Program Best Practices

Your go-to guide to holiday employee appreciation

This statement is starting to feel more like a rule than an exception: It's been a challenging year.

HR teams and company leaders continue to grapple with record-setting employee turnover rates. Inflation is rising and fears of a potential recession loom large, inspiring many companies to cut spending. Tighter budgets and fewer resources make it even tougher to get talent through the door, with 78% of businesses saying they're currently understaffed. 

Yikes. There's no doubt that many of us are trying to do more with less. And as you figure out what should stay and what should go, it's tempting to consider cutting your holiday employee appreciation efforts. 

However, failing to celebrate employees during the holidays (and honestly, all year long) can backfire. When employees don't feel recognized and appreciated, morale suffers, engagement nosedives, and turnover becomes an even bigger problem. 

That's why successful companies prioritize acknowledging and rewarding good work (especially during rocky times), with a recent Mercer Mash report stating that 85% of benefits and rewards teams say their role has increased in importance since the pandemic. 

Even if employee appreciation and recognition haven't been a core focus up to this point, the holidays are the perfect time to wrap up the year on a note of gratitude and send people into the new year feeling valued and recognized.

There’s plenty of ways to meaningfully engage and entertain your teams in the workplace during the holiday season—whether your teams are co-located or fully remote—and activities and experiences play a pivotal role. 

This guide breaks down:

  1. Exactly why employee holiday recognition is so important (hint: employee satisfaction and retention), 
  2. The steps you need to take to strike the right chord with holiday activities, and 
  3. How acing this time of year can help you keep that good cheer feeling all year long. 

Why holiday appreciation is table stakes when it comes to the success of your recognition efforts year-round.

The holidays provide an opportunity to pause, reflect, and show gratitude—and we're all about using this festive time of year to foster goodwill and turn over the calendar with a cheery outlook. 

But even though the holidays are a natural time to swoop in with a token of appreciation for employees, this time of year can't be the only time that happens. 

Your holiday employee appreciation is most effective if it's an integral piece of your overall employee recognition puzzle. After all, a single ugly sweater party, winter solstice ritual, or potluck won't compensate if employees feel unseen and under-appreciated the entire rest of the year.

Investing time, money, and resources into employee appreciation on specific occasions—like the holiday season—benefits your employees on an individual and team level. But, it's also a big step towards creating a people-first organization all year round.

The momentum your holiday appreciation efforts build will pay off in the new year in terms of employee retention and motivation in three key ways: 

1. Fostering higher employee engagement (now and in the new year).

It's difficult to muster any enthusiasm or commitment when you don't feel like your work matters. And as we approach the end of the year, just as organizations are taking stock and planning for the new year, employees are reflecting on their workplace experiences—and making decisions about their future accordingly.

Adequate employee appreciation makes employees feel acknowledged and, more importantly, valued. These positive experiences and associations with your company cultivate a greater sense of loyalty and dedication, with Forrester research stating that emotion is one of the strongest unique drivers of loyalty

In fact, when employees believe they'll be recognized, they're 2.7 times more likely to be highly engaged in their work. Employee recognition is so much more than a simple pat on the back, it builds meaningful connections that encourage people to continue to engage and invest in their roles—and in their employers. 

2. Supporting improved employee performance.

It turns out your grandma was always right: When it comes to a holiday "thank you" to employees, the thought behind the action matters. 

Whether you reward them with a delicious holiday potluck or an indulgent experience like a cruise on a catamaran, research shows that when employers show acts of kindness to employees, it inspires them and goes a long way towards renewing their commitment to their work—and workplace.

Believe it or not, personalized and thoughtful gifts are even more motivating to employees than unexpected cash bonuses. And that boosted motivation means better productivity and performance. 

3. Reducing employee turnover.

If the lessons from the Great Resignation and the labor landscape of the past few years have taught us anything, it's that employee recognition is not a 'nice to have.' Employee appreciation has a direct impact on employee satisfaction and retention. 

Of course, from inadequate pay to lack of advancement opportunities, there are tons of reasons that people leave jobs. However, company culture carries a lot of weight when it comes to retaining good employees:

  • A Pew Research Center survey found that 35% of employees cite "feeling disrespected at work" as the major reason they left a job in 2021 (and being undervalued and unappreciated certainly feels disrespectful).

  • Another survey by McKinsey found that, of people who quit their jobs between April of 2021 and April of 2022, 34% did so because they had an uncaring leader.

  • Research from MIT Sloan Management Review found that a toxic culture is the number one driver of employee turnover.

When employees don't feel appropriately recognized and appreciated, your company culture suffers—as does your ability to retain good employees. According to Blueboard’s State of Workplace Connection report, 58% of employees say they'd consider leaving their job if they didn't feel connected at work. 

Fortunately, investing in adequate recognition and appreciation helps your employees feel stronger ties to your company and better connected to each other. In fact, the same survey revealed that 95% of HR professionals agree that investing in employee connection drives  employee retention results.

And here's even more good news: Figuring out how to celebrate the holidays at work (and using that as an opportunity to reward and appreciate employees) will make you happier too. Positive psychology research links gratitude with greater happiness. 

The holidays are a fitting opportunity to bring celebration and recognition to the forefront. But remember, employee appreciation isn't seasonal like egg nog—it's best served frequently and regularly. 

How employee holiday recognition supports employee wellness and motivation during the season and beyond.

Employee appreciation during the holidays is often festive and fun (and hey, it should be!). But, underneath the lighthearted activities and general merriment, you might be surprised by just how much these efforts matter to your employees. 

When you celebrate employees during the holidays, you also: 

Support them at a potentially isolating time of year.

Family is a huge point of focus in this season, but some people might have strained relationships. Others might not be able to spend time with their loved ones for a variety of reasons including geographical distance and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. During a time of year that's so focused on togetherness, employees can feel particularly isolated. Holiday appreciation and celebrations help them feel seen, valued, and appreciated at a time when they might need it most. 

Help them forge deeper bonds with each other.

As teams continue to navigate hybrid working models or go totally remote, it's harder to share close relationships with colleagues. In an Enboarder survey, 69% of employees said they don't feel a very strong sense of connection to their coworkers. Holiday celebrations provide low-pressure and high-spirited ways for them to forge bonds outside of team meetings and their daily to-do lists. As a bonus? They can share their own holiday traditions with each other and give greater insight into their backgrounds and values.

Encourage them to indulge in something for themselves. 

You aren't the only one keeping a close eye on your budget—employees are, too. As the cost of living continues to skyrocket, people have firm grasps on their wallets, with 91% of shoppers saying that inflation will impact their holiday purchase behavior. When your employees are likely cutting out their own self-care and leisure activities to keep costs down, this holiday season provides an opportunity for you to give them something they wouldn't do for themselves (especially if you gift them an experience, which shifts the focus from monetary value to the joy of an activity itself). 

There's a lot of potential in this time of year when it comes to showing appreciation for employees,  but a company-branded backpack or a single tray of store-bought cookies probably isn't going to be a major difference-maker.

'Tis the season for gifts your employees will truly appreciate.

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How to make sure your holiday employee appreciation efforts are a success.

For holiday employee appreciation to be as impactful as possible, it needs to feel thoughtful and personalized—and, people need to feel like they have the opportunity to actually enjoy it. 

Here are three ways to set your employee holiday recognition activities up for success and so your employees (and you!) can stay focused on the fun and festivities:

1. Plan ahead.

As part of the HR team, there are things you can do to make your and your employees’ lives a bit easier around the holidays. Most of these actions revolve around planning ahead. For instance, send out holiday office closure dates early so employees can plan their work, time off schedules, and contingency plans accordingly. Make sure People managers have proactive conversations with their direct reports and teams about holiday season work schedules and time off. This planning step supports them to review and approve employee PTO and vacation time off ahead of time to minimize stress and confusion.

You can also encourage the leadership team to be vocal about the importance of adequate work-life balance—and more importantly, to model those healthy behaviors themselves. While you're at it, ask managers not to hand out last-minute projects to their employees. It’s a simple way to remind everyone of holiday work etiquette. Plus, these small gestures can make a big impact on the physical, emotional, and  mental wellbeing of everyone at the organization.

2. Prioritize flexibility.

Office parties and work responsibilities aside, the holidays are a hectic time for everyone, with 88% of people admitting they think it's the most stressful time of the year. 

Consider offering flexible work options. For example, allow employees to set their own hours or work from home. This type of flexibility gives your workforce the time and space they need to focus on meeting their deadlines, while also having the wiggle room they need to attend a kiddo's holiday concert, partake in an office party, or prepare for a family get-together. 

Think productivity will suffer? A West Monroe survey of 2,000 full-time, U.S. based employees on productivity during the holidays found that 91% of employees reported being just as productive or more productive when working remotely.

Another option is to be open minded about office closures. An extra day or two off can help people catch up on personal life projects and get everything in order before the holiday hustle and bustle starts. In fact, the same West Monroe study found that offices that close additional days have a higher rate of productive employees during the time that they’re actually in the office (42% compared to 17% for offices that stay open outside of federal holidays).

3. Focus on the fun.

As the year winds down, your employees are likely craving a serious break and the opportunity to unwind, unplug, and connect with each other at work (and outside of it). And the holidays offer a great opportunity to have fun, build company culture, and engage your employees as whole people (beyond just the “work” self).

Introducing activities that channel ‘deep’ fun––described by social psychologists as novel, challenging, and important opportunities to engage in problem solving—can be a welcome salve for the daily personal and professional stressors employees face, especially at a moment when slowing down and taking a pause can feel far away. 

Consider how your holiday-themed activities can provide a dedicated space for employees to explore, test different ideas, and truly shift mental and emotional gears. Activities that facilitate this include: learning a new skill, discovering an interest, or even revisiting a passion project put on hold. These are all examples of situations where you (and your brain!) get to recalibrate—and that focus, being totally consumed by what you’re doing, refills your happiness and fulfillment tanks. 

Need some holiday activity inspo? We’ve got you covered in the next section!

The big takeaway here: holiday employee appreciation activities are integral to supporting the mental health of your employees by literally giving them something meaningful to focus on that’s not stressful.

7 tried-and-true ideas for celebrating employees during the holidays.

We've talked a lot about why holiday employee appreciation matters—but what about how? How do you go about recognizing and celebrating employees with something that feels festive, thoughtful, and meaningful?

From tree decorating contests to gift exchanges, there are plenty of holiday activities for employees to enjoy—and we'll share even more ideas in a minute. 

But first, an important ground rule: Regardless of how you celebrate the holidays with your team, make sure to keep inclusivity top of mind. Your employees might recognize different holidays and have different traditions—and they also have different abilities, interests, and comfort levels. 

It's hard to meet the needs and desires of every single team member. But by offering a mix of holiday celebration and appreciation options, you increase your chances of making sure there's something for everyone.

Now, let's get into a few more suggestions for how to celebrate the holidays at work. The best part about these ideas? They can be adapted and used at any time of year—not just the holidays!

1. Host a scavenger hunt.

A scavenger hunt is a fun way to foster some camaraderie and friendly competition. Break into teams and give everybody a list of items to find around the office, your city, or even their own homes (if you're doing this virtually). 

Set a time limit (whether it's five minutes, an hour, or the whole day depending on the complexity of your hunt) and watch as people scramble to work together and find everything they need. 

2. Give the gift of knowledge.

Employees are hungry to learn, and you can support them in doing so by bringing in a professional speaker, attending a class together, or hosting a workshop. 

Prior to doing this, poll your teams to learn about what they want to explore and if there's anybody in particular they'd like to learn from. That way you can host something that everybody is excited about. 

3. Volunteer together.

You might be scratching your head at this one. How does volunteering with your employees demonstrate gratitude to them?. Volunteering together can help employees feel a deeper sense of connection to teammates and your company—not to mention that giving back to the community has been shown to be good for both physical and mental health.

Make this even more relevant by finding a volunteer opportunity that aligns with the values and mission of your company. So if you’re a healthcare company, volunteer at a hospital and spend the day sharing holiday cheer with patients so your employees can see exactly who they’re impacting with their work everyday. Interacting with the real ‘end users’ can be a truly powerful experience for employees and is a unique way for them to feel appreciated for their work.

4. Invest in quality time.

Encourage the leadership team and managers to freely take employees out to lunch for one-on-one conversations. Not only is it more meaningful to express gratitude in person, but research by Leadership IQ found that as people spend from one to six hours with their direct leaders they become 29% more inspired about their work. So the more quality time leaders and managers can spend with their teams, the better.

Make the most of this quality time by encouraging your leadership team and managers to be explicit about what they’re most grateful for. Lunches are nice, but there needs to be a meaningful conversation that goes along with it to truly fulfill the goal of showing thanks.

5. Give a surprise day off.

No matter how much your employees love their jobs, nobody will argue with an extra day off. So if you have the ability to do so, surprise your employees with a bonus vacation day and explain that it’s a token of appreciation from the leadership team. Your employees can use the extra time to take care of themselves, spend time with loved ones, or recover from all the holiday food and festivities.  

Make sure to emphasize that this is an enforced day off. This means no emails, Slack messages, or meetings. Give employees permission to unplug completely (oh, and lead by example too). Otherwise, employees may be tempted to stay partially checked into work. 

6. Exchange words of gratitude and compliments.

It’s always a little surprising just how far a simple "thank you" or "you're doing a great job!" goes. Why not provide an opportunity where everybody can share compliments and words of gratitude with each other? Pass out holiday cards that team members can use to write thoughtful notes to each other for in-person gatherings (or, send out pre-stamped envelopes so teams can snail mail their cards if your team is distributed).  For a more environmentally friendly and digital option, we got you covered with our free holiday card generator.

Regardless of the medium, employees will love reading all of the glowing, positive things their team members have to say about them, and it'll send them into the new year in high spirits. 

7. Gift an (unforgettable) experience. 

Most of us struggle to make time to try or learn something new on our own without a pressing or practical reason. This is especially true during the holidays, when we have more demands on our time than ever. But that doesn’t mean that your employees are closed off to different kinds of gifts that build in the thrill and growth of self discovery and offer a chance to escape the everyday grind. 

In fact, gifting something more unexpected—like an experience—is a way to break from the status quo of the "default" gifts companies tend to give employees. While well intentioned, here’s three key reasons why these traditional holiday gifts (think: a mug with the company logo or a gift card) don’t have quite the impact you think they do. 

Traditional holiday employee appreciation gifts:

  • Are too impersonal. There’s nothing personal about handing everybody the same branded tote bag—nothing that clues employees in on the fact that you value them or know anything about their hobbies or interests. This makes it unlikely that they'll cherish this gift. It feels like a box you needed to check, rather than a genuine effort to acknowledge and celebrate them.

  • Are not memorable. Do you remember every paper calendar your dentist office sent you? Or every shiny pen you got from your bank? Probably not. Because typical employee gifts tend to be impersonal, they're also incredibly forgettable. Employees know that they all received the exact same thing and those gifts are quickly written off as nothing more than a company strategy that lacks real thought and meaning.

  • Don't create opportunities for connection. With most generic gifts, the impact ends with the exchange. There's no ripple effect, nothing deeper that extends beyond the transaction itself. Fruit baskets, wine, and branded company swag miss a crucial opportunity to empower the gift-givers (whether that's your team or your company's People managers) to deepen relationships with your employees and convey authentic gratitude—which is the whole point of the gift, isn't it?

Beyond being a “one size fits all” approach, traditional holiday gifts also don’t build in any aspect of choice or excitement for the employee. In comparison, gifting the chance to choose an experience as a way of showing recognition and appreciation is often the nudge employees need to get outside of their comfort zones, reconnect with a personal passion, and do something just for themselves. 

With Blueboard, common hurdles to getting the gifts you want and getting those gifts where they need to go (hello, endless scrolling to find the right gift and supply chain woes) aren’t a part of the equation. Experiences can be sent in just a few clicks, and employees are instantly connected to a curated menu of experiences where there’s something for everyone. 

Here are a few (of many) examples of real experiences for all different types of preferences you can give your employees:

For your thrill-seeking employees:

  1. Skydiving excursion
  2. Airplane flying lessons
  3. Parasailing adventure on the water
A color photograph with yellow foliage in the background, and a person smiling and giving a thumbs up ready to go ziplining in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Callen B., Associate Account Manager at Blueboard, ziplines with family through the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.

For your employees with families: 

  1. Family membership to a local museum or aquarium
  2. Behind-the-scenes tour of a local zoo
  3. Family fun at an amusement park
A color photograph with two people smiling with in a photo display that celebrates 100 year anniversary of the Oakland Zoo.
Donald F., Director of Business Systems at Blueboard, celebrates spending quality time with family at the Oakland Zoo in California.

Trevor M.’s (from Journeys) family explores the wonders of the ocean at the aquarium.

For your foodie employees:

  1. Farm-to-table cooking class
  2. Private chef sessions
  3. Local foodie tour
A color photograph of two smiling people in a large building with tons of windows. They are wearing aprons and holding cooking spoons during a Thai cooking class.
Macie P., Implementation Consultant at Blueboard, takes an organic Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

For your employees who love the outdoors:

  1. Surf lessons
  2. Guided hiking experience
  3. River rafting adventure
A color photograph of someone feeding a giraffe outdoors in Kenya. The sky is blue and there are trees in the background.
Kaitlin B., Travel Experience Coordinator at Blueboard, feeds a giraffe while on safari in Kenya. 

A color photo of a person holding a fish they caught while standing in the water. There's blue sky and green trees in the background. The person wears sunglasses and fishing gear and is smiling.
Brett E., from The Trade Desk, goes fishing on the “Reel in a Big One” experience.

For your employees who want to unwind: 

  1. Personal massage
  2. Salt cave session
  3. At-home wine tasting experience
Diana H., from Equity Residential, relaxes in the pool with a view on the “Glorious Getaway” experience.
A close-up color photo taken from a porch of a small dog in an orange coat next to two tiny pumpkins. The background is blue sky and a desert landscape.
Robert H., from GoPro, shares a snap of their pup in spooky season attire posing with pumpkins (too cute!) as part of the “Luxury Glamping Getaway” experience.

With Blueboard, your employees have the power to choose an experience that appeals to them (and what they can access depends on their reward level). 

Whether they decide to go on a family ziplining adventure or indulge in a staycation at a local hotel, these types of experiences help employees find joy and connect with their passions, their loved ones, and even potential sources of fulfillment outside of their jobs—all while making lasting memories.

Holiday recognition to cheers about.

Holiday recognition and celebrations are not unimportant extras that can be cut if your resources get too tight. How you celebrate employees during special occasions—like the holiday season—has a direct impact on their engagement, performance, wellbeing, and overall desire to stick with your company. 

The challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to take the opportunity the holiday season provides to appreciate employees in ways that mean something. In ways that stand out because they contribute directly to employees’ wellbeing and happiness. And that means engaging in ‘deep’ fun with thought-provoking activities that create lasting memories. It means creating an occasion to connect with friends and loved ones alike. It means giving your people (and yourself) a much needed moment to pause, reflect, and reset.

These are stressful times. Gallup’s annual State of the Global Workplace Report found 44% of respondents globally experience stress for a significant portion of the day. In this moment, there’s a strong argument for reimagining traditional holiday appreciation gifts—likely bound to be forgotten in a sea of other stuff under “normal” circumstances. That gift card? Your employees might spend it on necessities or on someone else, rather than rewarding themselves. 

Why not appreciate your employees with something more this year-end? Consider Blueboard experiences and give your people the chance to choose something personal from a ton of possibilities—whether it’s flying trapeze lessons or a food tour at their next travel destination—and come away with a cherished memory and renewed sense of purpose that they’ll always associate with being cared for by your company.  

And, if you're still debating whether or not holiday employee appreciation is something you can afford to spend time and money on this year, here's the question you should really be asking yourself: Can you afford not to?

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