Whew. It’s been another unpredictable year. But we’ve almost made it; the holidays are right around the corner.

And yes, this is a time to celebrate, but it’s also totally natural to feel overwhelmed. Planning holiday activities can be tricky under normal circumstances, let alone during the pandemic. That’s why we put together 11 ideas to help you show employee appreciation this holiday season—virtually or in-person.

Employee appreciation during the holidays matters.

You probably haven’t heard it enough this year, but all the work you're doing to support your people matters. And the employee appreciation activities you plan this holiday season are no exception.

Our own Charlene Molino, Recruiter and 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 getting through the pandemic together.” – Charlene Molino, Recruiter & People Operations at Blueboard

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. Nearly 1 in 4 Americans couldn’t see family or friends for the holidays last year. And 70% of people reported 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.

11 employee appreciation ideas for the 2021 holiday season.

6 creative ways to show employee appreciation in a virtual environment.

Whether your organization is fully remote or in an area with high rates of the Delta variant, you may opt for virtual holiday celebrations this year. Here are a few things to keep in mind while planning virtual holiday activities: 

  • Your employees are “Zoomed” out. A recent study found that 44% of employees have experienced video call fatigue since the start of the pandemic. To give your workers a mental break, we’ve focused on virtual activities that break away from the standard Zoom happy hour. 
  • Disappointment is normal. Some of your employees will be let down to learn there won’t be in-person celebrations again. Make sure to acknowledge their disappointment and speak to a more optimistic future where in-person gatherings will be possible. 

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

1. Organize an extra-personal virtual gift exchange.

It’s your classic “Secret Santa” gift exchange—but with an extra touch of thoughtfulness. Participants have to 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 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 gift exchange is in motion, encourage your employees to share photos and tag each other in the company Slack channel to spread the holiday joy.

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

Break away from the tired virtual happy hour and put a fun holiday spin on your Zoom calls. The key is to pick an activity that aligns with your company culture. Maybe that’s hosting a sparkly sweater party. Or perhaps a holiday-themed drag show is more to your employees’ tastes. If you have an office full of foodies, holiday-themed cooking classes tend to be a huge hit.

3. Pay it forward with a traveling gift box. 

Create a list of everyone who’s interested in participating and group them by location. For example, you can group together employees who are on the East Coast. Then send out a gift box filled with ornaments, twinkly lights, and wrapping paper to one person from each group so they can add some holiday cheer to their workspaces at home.

Ask the first group of recipients to refill the box with new goodies and send it onto the next employee, then again with 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 to socialize across your company’s communication channels.

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

Start a company-wide Spotify playlist. Invite everyone to add their favorite holiday tunes (Mariah Carey, anyone?). Your employees can bond over their music recommendations and feel connected while listening to the playlist they created together. The best part? You’ll get to discover holiday music from different cultures and places as everyone adds their favs. 

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

Host a virtual “show-and-tell” where people can volunteer to share the holiday traditions they have with their friends, families, or on their own. This activity is a great way for employees to get to know their colleagues on a more personal level, and to learn about all of the different holiday traditions that are out there. You might even discover a new one to introduce to your own celebrations.

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

At the end of the day, there’s nothing quite like the gift of an experience. Which 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. The best part? Our dedicated Concierge team will handle all the logistics from start to finish—which is one less thing for you and your team to worry about.

Interested in experiential holiday gifts for your employees? Schedule some time to talk through your holiday gifting goals with our team here.

5 ways to appreciate employees in-person this holiday season. 

If you’ve decided to host in-person activities this year, these ideas are for you. Below are a few things to keep in mind while planning your in-person holiday festivities: 

  • Employee safety is your #1 priority. Your employees have spent the past two years feeling anxious about their health, and the health of those around them. It’s the last thing they want to worry about at the 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 may 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. Keep in mind, your activities don’t have to be elaborate or expensive. If you’re short on staff or constrained by 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 party during a pandemic requires a bit of extra foresight. Below 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? 

At Blueboard, we’ve decided to require vaccinations for all our employees and their plus ones, and masks for the event staff. To minimize the risk of spread, we chose a venue with indoor and outdoor spaces and will have passed trays instead of a buffet. 

The most important part is to announce these safety measures as early as possible.

“Communicate your safety measures early enough to give employees enough time to share feedback. At Blueboard, we checked in with about 20 employees before announcing our holiday party protocols. While we didn't reduce any of our safety measures, we did add a few based on what we were hearing from people. So it wasn't just a People team decision, but one we made as a team.” – Charlene Molino

8. “Wrap up” the year with a fun 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.  For instance, people can play their favorite holiday songs, put up decorations they had at home growing up, or bring in the sweet treats they always eat around the holidays. Then have everyone take a “tour” to visit each other’s desks and share the meaning behind their decorations. 

9. Take a local lights tour.* 

Encourage local employees to schedule a time to meet up and drive through neighborhoods that go all out for holiday decorations. You can support planning (with sign up sheets, helping people locate 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. Encourage everyone to snap a few photos and share the joy.

10. Volunteer as a team.* 

Set up opportunities for your employees to give back to their community, together. Volunteering is a great way to get into the holiday spirit. Not to mention, it’s been shown to improve social wellbeing, mental and physical health, and life satisfaction. And that’s something we could all use these days. 

Look into nonprofits like Feeding America, The Salvation Army, and Project Linus for holiday volunteering opportunities nationwide. Or use a search engine like VolunteerMatch to find local opportunities.

11. If you’ve got an in-office tree, give it a glow up.*

If your office has a holiday tree, separate everyone into teams and have them brainstorm non-traditional ways to decorate it. For example, people can decorate their tree with silly holiday socks. Or, adorn the branches with their favorite candy bars, instead of lights. 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.

Your questions about planning employee appreciation activities during the holidays, answered!

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. 

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 ones 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 during the holidays. 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 (Blueboard is a great option.)
  • Purchase a special meal for the employee and their family to enjoy together. 
  • Donate to a charity of their choosing. 

Holiday activities can positively impact your company culture in more ways than one—from demonstrating employee appreciation to bringing people together during a potentially isolating time. We hope these ideas inspire you and we wish you a very happy holiday season.

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