Ah, the holiday season. A time to be nice to your fellow humans, a time to reflect on the accomplishments of the past year, and to look forward to the excitement that the New Year brings. Or, from a more Scrooge-like perspective, a time when team members slack off, the company throws expensive parties where certain people drink too much and do things everyone wants to forget, team members gather to exchange awkward Secret Santa gifts that no one wants, and very little productive activity takes place.
Love it or hate it, it’s not a season we can afford to ignore. Extending from American Thanksgiving until the hangover subsides around January 3, we’re talking about a little more than 6 weeks or a little more than 10% of the working year. And it comes with certain expectations that organizations show appreciation to their people. The reaction of many companies is to follow the traditional checklist of office parties, gift giving, all the while resenting the process and expense, and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the New Year.
It doesn’t have to be that way, but as with most things in life, taking a step back to develop a broader perspective on the situation is required. No improvement is possible without change, and positive change is rarely accomplished without understanding the bigger picture. In the case of the holidays, a missing piece is frequently an understanding of what team members actually want. Traditional ‘rewards’ such as office parties are often viewed as obligations (and therefore not very motivating) by staff, not just by management.
To put some perspective on motivation during the holidays, think about these four things:
The common perception of the December holiday period is that it is a time to rest, recharge, and to plan for the upcoming year. Although this may not apply to your entire team, many great team members work hard throughout the year with the expectation that they will get a bit of downtime during the holiday period. Any attempt to take that away by expecting productivity to be maintained at the level you might see in March or October, is unlikely to be met, and is likely to create resentment among the team. So be reasonable in setting expectations, which means accepting that while productivity may be lower, this is a healthy part of the work cycle.
Don’t assume you know how the team wants to mark the occasion. Particularly in large offices, parties with spouses that total several hundred attendees mean that there is little time for the team to connect, lots of time for awkward socializing with people you only meet once a year and whose names you can’t remember. Throw in the opportunity for people to do inappropriate things when nerves combine with alcohol, and you have an experience that is more punishing than motivating.
Instead of assuming, talk to your team about how they would like to celebrate. There is no right or wrong here; only right or wrong for your team. And the only way to know is to engage the team in the discussion.
Set clear expectations for behaviour and productivity during the holidays. Nothing is worse than pretending it’s business as usual if in fact times are slower. Instead, engage the team in planning in the November time frame, work with them to set some realistic and quantifiable goals for what needs to be accomplished over the holidays, and talk with each team member about what that means they’ll be doing. Then manage the group to those expectations. Accomplishing realistic goals becomes a motivator for the team, rather than creating disappointment about what didn’t happen.
Now is NOT the time to tolerate behaviour that wouldn’t normally be acceptable. Although productivity expectations may be lower during this period, failing to deliver on what was agreed to is never acceptable. Similarly, allowing people (often with the help of alcohol) to start acting like your gropey Uncle Albert at weddings is a no go. Hold your team to the same standard of behaviour and respect as the rest of the year.
Remember: keeping a team engaged and motivated is a long-term process, not something to think about once a year. In the same way we shouldn’t wait for the holidays to treat our fellow human beings with respect and kindness, we shouldn’t think about our motivation and engagement strategy as existing only in a particular time frame. Although the elements may be different depending on the circumstances the calendar brings, it needs to be a coherent strategy that is implemented throughout the year.