Holiday work parties aren’t what they used to be, experts say, citing ‘comfort-based participation’

virtual office christmas party on zoom

The days of Christmas cocktail parties and festive after-work gatherings might be behind us – at least, that’s what some Ottawa experts say.

In fact, when it comes to the holiday spirit and team morale, invitations to work get-togethers just aren’t cutting it anymore. 

“In many organizations, there’s been a move back to in-person when it comes to holiday parties with the caveat that people participate if they’re comfortable. There’s been a strong movement towards comfort-based participation,” explained Rob Rosenfeld, vice-president for the National Capital Region and public sector team lead at LifeWorks. “There used to be pressure on showing up, but now there’s an understanding that some people show and some don’t.

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“Organizations should have appropriate means of engaging and recognizing the efforts of employees in both virtual and in-person capacity,” he said. “So you don’t create this divide between those who can and those who cannot go to an in-person event.”

Rosenfeld said there are also new issues to consider when planning an end-of-year celebration. For example, with a particularly rampant flu season and increased economic stress, some companies are still choosing to go virtual. 

“I think what we were able to experience organically before around team spirit we now have to be very deliberate about,” said Karen Brownrigg, founder and CEO of iHR Advisory Services. “Especially for businesses that are hybrid or remote.”

Ultimately, though, Rosenfeld said engagement and support for employees have to be part of “a larger overall strategy” – not just a holiday special. 

“If you haven’t made an effort to connect to your employees yet, this is a bit late to get involved,” he told OBJ. “It has to be part of your overall engagement strategy. Continue speaking to them, engaging them, providing support and being a person who listens.” 

Some organizations send their team gift cards, while others stress the importance of mental health support for employees who may struggle during the holiday season.

A recent survey by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) found that 90 per cent of Canadian business owners say they are open to seeking support for a mental health issue. Among them, fear of a cash shortfall (62 per cent) and the recession (51 per cent) were identified as the main sources of stress. The BDC study also found that small business owners in particular are prioritizing the mental health of their employees. Of those surveyed, more business owners are offering flexible hours/schedules (55 per cent), additional time off when required (50 per cent), and remote or hybrid work options (33 per cent).

Brownrigg said many organizations are prioritizing a celebration of their team’s achievements rather than a more traditional and strictly Christmas-themed party. 

“There are different ways to define a holiday party,” she said. “Some people don’t enjoy this time, so how can you make it more about the relationships in the workplace and less about the holiday itself? How do we celebrate each other and our accomplishments and look forward to a new year and new ways to appreciate each other? How can we have fun together?”

“We’re in a different place than we were prior to the pandemic for a variety of reasons,” explained Rosenfeld. “We’re still not at where we were when it comes to isolation, anxiety, financial concern … We aren’t out of the woods.

“External factors place a lot of pressure on a workforce and management has to respond with ever-evolving measures,” he added.

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