Employers creatively celebrating the holiday season amid the coronavirus crisis

‘Tis the season for employers finding unique ways to mark the holiday season during the coronavirus pandemic.

When the December holiday season rolls around, Rogers Communication Inc. staff usually work as efficiently as elves to transform the Rogers Centre into a carnival. They arrange for midway rides to sit in the Toronto ballpark and hire face painters and entertainers to thank more than 8,000 employees and their families for a year of hard work. While the ballpark will sit empty this year, the elves haven’t hung up their hats.

Instead, they’re offering personalized Santa phone calls and staging an online variety show with appearances from the jolly man at the North Pole, Inuit throat singers Piqsiq and a slew of celebrities they’re keeping under wraps until the big day.

Read: Managing the holiday party, bonus season during a pandemic

The reimagined holiday party comes as the pandemic has forced employers to rethink their usual December festivities. In pandemic hot spots, that means bringing the razzle dazzle to virtual gatherings, while others in locations with fewer cases of the virus are opting to host parties but strictly enforce social distancing and masks. Many employers will send tokens of appreciation to employees or offer time off or cash, but some will forgo any kind of celebration to tighten spending and acknowledge a tough year.

Rogers hatched its new plan almost as soon as the pandemic started to cause shutdowns in March, said director of corporate events Emma Shaw. “With this year being so tumultuous . . . having something that provides a bit of normalcy and consistency . . . we thought was a win-win for everyone,” she said.

Read: What do your employees want for the holidays?

Royal Bank of Canada is using a similar playbook. It’s hosting 150 virtual galas for each stream of the business and a company-wide, family-friendly video experience  — a departure from leaving holiday events to divisions and branches to plan themselves. The hour-long, pre-recorded presentation will include celebrities and be capped with a message from chief executive Dave McKay.

“Not recognizing our people was not on the table,” said Curtis Hitsman, RBC’s senior director of recognition programs. “If there was a year to recognize the efforts of employees, this is it.”

Other employers, like OpenText Corp. and TC Energy Corp. are eschewing parties and opting for other meaningful ways to mark the end of a difficult year for many. The Waterloo, Ont.-based tech company and Calgary oil and gas firm said they would each donate at least $1 million to local charities in lieu of holding parties. And Manulife Financial Corp. announced it will give all 35,000 staff money to commit acts of kindness like helping neighbours in need or donating to good causes.

Read: Manulife giving all staff $50 to ‘pay forward’ this holiday season