Employee Recognition

12 employee recognition ideas for the holidays in 2022

Whew. It’s been another unpredictable year. But we’ve almost made it, and the holiday season is officially upon us. While you're busy working toward your Q4 goals and tying up loose ends before a brand new year, there's another responsibility on your plate: holiday appreciation gifts for employees.

Rewarding employees with a well-deserved present or celebration isn't only about getting into the spirit of the season—it's an opportunity to express your gratitude for their hard work and commitment. This meaningful form of employee holiday recognition can boost morale, increase engagement, and even encourage your best talent to stick around.

Don't reach for that catalog of engraved paperweights and company-branded tote bags quite yet. In order for your holiday employee appreciation efforts to have maximum impact, they need to be thoughtful, relevant, and most importantly, fun. 

Sound like a lot of pressure? Planning holiday activities can be tricky under normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic. That’s why we put together 12 employee recognition ideas to help you show employee appreciation this holiday season—virtually or in-person—in many different ways that your employees will truly appreciate.

Why is employee recognition during the holiday season so important?

Even if you don't hear it enough, the work you do to support your people matters. And the employee appreciation activities you plan this holiday season are no exception.

For some, workplace holiday activities are particularly important. This can be an incredibly lonely time of year, and many of us are still processing pandemic isolation and experiencing various stages of loneliness during the holidays. Pandemic aside, many people don’t have the privilege of a positive, loving relationship with family. While everyone’s circumstances are different, having the opportunity to connect with a “chosen family”—like friends and coworkers—can make the holidays feel less isolating and more meaningful.

In addition to fostering individual connection and improving employee morale, engagement, and retention, enhanced performance is another benefit of adequate recognition. Our Blueboard post-experience survey data shows that 96% of employees feel motivated to perform better.

It seems like a lot of impact for a simple gift or holiday party. Our own Charlene Molino, a People Ops pro, explains that the holidays offer an opportunity to end the year on a note of gratitude, togetherness, and optimism.

“Holiday activities encourage your employees to reflect back on the year, show that they’re valued, and celebrate their accomplishments—and the fact that we're still getting through the pandemic together.” – Charlene Molino, HR Generalist at Blueboard

The impact of employee recognition is always valuable, but especially when the past few years have thrown so many challenges and stressors at employees (and you). 

"Recognition really is a necessity, even more so when a company is facing a tough time," says Blueboard cofounder and CEO Taylor Smith, in an interview with Employee Benefit News. "You can really stand up and step up by investing in your employees."

Particularly amidst the ongoing global pandemic and the exhausting schedule demands of the holidays, burnout continues to run rampant. A Microsoft research study on what leaders can do to better align and set their workplace up for hybrid work success found that 50% of employees and 53% of managers are burned out at work. 

Will holiday employee appreciation be a fix-all for burnout? Not exactly. But, it certainly doesn't hurt. As Gallup research states, "Recognition for good work releases dopamine in the brain, which creates feelings of pride and pleasure."

Higher engagement, less burnout, better mental well-being, and greater satisfaction? That fosters loyalty in employees and encourages them to stick around, rather than looking for new roles elsewhere.

12 holiday employee appreciation ideas for the 2022 season.

The why behind holiday employee appreciation is clear—now for the what. What festive holiday appreciation gifts or activities will adequately recognize great work, share your gratitude, and end the year on a high note?

We have quite a few employee holiday recognition ideas for you. We've split them into two categories: virtual employee recognition and in-person employee recognition. 

Where and how we work is so varied these days—some workplaces are completely remote, some are in-person, and some are hybrid. These two recognition formats will help you make sure every single one of your employees feels appreciated and included, regardless of where they're working.

6 creative ways to do virtual employee holiday recognition.

Opting for a virtual holiday celebration this year? Here are a few considerations to keep in mind while planning your holiday employee recognition activities:

  • Your employees are “Zoomed” out. While a virtual happy hour or holiday party might be the first idea that springs to mind, your employees might be fried with repeat video calls—particularly if they're a common occurrence during the workday. "Zoom fatigue" is real, so you might need to step away from the webcam for your festivities. Ask for employee feedback prior to planning so that you can make sure it's something they'll delight in rather than dread.
  • Disappointment is normal. Particularly if your employees are used to lavish, in-person celebrations, some people might be let down that those haven't made a full comeback. Make sure to acknowledge their disappointment and speak to a more optimistic future where in-person gatherings might happen again.

Note: An asterisk (*) indicates a lower-cost and lower-effort holiday activity.

1. Organize an extra-personal virtual gift exchange.

This is a take on your classic "Secret Santa" gift exchange—but with an extra touch of thoughtfulness. Participants write down the name of a colleague who knows them well. This will be the gift giver's go-to person to ensure the presents they give are meaningful and personalized. 

All you need to do is set a budget and provide pre-paid labels for people to ship their gifts to each other. You can even use an app like Elfster to make things as seamless as possible. Once the holiday employee appreciation gift exchange is in motion, encourage your employees to share photos and tag each other in the company Slack channel to spread the holiday cheer. 

Want to go the humorous route with holiday appreciation gifts and ideas for employees instead? Take a cue from the ShareThis team and try a virtual white elephant gift exchange, where people swap hilarious and impractical gifts.

A screenshot of a LinkedIn post (black text on a white background) with multiple color photos of coworkers across the world sharing a meal, toasting with a festive drink, or on a Zoom virtual gift exchange to celebrate the holidays.
ShareThis provides a great example of how holiday employee appreciation can bridge virtual and in-person activities.

2. Put a holiday twist on your Zoom happy hour. 

If you know that your team loves a good Zoom happy hour, put a fun holiday spin on one around the holidays. The key is to pick an activity that aligns with your company culture. 

Maybe that means everybody has to show up in an over-the-top holiday sweater or with a seasonal beverage like eggnog. Or perhaps a holiday-themed cooking class will be a hit with your office full of foodies. Your goal is to make sure this isn't another small talk-filled happy hour but rather a festive get-together focused on fun and celebration. 

You can up the ante by sending some goodies for people to enjoy during the virtual get-together, like the charcuterie box that Avaap sent to employees:

A screenshot of a LinkedIn post (black text on a white background) with a color photograph of a holiday employee appreciation gift box with fruit and other food to celebrate the holiday season.
This holiday employee appreciation gift sent by Avaap to employees as part of a virtual happy hour is a foodie's dream.

3. Pay it forward with a traveling gift box. 

Think holiday desk decorating is out of the question when you're working remotely? Think again. Create a list of everyone who's interested in participating and group them by location (for example, all of your East Coast employees). Then fill a box with ornaments, twinkly lights, wrapping paper, and other items that represent a variety of holiday cultural traditions such as the winter solstice, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah. Send a box to one person from each group so that they can add some holiday magic to their home workspaces.

Ask the first group of recipients to refill the box with new goodies and send it onto the next employee, then again the next group, creating a "pay it forward" effect. Make sure to include pre-paid labels in each box and set a spending limit. This is another great activity that can lead to plenty of fun photo-sharing—and enhanced employee connection—across your company's communication channels.

4. Co-create a company-wide holiday playlist.* 

Start a company-wide Spotify playlist and invite everyone to add their favorite holiday tunes (Mariah Carey, anyone?). Your employees can bond over their music recommendations and feel connected while they all listen to the playlist they created together. Even better? You can discover holiday music from different cultures and places as everyone adds their choices.

5. Host a “what’s your holiday tradition?” show-and-tell.*

People all have different traditions and rituals for celebrating the holidays, and this virtual "show-and-tell" is a fun way to learn about the various holiday traditions on your team. Employees will get to know each other on a more personal level while also broadening their view of the holiday season as a whole. People might even discover new celebrations they want to share with or introduce to their own families.

6. Make someone’s (holi)day with an experiential gift. 

No shade to company swag, but there's nothing quite like the gift of an experience. That happens to be our specialty at Blueboard. When you give the gift of Blueboard, your employees get to choose an experiential gift that aligns with their interests, personalities, and lifestyles. They get a memorable experience without any heavy lifting, as our Concierge team will handle all of the logistics from start to finish—which is one less thing for you and your team to worry about, too.

Planning for year-end or holiday employee gifts? We've got you covered.

Explore our platformGive experiences

6 ways to do in-person employee holiday recognition. 

If you're saying goodbye to Zoom waves and ringing in the holidays in-person this year, here are two factors to keep in mind as you plan your in-person festivities:

  • Employee safety is your top priority. You and your employees have spent the past couple of years feeling anxious about staying healthy, as well as the health of those around you. This takes an emotional toll and it's the last thing people want to worry about at your company holiday party. As Charlene explains, "The pandemic introduced so many grey areas that were stressful for employees to navigate. Make sure they don't have more grey areas to worry about during your holiday activities."
  • Not everyone will agree with your approach. And that's OK. What's more important is to give your employees a choice of holiday activities, so they can participate where they feel comfortable. Your activities don't have to be elaborate or expensive. If you're short on staff or have a tight budget, consider one or two activities that are lower-cost and lower-effort (and don't be afraid to mix in virtual activities with your in-person ones).

7. Throw a good ole’ holiday party.

It's hard to go wrong with a classic. Of course, planning a holiday employee appreciation party in the context of the ongoing global pandemic requires a little more than choosing appetizers and decorations. Here are a few questions to guide your planning process: 

  • Will we require vaccines for employees and their plus ones?
  • What type of venue will make our employees feel the safest?
  • Will we require employees to mask up when not eating or drinking? Will we require event staff and entertainment to wear a mask?
  • Are we going to offer food at the event? If so, how do we minimize risks? 

When you know your protocols, announce them as early as possible so people have a chance to prepare and chime in.

“Communicate your holiday gathering safety measures early enough to give employees enough time to share feedback. After doing this, while we didn't reduce any of our safety measures, we did add a few additional policies based on what we were hearing from people. So it wasn't only a People team decision, but one we made as a larger company.” – Charlene Molino

While your safety procedures are important, don't forget that fun is supposed to be at the center of your celebration.

8. “Wrap up” the year with a fun decorating activity.* 

Instead of wrapping each other's desks, have employees decorate their own—but in a way that represents what the holidays mean to them. People can play their favorite holiday songs, put up decorations they had at home growing up, or bring in treats they always eat around the holidays. Everyone can take a "tour" to visit each other's desks and hear the meaning behind the chosen decorations.

9. Take a local lights tour.* 

Encourage local employees to schedule a time to meet up and drive through the neighborhoods that go all out with holiday decorations. You can support planning (creating sign-up sheets, helping people find each other, etc.) or you can simply seed the idea and let your employees run with it. Driving through new areas is a wonderful way for employees to explore, bond, and build meaningful memories together. Make sure you encourage them to snap a few photos and share the joy with the whole company.

10. Volunteer as a team.* 

The holidays are all about gratitude and generosity, so get into the spirit by setting up opportunities for your employees to give back to their community together. Volunteering has numerous benefits for your employees: it's been shown to improve social well-being, mental and physical health, and life satisfaction.

Not sure where to start? Use a search engine like VolunteerMatch to find local opportunities the team can do together if co-located, or individually with a cause that matters most to them. For both in-person and virtual donation, another option is to look into nonprofits with local chapters like Feeding America, Meals on Wheels, and the Humane Society for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for holiday volunteering opportunities nationwide.

11. Give your office tree or decor a glow up.*

If your office has a holiday tree, separate everyone into teams and have them brainstorm non-traditional ways to decorate it. People could decorate their tree with silly holiday socks or adorn the branches with their favorite candy bars. Feel free to introduce constraints or provide materials to make it a bit more challenging. This is a great way to give your employees the space to be creative, goofy, and collaborative with each other.

Or, you can do something relevant to your industry, like Garnet Health Medical Center did with this tree decorated with medical supplies.

A screenshot of a LinkedIn post (black text on a white background) with multiple color photographs showing healthcare professionals in holiday sweaters and decorated trees.
Healthcare professionals at Garnet Health Medical Center, Catskills, get into the holiday team spirit with festive "ugly" sweaters and decorated trees.

12. Put together a holiday potluck.*

For most of us, the holidays are synonymous with delicious food and tasty treats. But, there's a lot of variety in what fills up our holiday spreads. An office potluck gives your team a chance to enjoy all of their favorite dishes together and share more about their own traditions.

Prior to your potluck, send out a survey to employees to ask about food allergies, understand dietary preferences, and to ensure there aren't duplicates (although, we're not saying multiple plates of sugar cookies is a bad thing). A little bit of planning ensures your potluck is something everybody can safely enjoy. 

Want to extend the merriment and deliciousness? Have different employees or teams bring in treats on designated days rather than all at once.

Your questions about planning holiday employee appreciation gifts and activities, answered!

Still have a few questions about how to make sure your employee appreciation gifts and holiday activities inspire joy? We have answers.

Q. How should I address employees who don’t want to get vaccinated for in-person events? 

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to make everyone happy. But it is possible to make all employees feel heard. Here are some guidelines to help you interact with employees who might not agree with your holiday activity policies:

  • Invite your employees to have a conversation with you. 
  • Regardless of your own opinion, listen to their concerns and let them know you respect their right to make the best decision for themselves—as long as it doesn’t harm others. 
  • Remind your employees that they’re still valued and will be welcome with open arms in the future when it’s safe to do so. 

If you need additional talking points, the Health Action Alliance put together a conversation guide to help managers talk about the COVID-19 vaccines with their employees.

Q. My employees all have different life circumstances, wants, and needs. How can I plan activities that meet everyone’s needs? 

While you won’t be able to perfectly address the needs of every employee, offering multiple holiday activities is the best way to ensure there’s something for everyone. So, rather than hosting a single holiday party, plan a few different activities and give people the choice to opt-in. 

As you plan your events, prioritize inclusivity. For example, consider time zones and attempt to spread your events across morning, afternoon, and evening to better meet the needs of different schedules. Mix up the activities you offer too, so you have some that are substance-free, some that don't center on food, and so on. Consider other holiday days of observance outside of Christmas, and adapt holiday time off policies to acknowledge them—such as offering employees the option to trade their time off for dates that are more aligned to when they practice and observe their holiday cultural traditions.

A screenshot of a LinkedIn post (black text on white background) about DEI and inclusion best practices when planning workplace holiday employee appreciation activities.
Take a page from The Equity Equation's book, and reconsider how your company can take a more flexible, inclusive approach to holiday time off.

Keep in mind that not every activity has to be elaborate or expensive. We recognize that many HR teams are stretched thin and may not have the staff, budget, or resources to plan a full schedule of holiday events. Employee appreciation at this time of year is really about making space to come together, express gratitude, and have some fun.

That’s why we provided several lower-cost, lower-effort ideas to choose from (look for the activities that have an * next to them) and encourage you to select a mix of activities that feels manageable.

Q. How do I decide whether or not to do in-person holiday activities this year? 

While every company’s situation will be different, here are a few general steps to help you with the decision-making process: 

  • Gather the data. What are COVID rates in your area? What are the vaccination rates? Use this data to provide evidence for your decisions.
  • Ask employees. Use a survey to understand how your employees are feeling. Again, be transparent about the results and show how they influenced your planning.
  • Decide. Choose an approach that makes sense given the information you have.
  • Communicate. Let the rest of your organization know and explain the rationale.

Q. How can I make sure that employees who can’t or choose not to participate in in-person activities still feel included? 

Of course, we don’t want anyone to feel left out—whether that's during the holidays or at any time. The first step is to ask yourself if there’s anything you can reasonably do to unblock employees who can’t participate. For example, if finances are a factor for employees who have to travel for the holiday party, you may consider covering the cost of airfare or hotel accommodations. 

If you have employees who still can’t or choose not to participate in your holiday activities, here are a few ideas to let them know you’re thinking of them: 

  • Send them a separate holiday gift (A Blueboard experiential reward is a great option.)

  • Purchase a special meal for the employee and their family to enjoy together.

  • Donate to a charity of their choosing.

How do you thank employees for the holidays? Reward them. 

'Tis the season to recognize, appreciate, and celebrate your employees' hard work with a thoughtful gift or a festive celebration.

Sure, quirky workplace traditions and activities give your employees an excuse to don their most gaudy sweater and unabashedly crank Mariah Carey. But they do a lot more than that, too. 

At the end of yet another busy (and often stressful) year for employees and HR teams in particular, the holiday season is a time when you can bring people together and demonstrate your genuine gratitude for all of their hard work.

The opportunity the holidays provide as a dedicated moment to pause, reflect, and celebrate offers benefits beyond a potluck spread, gift exchanges, virtual events, or a decorated tree. Holiday employee appreciation boosts morale, fosters loyalty, strengthens bonds, and reignites everybody's energy and enthusiasm as they turn the page on the calendar. And a key aspect of doing this successfully is having time and space to slow down, spend more quality time with our loved ones, and to just enjoy ourselves. See? It really is the most wonderful time of the year.

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