We Need to Rethink Holiday Celebrations at Work – Especially Now

December 5, 2022 9:00 am Published by

To be blunt – end of year holiday celebrations have become a significant source of pain for a lot of people. Planning (and experiencing) these events creates a lot of angst and anxiety – to the point that many have asked, “Why do we keep doing them?”

The answer is often, “because we’ve always done them before.” Even though, by itself, this is a rather absurd answer, it actually points to the real reason workplace holiday celebrations continue: expectations. And when expectations aren’t met, bad results follow: disappointment, complaining, negative comments, unhappy people, and lots of questions (“Why didn’t we …?”).

Underlying Factors

A number of issues contribute to the growing disillusionment with workplace holiday celebrations including:

  • a growing diversity of employee backgrounds
  • a general culture movement away from traditional (often, religious) ways of celebrating the holidays
  • a more complex, diverse set of workplace schedules (traditional day hours, evening shifts, four ten-hour days, weekends) than in the past
  • shifts in expectations and values across generations.

Two significant cultural factors have had a huge impact on the world of work, in general, and upon holiday celebrations, specifically. One is more obvious than the other. The shift to remote, hybrid and long-distance employees is the most blatant and impactful issue. While neither employees who work from home nor long-distance employees work in the same physical space as their colleagues, their proximity to other employees may differ significantly – being across the state, country or world – which creates additional challenges.

The second issue has been a slower, long-term societal shift over time – the structure of the family and the accompanying roles and schedules of work for adult family members (spouses/ significant others, parents, adult children living in the home). Over the past decades we have moved from one or two adults largely working the same schedule, to a combination of highly variable and complex set of schedules in one family group (especially when one includes children’s and adolescents’ activity schedules). Single parents, divorced parents, parents in blended families, parents who work widely diverse schedules – all are examples of situations which make scheduling life (including office holiday celebrations) difficult.

Questions to Reflect Upon

As a psychologist, I am often more adept at asking questions than giving wisdom-filled answers, so let me go with my strength here:

  • What is the goal of these events? What do you want to accomplish by devoting time, energy and financial resources to hosting them?
  • What expectations do people (employees, managers, family members) have for the celebratory events?
  • What potential negative reactions could occur if you discontinued doing celebrations similar to prior years?
  • Would now (with new external circumstances) be a good time to rethink your holiday workplace traditions? Could you use this time of a “new normal” to adjust expectations and/or redefine their purpose?

Issues to Consider

In considering potential changes, let me offer some important issues to keep in mind:

  1. The process is more important than the decision. Getting input from all levels of employees will be key (rather than making a decision at one executive-level meeting).
  2. Giving employees a heads up about what you are considering before making a decision is key. Springing change unannounced (even a desirable one) doesn’t typically go well. People need time to process potential changes in their lives.
  3. Reconsider and discuss what the purpose of the celebration event is. You may determine that a different action (for example, giving people the equivalent time of the event off to go gift shopping) or another time-frame (holding the event after the first of the year) may be a better way to accomplish your goals.
  4. Given the new realities of life (remote/ hybrid/ long-distance employees and family life), how might your plans actually create an additional burden for your employees? Think through the implications (and possible ways to manage them) for the different types of employees you have.
  5. Choice is your friend. Giving employees options to choose from is often the best way to go. Remember: “fair” doesn’t mean “equal” (letting people choose to celebrate at a lunch event at work, or go to a restaurant in the evening).
  6. For whom are you doing the celebration? Reminder: it is quite likely that your desires and preferences (or those of the founder of the company) differ from those of your team members.

Final Recommendations

Here are a few strong recommendations (learned from mistakes made in the past):

  • Don’t make attending the celebration mandatory. People don’t like to be made to have fun (as you define it). If they want to come, great. If not, no problem. (If they come because they feel they have to, they will make someone’s experience negative.)
  • For remote and long-distance employees, consider a structured remote event, however awkward it may feel. Don’t not include them (that is, plan something for them). And the option “come join us in person” really isn’t an option for most long-distance employees.
  • For the best results, get input from each different type of employee group when planning the event. The likelihood is high that you and your team will not be aware of the relevant issues to the various types of employees. Taking a little time upfront will eliminate a lot of complaints later.

Remember, taking the time to consider your goals and the needs of your employees will be worth the time and effort invested. Or … you can keep doing the “same ol’ thing” … with unpredictable results.

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December 5, 2022 9:00 am

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