a highlight reel of well wishes and fond memories you can play during the event—this works particularly well if your team is too large to say goodbye during one meeting. You can even all dress up like your teammate or bring an item that reminds you of them if that feels appropriate given your company culture and team spirit.
The key is to work with what’s good about video calls rather than try to fight it.
6. Try to Find Some Stable Wi-Fi
One thing is true for everyone, whether you’re the one staying or going: Never underestimate the value of a strong internet connection to make a virtual goodbye a success. Wonky disruptions aren’t always possible to predict, but try to set up in the most promising spot and check your connection before the event. Unfortunately for me, my Wi-Fi conked out during our farewell, so there may have been a few awkward pauses and delays. If I could do it all over again, that’s the one thing I would have changed.