What will festive incentives look like in 2020?

Need to know:

  • Employers are taking a hestitant appraoch to festive incentives this year in light of the challenges that organisations have been faced with.
  • However, employers have placed more importance on employee recognition throughout the year, and many will continue to do so during the festive season.
  • Christmas parties may be put on hold, but employers can get creative with virtual celebrations.

September is typically the time when employers’ thoughts turn to end-of-year festivities and employee thank-yous. But 2020 has not been a typical year, so the holiday season celebrations are certainly going to look different compared to previous years.

Jeff Fox, principal at Aon, says:  “Without a doubt, the festive period in 2020 is going to look and feel very different to prior years. It’s fair to say that it’s been a challenging year for many people, and we’re all working out really what that new normal looks like.”

Employee recognition

Having been faced with such a tumultuous year, the road to Christmas is still paved with more uncertainty, so, of course, many employers have not put solid plans in place just yet. Chris Ronald, VP, Europe, Middle East and Africa (Emea) incentives and operations at Blackhawk Network, says: “It feels like a long journey to Christmas, but we are already seeing a surge in spontaneous thank-yous and rewards. That is reflected in industries such as the NHS, charities, [and] retail businesses, where we are seeing those immediate thank-yous for hard work during the difficult times.”

While many organisations have had to face difficult decisions over business operations and people management, some focused on employee recognition in challenging environments, drawing influence from the recognition that key workers received during the height of the lockdown. Nick Dempsey, sales and marketing director at Motivates, says: “Many businesses said, ‘we want to show our staff that we support them and we are behind them’. It was in line with the recognition in the wider community, [such as for] NHS and key workers, that really ‘recognition is important’ came into play.”

The challenges faced by organisations this year have thrown festive reward into question; approaches to employee reward can swing between ‘thank you for sticking with us this year, it’s been a tough time’, to those organisations that are trying to come out of the pandemic stronger, and are using Christmas rewards to engage employees, says Ronald.

Employers are definitely recognising the efforts put in by their employees this year, says Robert Hicks, HR director at Reward Gateway. “Some [employers] have had to make tough decisions, either through furloughing their staff, or letting someone go; no-one wants to do either of those things,” he says. “At times, it’s hard for everyone else: they have survivor syndrome and also picking up extra work. Employers want to do something for their employees.”

Physical celebrations

One of the most obvious omissions from this year’s festivities will be the work Christmas party. Government restrictions will not allow for gatherings like we have been used to, but maybe this will signify a change in the way employers celebrate the holiday season. A Reward Gateway survey, published in November 2019, for example, found that 70% of employees would give up their traditional Christmas party in favour of more frequent rewards throughout the year.

For employers looking to arrange some form of celebrations for employees, this could present itself as an opportunity to think of different options. “It could be a symbol of recognition, it could be a discount scheme so that [employees] can actually make savings towards Christmas themselves, other than a Christmas party,” says Hicks.

While resources are restricted slightly, there are options employers can look into when arranging a festive celebration. “Organisations could get quite creative,” says Fox. “There is real uncertainty and job losses are also in the mix, and on some level, some of these activities might not feel appropriate. But there’s a good opportunity and [we] will see a need to be creative.”

Red Letter Days’ own employee social team has been looking into ways that its team can celebrate the end of the year together. Carol Smith, HR director, says “We are planning something virtual, but we are going to try and inject as much fun as we possibly can. We have some ideas around a Christmas jumper day; that’s something that people can do virtually on [Microsoft] Teams. We’ve also thought about some prizes for the best decorated background room or home. It’s about being creative, and taking in as much feedback from the team as we possibly can.”

Employers are also looking at other options they can explore through video calling such as quizzes or remote discos, where everybody plays the same songlist at the same time. Or, teams could enjoy a shared meal or a glass of bubbly over a video call from their own living rooms, says Ronald. “We are seeing that some [employers] are trying to get creative around the concept of virtual parties, giving some form of mechanics to allow their employees to go and buy their own food or drink, but then have a virtual party online through Zoom, etcetera. So [the employer] is supplying the drink and the food, maybe through a supermarket gift card, and then encouraging them to connect virtually with their colleagues.”

A key point of festive celebrations and reward is that they have meaning for the employee, explains Ronald. “It’s been a tough year for employers and employees, and there really is a sense of trying to give something that’s meaningful, thoughtful, something that people can really enjoy,” he says.

Employee gifts

Gifts such as vouchers or hampers have long been a pivotal part of a Christmas rewards package, and although employers are faced with many business pressures this year, that employee recognition is still important. E-vouchers or vouchers sent to home addresses are still a popular way of saying thank you or recognising employees efforts this year. “Christmas this year is less about a token, but it’s going to be very much around recognition, and gift cards give the advantage of being able to deliver a specific gift, say, a restaurant card, or a multi-retailer card,” says Ronald.

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Employers realise that it is important to start planning and discussing rewards early, due to the end of 2020 being very different to normal, says Tracy Finn, head of corporate service at Harrods. Carefully chosen gift selections that reflect individual tastes and employer brand values demonstrate that time and care has been taken, and that the employee is valued by their organisation. Hand-picked, food and wine hampers, for example, continue to be popular as thank-you gestures.

However employers choose to celebrate or say thank you to staff at the end of the year, what is important is that the reward is meaningful and relevant to their own employees, whether it is recognition, a discount scheme or a thank-you card. As Hicks says: “My key takeaway is don’t see this as an obstacle, see it as an opportunity. Maybe ask staff what they would like, maybe try a few bits and see what works, and maybe next year, [employers] can do even more.”