Employers' holiday celebrations are sure to look different this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. With remote work, social-distancing requirements and other limitations, it’s difficult for employers to know whether or how to hold holiday or year-end celebrations.
Culture experts told HR Dive that employers should do something, however. It is important to recognize that it has been a monumental effort to get through the year, said Kath Rau, global vice president, people and experience at Culture Amp. "To come out on the other side together is a massive achievement itself and worth celebrating."
"It’s still super important for companies to do something in terms of community building and bringing employees together," Erika Zauner, CEO of HealthKick, agreed. While there’s a tendency to say "let’s just skip over it this year," in a virtual environment, when employees feel isolated or less connected, companies need to foster ways to bring employees together for their mental and emotional health, she explained.
1. Approach the time with sensitivity
It’s tempting to try to replicate previous holiday celebrations. Many may crave a return to the familiar, but employers can’t ignore the hardships so many people are going through, said Paul Rubenstein, chief people officer at Visier. Even if an individual is not deeply impacted, "friends and family may be going through hard times," he said. Gratitude and empathy may be more important ways to recognize the holidays, he added; "It’s a sobering moment in history and we need to take stock of the world we’ve created and what’s important to us."
The holiday season is known to be an especially difficult time for mental health in any year, as many people experience increased stress and depression. This season, individuals must also cope with the health crisis, civil unrest, political uncertainty and concern about the safety of celebrating with family.
"Mental health support is top-of-mind for employers," said Zauner. "Everyone is feeling a little restless and employees increasingly report feeling burnout."
In the early days of the pandemic, leaders frequently checked on their employees’ mental well-being, Rubenstein said. During the holiday season, they should revive the practice. "Double down on checking in with people. Make sure the quiet voices are heard. Make sure we don’t have people who are stranded or isolated because of the nature of their [remote] jobs," he said.
2. Demonstrate gratitude meaningfully
Instead of a party, Julia Lamm, workforce strategic partner, PwC, said her clients are giving employees’ thoughtful, higher-end gifts. Instead of spending $200 a head on holiday parties, clients are taking that and putting it into a nicer gift, such as Bluetooth earbuds, gift boxes or a luxury snack box with wine and cheese. "A lot are doing experiences versus a physical gift so you still have that element of an experience and interacting with each other, from online wine tasting to a cooking class to getting a performer, like you would at a holiday party," she said.
Gifts don’t have to be expensive to be meaningful, Zauner said. "We’re seeing companies look at virtual cooking classes where everyone is preparing a meal kit together, recipe sharing chains, favorite holiday recipes or a white elephant gift exchange, which could still be virtual."
Thoughtful gifts that are personalized to recognize individual efforts are meaningful, said Sean Kelly, CEO of Caroo. "Not company swag," he cautioned, but gifts like a thankful box for Thanksgiving, that includes treats and comes with a gratitude exercise that your team can go through together.
A gift also can tie back to the organization’s purpose or concern, Lamm said. Companies can donate to a cause or give employees money to donate to their choice of charitable organization.
3. Consider restoration
In this difficult year, employees might not want a bottle of wine or a holiday Zoom call. They might prefer time off, said Lamm. Many people haven’t used vacation time this year, with fewer places to go. But that can lead to burnout. In addition to encouraging employees to take PTO, companies can ease stress by having no video calls on Fridays or no meetings on Wednesday afternoons, allowing employees more time to get work done.
"We all need a little self-care," Zauner said. Employee appreciation weeks with a well-being focus can help. Other holiday initiatives like subsidized child care or changing meeting times to help parents coordinate family responsibilities are additional ways companies can help employees feel more restored.
4. Invite employees to choose options
A gift box? An online performance? Time off? Employee preference "may look different for everyone in how they want to celebrate and what celebrating means to them," Rau said. "We don’t want to be too prescriptive of what we’d want our employees to do." Instead, Rau suggested providing employees with guidelines and giving them options, such as activities that connect with others safely, solo time, or even time to spend in career development. "That optionality has landed well with people. They don’t feel forced. They can choose their own adventure."
Even if the activities look different, the purpose of holiday events haven’t changed: to show that an employer values its employees. "[This effort is] not just for now, but an investment into next year," Lamm said. In the current environment, with one day feeling just like the next, taking time to commemorate and celebrate is an investment in employees, helping them feel restored and ready for the challenges of 2021, she said.