Managing the holiday party, bonus season during a pandemic

Usually, this time of year sees employers hosting holiday parties and handing out bonuses. But this isn’t a typical year.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic means many human resources leaders and managers will have to think outside the sparkly gift box for ways to mark the end of the year and acknowledge employees.

While a party is a often popular way for employers to reward workers during the holiday season, any parties this year should be virtual, says Nora Jenkins Townson, founder and principal of Toronto-based HR consultancy Bright + Early.

Read: What do your employees want for the holidays?

“I lean more towards the virtual event side of things; you don’t want to be responsible for something like an outbreak happening. And I think, at things like parties, people tend to — especially if alcohol is involved — lax up on the rules.”

Indeed, the trend this year is leaning heavily toward virtual parties, with 74 per cent of U.S. companies that are planning to hold year-end celebrations saying they’ll be virtual events, according to a recent survey by Chicago-based consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. The survey also found, while nearly 76 per cent of companies planned to hold holiday parties in 2019, only 23 per cent said they’re planning a year-end celebration this year.

Whether employers opt for a party or not, marking the end of a tough year for employees in some way is still important, says Jenkins Townson. Options beyond a Zoom cocktail party include mailing employees a special gift box with items such as branded slippers, having employees participate in a charity drive for an important cause or organizing a Secret Santa in which co-workers send gifts to each other via mail, she suggests.

Read: Which holiday activities do employees appreciate the most?

“It’s been a really tough year for everyone — there’s been a lot of uncertainty, there’s been a lot of trauma and we’ve all been going through tough times. I think it’s important for employers to recognize and appreciate all that their team has been through together this year and that they’ve continued to show up and do their best despite what’s going on in the world.”

With employee burnout on the rise and many Canadians likely to struggle emotionally during this unprecedented holiday season, Jenkins Townson recommends that employers proactively remind workers about programs and benefits the company offers to those struggling with their mental health.

It’s not only employees who have been hit hard this year. Many employer’s bottom lines have suffered and, while employees understand that if an organization can’t afford to hand out their traditional bonuses, that should be proactively communicated.

Read: Employee burnout surges amid coronavirus pandemic: survey

“Giving people notice is important . . . as some people will assume they will get a bonus if they got one last year and people need to do planning around finances, particularly this year,” she says.

“For a lot of people, feeling recognized is very important, so if [employers] don’t have a lot of money to hand out bonuses this year, I think things like a handwritten card sent by a manager in the mail with all the things that they appreciate that [an employee] did for them this year works. . . . There’s a lot of heartfelt things [employers] can do, like a Secret Santa or a personal note, something more focused on human connection to make people feel more valued on a lower budget.”

Many employees are seriously considering leaving their current role and women, in particular, are often struggling to balance home and work life, according to a report published by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org in October. Employers can use this time of year as an opportunity to reach out to staff who may have one foot out the door during these tumultuous times, suggests Jenkins Townson.

“A party or a bonus or appreciation isn’t going to change that people don’t have childcare right now or don’t have a solution to another problem. I think speaking to each person and figuring out what flexibility [is needed to keep them] on board in the short term and long term is key.”

Read: Women considering downshifting, leaving careers due to pandemic: report