How should employers position Christmas rewards and incentives?

christmas rewards

Need to know: 

  • As employees become more concerned about health, social responsibility and the environment, Christmas rewards are changing and adapting accordingly.
  • Sustainable options include e-vouchers, experiences and paid time off; while volunteering leave can cover both wellbeing and social responsibility.
  • Rather than encouraging staff to drink and eat more during this time, employers are increasingly offering wellness-related benefits, such as meditation subscriptions.
  • Although drunken parties might be a thing of the past, social events and festive traditions should not be forgotten as a method of bringing teams together.

In the modern world, where veganism is rising in popularity, health is all-important, and environmental concerns are moving up the agenda, approaches to the employee experience are changing across the board, and Christmas rewards are not immune.

In addition to social responsibility, Christmas incentive strategies are being influenced by the increasingly holistic, big-picture approach being taken to all elements of the employee value proposition, says Iain Thomson, director of incentive and recognition at Sodexo Engage. “It is nice to package a holiday strategy together, rather than just [as] a one-off reward, otherwise it can be a bit meaningless.”

So, considering this opportunity to harness the festivities for a deeper, more strategic purpose, what do employers need to think about when positioning Christmas rewards?

Inclusive values

Christmas, particularly when taken as one of many opportunities to celebrate throughout the year, can be a key part of reinforcing an organisation’s values, says Helen Payne, principal at Aon. “Christmas is an opportunity to tell employees who you are and what you stand for,” she explains. “[Employers] can’t talk about diversity and then [only] celebrate Christmas. [They] can’t talk about wellbeing all year and then go out at Christmas and get massively drunk. People are challenging norms and we are certainly seeing new initiatives.”

Inclusive celebrations are becoming more common, adds Thomson: “A lot of our clients are asking us to come up with tactical activities that celebrate all faiths, which is quite interesting because it becomes an educational engagement piece, rather than just an incentive or reward.”

Free time

With organisations increasingly concerned about what matters to the next generation of employees, sustainability is climbing higher on the agenda. As such, there is a gap in the market for ethically or sustainably sourced Christmas presents, says Payne.

One option with relatively low expenditure and environmental impact, but a potentially high impact on wellbeing and engagement, is to give everyone an additional day off at Christmas or another festival of their choice. This demonstrates a willingness to support employees’ lives outside of work, while also cutting down on commuting-related carbon emissions.

Alternatively, employers could give staff a dedicated volunteer day to use during the lead up to the festive period, celebrating the spirit of giving by doing something worthwhile that also benefits wellbeing and work-life balance.

Christmas gifts

Gift cards are also an appealing option for employers concerned about sustainability, because e-cards have no environmental footprint and can often encourage people to opt for an experience, rather than a material possession.

“The traditional Christmas card has largely disappeared and been replaced by the e-card,” says Payne. “At Aon, we have moved away from paper communications wherever possible.”

To ensure that this has the impact intended, employers should be clear about the environmental motivations when creating messaging around the e-vouchers they send out, says Thomson.

Gift cards are also helpful for employers intending to offer staff the option of choosing their own Christmas present or experience.

Peter Syddall, head of employee benefits at experiential reward specialists Ello Media, says: “Offering employees cinema tickets for a film of their choice, or a dining card that covers a wide variety of cuisines and locations, ensures the rewards have a wide-ranging appeal that will help them save money doing more of the things they love.”

The end of the party

In 2018, UK employers spent an average of £86.44 per head on office Christmas parties, according to research published by Shine Workplace Wellbeing in December 2018. However, when staff were asked if they would rather their employers spent £100 on a Christmas party or invested it in their ongoing health and wellbeing, three-quarters opted for the latter.

Matthew Carlton, managing director at Shine, explains: “[This is] because of the rise in awareness about their own wellbeing. That £100 could be pooled and that could lead to yoga classes, support from a nutritionist or mental health awareness training. People read the question and thought, ‘actually, that would be more beneficial than just one night out’.”

Nevertheless, there is still space for old traditions in the new world of more sustainable, healthy, conscientious Christmas rewards.

“If [employers] were to take away the Christmas party it could cause a lot of problems,” explains Carlton. “In an ideal world, people want both. We are in favour of Christmas parties, but we advise that the focus shouldn’t be on drinking, but on experiences, and if [employees] don’t want to drink, they should still be able to have a good night.”

Working on wellbeing

Instead of encouraging staff to eat and drink more during the festive season, some employers are using Christmas rewards to have a positive impact on health and wellbeing. For example, some are helping to kickstart a healthy January by offering a wellbeing-related present.

“One [employer] we worked with gave staff at Christmas a free [online meditation] subscription,” says Carlton. “That was really well-received. It realised the importance of staff being in the moment and taking the time to check in and reset.”

Wellbeing initiatives during the winter months do not have to translate to a physical present or subscription, but can focus around accommodating employees’ work-life balance day-to-day, taking into account that this can be a time of higher pressure for many reasons.

“[There is] greater sickness during that period and reports of people feeling more stressed by the time pressures we have,” says Thomson. “So, if [employers] can tie Christmas into reward and recognition, [offering] flexible working hours during December for instance, on top of having healthier rewards, that has more impact and genuine meaning.”

Social activity

Employers could also look at activities that bring out the Christmas spirit and use the season to promote social cohesion, says Robert Faulkner, managing director of digital web agency Datadial. Promoting activities can also be a method of continuing the spirit of the traditional Christmas party, while offering something for everyone, including those who do not drink, for example.

“At Christmas, we like to partake in a traditional secret Santa,” Faulkner explains. “It is always key to maintain teamwork in the business at the festive season. I also throw a Christmas party which always involves a good activity, last year it was mini golf, followed by a sit-down meal with plenty of food and drinks. I also bring out the traditional Christmas tree and get a few of the staff to spend time decorating it, alongside other office decorations.”

The growing trend for flexible and remote working means fostering a sense of community is more important than ever, because Christmas is a perfect time to think about giving back, says Payne.

“Creating a sense of team and community is what Christmas is all about. It is not necessarily about going out and getting drunk,” he adds. “Rather, the office could go out and help at an old people’s home and then go out for dinner; that might be a better way to bring people together.”

Offering employees the chance to celebrate in their own way encapsulates the modern office Christmas. If employers infuse the festive season with meaning and offer something for everyone, this can remain a special time of year even in the face of the changing outside world.