The holidays are coming – 9 things to think about when planning your office party

Tis the season! This is the time of year for party planning and merrymaking as the calendar year draws to a close.

But how often do we actually make office parties and gatherings fun for everyone?

Those of us who’ve been leaders for a decade or two or more (cough) remember when Christmas parties included a tipsy Santa making off-colour remarks and sometime later when inclusive party planning in December meant calling the office celebration a Holiday Party instead of a Christmas Party. Thankfully, we’ve moved even further in the last few years.

Let’s look at office celebrations a little more broadly and in a way that is more useful not just in December, but whenever you decide to throw a party or celebrate as a team.

When done well, party-planning is more than just putting together a festive occasion. It’s an opportunity to build relationships and strengthen your team. Chances are, at the root of it, you’re having a party to show appreciation.

That means throwing a party that doesn’t leave anyone on the sidelines, feeling awkward or (worse!) offended in some way. And that takes some thought. 

Here’s what you need to consider before you hit send on that invitation:

Diversity is about more than you might think

Most workplaces are comprised of a diversity of people and often we think of this in terms of religious traditions. At some point in the early 90s, North American corporations realized that not everyone celebrates Christmas (hence the Holiday Party!) and that many cultural traditions are valued and celebrated.

While this is a valid consideration, diversity is more than just multiculturalism. Yes, there are those of us who identify as Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, pagan, atheist or agnostic. We’re likely hearing about plans for big celebrations from Hanukkah to Christmas to Kwanzaa or Winter Solstice. 

We all come from a variety of backgrounds, experiences and lifestyles — and differences can be more than cultural and religious markers. 

For instance, you might have a colleague who has recently lost a partner (widowed, divorced or otherwise) who feels awkward if invitations are for team members and significant others. Statistically speaking, several of us will work alongside people who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community — some of whom might not be “out” at work. 

There could be others who are sober or, perhaps, struggling with sobriety and not interested in open bars and a big emphasis on drinking.

More and more these days, workplaces employ people of diverse abilities. Your team members may be deaf or hard of hearing, on the autism spectrum or use a wheelchair or other support for mobility.  

Parents of young children have different demands on them, as do those who are caring for aging family members (or the “sandwich generation” folks who are caring for both!). 

Another consideration when we’re thinking of diversity is diet. You may have vegetarian or vegan colleagues as well as those who don’t eat pork or shellfish for religious or cultural reasons. Then there are also allergies to things like gluten, peanuts or tree nuts.

At this point, you might be thinking, “it’s just not worth it — I can’t satisfy everyone!”

Take the opportunity to unite instead of divide

When leaders understand the diverse make-up of their team members, they can plan accordingly so that everyone feels comfortable celebrating together.

It helps to focus on celebrating what you have in common rather than concentrating on the differences. (And remember — there are other simple ways to thank your team — you can think beyond a party!)

If you try to incorporate some religious or cultural celebrations into an event (for instance, decorating with a Menorah and a Kwanzaa kinara with seven candles on either side of Christmas tree), odds are you’ll leave someone feeling left out or disgruntled.

Instead, focus on your work together during the last 12 months. You’ve made it through another calendar year!

Here are some ideas to make your holiday gatherings and other celebrations inclusive:

  • Pick a neutral theme instead of tying your celebration to a particular holiday tradition. Think snowflakes, pinecones and cedar or colour themes like black & white or blue & silver. Trust me: You can be festive and celebratory of “the season” without pulling out the Santa decorations!
  • How do you think your team members would like to celebrate? Maybe everyone would like a late night and fancy dinner, but is it possible they’d rather have a family-friendly event during the day or a long lunch? Sometimes after work soirees or group activities are a hit. The best parties are going to have a broad appeal, so ask your team. If everyone is indicating they’re already busy, perhaps opt to hold a celebration in the New Year or on your company’s anniversary date.
  • Parents or caregivers on your team? You might want to offer money for a babysitter or caregiver to make it less stressful for team members to attend (not just cab fare home!).
  • Not everyone wants to drink and party. Many cultures are uncomfortable with alcohol and some team members may choose not to drink for other reasons. Choose a venue that allows everyone to feel comfortable and ensure that you word the invitation so that it’s clear this is not just a booze fest (for example, “Network & Chill” feels different than “Happy Hour”). Drinks menu? Offer non-alcoholic drinks that are fun and festive, too.
  • Instead of wording an invitation to include a “spouse” or “date,” invite your team members to bring a plus one. This way people won’t feel awkward if their guest is a good friend or family member other than a romantic partner — and no one feels obliged to explain the relationship when they RSVP!
  • Think about your menu. Your venue should ideally be able to offer vegetarian and non-vegetarian options (and many of those will also work for those who are gluten-free). Ask people to let you know about dietary needs or allergies when they RSVP so that you’re not taken by surprise.
  • Check that the venue is accessible to people who are differently-abled and perhaps easily accessible by transit — whatever things are important to your team members. You don’t want to be the leader who chooses an exclusive venue that is formal and difficult for people to get into when everyone wants something informal and relaxing.
  • Think about the soundtrack to your event. Plan for music that will provide the right ambience and allow for conversation. Too often, parties are drowned out by loud music and that doesn’t let people get to know each other. Consider something like big band, soft classical music or mellow contemporary music as a backdrop. If there’s dancing, make sure the DJ takes requests and can cater to diverse musical tastes.
  • When you, as a leader, speak at the event, focus on celebrating your team rather than the season. It’s easy to slip into the same-old, tried-and-true wishing you all a wonderful holiday season. Instead, talk about what great work everyone has accomplished in 365 days together — as a team. Talk about how proud you are to be a part of this team.  If the hours have been long, thank family, friends and loved ones who are in the room. This way your celebration will be part of building a company culture of growth and happiness (not just a party!).

Build respect among colleagues

Choices you make as a leader can help to strengthen the relationships of your team members. 

If you want to have an inclusive workplace, model this by making decisions that show you’ve thought about your team members individually and collectively.

This means remembering to consider special dates or occasions that your team members may be observing. You don’t want to offer to take your team for a huge lunch when someone on your team is fasting for Ramadan or Advent. 

If someone asks for time off for a religious occasion or family obligation, honour that. Meetings and important deadlines can be set accordingly. This is when floating holidays are a real incentive for diverse workplaces.

Encourage your team to share their heritage if they want to bring food to share or talk about their celebrations. That company calendar? Include multi-cultural events and important dates for diverse backgrounds so that people are aware of what’s important outside of what they see as important.

Be sensitive to what’s important to your team members and what demands or obligations they may have outside the office. Again, this is bigger than party planning; it’s about ways you retain your top talent.

Coach’s Questions

Has how you look at diversity changed over time? What could you do better to make your celebrations more inclusive? What would you like to change with work celebrations? How can you take all this into consideration without making it a chore?

Building a Company Culture of Growth and Happiness

Recently one of our CEO clients was telling me about the important project his leadership team had completed. It was almost miraculous in that they brought it in on time and on budget – though you can probably guess it was grueling and draining for everyone involved.

I asked the CEO what they did to celebrate, and he paused before saying, “Well, I thanked everyone for their hard work and praised them around the leadership table for their contributions…” As we sat for a moment longer, he said, “Other than that, we all got back to work – it’s a busy time for us.”

I’ll bet that sounds like a familiar company culture to many of us. Hard workers keep working hard, one success has to lead to another, etcetera.

That same CEO had, a few weeks earlier, shared with me his frustration that, “folks don’t seem to really appreciate it here. We seem to have this culture of exhaustion and frustration. People are at each other constantly.”

Celebration at work can go a long way to building a company culture that thrives, retaining the talented employees and growing success. So, with all the effort we put into our jobs, why don’t we celebrate more of what we do? Time and money are the most oft-cited answers. Sometimes it’s also a correlation with what we feel we’re already doing (“I pay people well, why do we have to celebrate, too?!”).

Create a company culture that celebrates

Survey says you’ve got to show more than the money

When we ask folks, “When you think about your entire career, and you focus on the job you loved the most, what was it you loved?” the answers we get aren’t about money. In fact, almost no one says the best job they ever had was the best because of the pay. Instead we hear that people loved a workplace where they: 

  • had autonomy
  • felt appreciated
  • were recognized for their efforts
  • felt the company values aligned with their own
  • were on a team that wanted to win together
  • felt the goals were clear

Now, consider a celebration of the people who made a company success possible. How many of those positives might we reinforce with a company culture that celebrates hard work and dedication?

I imagine some of you are thinking, sure, that would be nice but I have time and/or money constraints. 

Here’s how to start honoring successes and the toil needed to get there, without taking too much time away from work or blowing your budget:

Celebrate the small wins
You don’t need to book a hall, a caterer and a band to celebrate! Celebrating on a small scale can be very meaningful and motivating for everyone. Got a new client this week?

Seeing good numbers this month? Buy a box of doughnuts or cupcakes and gather everyone around for a quick coffee break this morning. Up till the wee hours getting a presentation together and thrilled the hard work paid off after a great meeting? Thank everyone and suggest you start the next day a little bit later than you normally would (and don’t forget the pastries!). Has the team salvaged a client relationship that was tanking? Thank them at the next team meeting (and maybe provide some cookies to go with that afternoon coffee break!).

Before you start singling out team members with flashy thanks in front of the group, just remember that you may have to cater your communication style to be effective! Depending on personality style, some people like a big public thank you and others flourish when it’s a more private expression of gratitude or a group thank you.

Celebrate often
Doing anything often helps make it habitual – and that includes recognizing effort and success. If you want to create a company culture of growth and happiness, you have to start celebrating together. Check out our 10 simple ways to thank your team during the holiday season and be prepared to do so year-round.

Does it feel like you just celebrated something and you’re not keen to celebrate again so soon? Celebrate again. If you’re not used to it, building the habit is going to require you to celebrate things more often than feels “natural” because right now the company culture’s “natural” is not celebrating at all.

Tie the celebrations to your values
Does your organization have values it lives by? Have you looked at them lately? (We’ve discussed before why it’s important that your organization’s values and vision line up.) Walk the talk by tying your celebrations to the values on that poster in the boardroom.

So if your company says: “We value diversity” then celebrate someone having the courage to share a different point of view on how to tackle a project or working hard to bridge a cultural gap with an international client.

If your organization says: “We value our customers” then celebrate a thank you letter received from a customer, etcetera.

Being able to tie celebrations to your organization’s values is especially important if you want to foster those values. When you recognize folks for things they do that align to the company values, you reinforce those values and actions.

Systematize celebration
Another way to make celebrating more of a habit (and thus a part of your company culture) is to assign a budget (even if it’s a very modest budget!) and put key employees in charge of the festivities.

Don’t force this on the accountant who thinks it’s a waste of time. Instead, take a look around the next cupcake and coffee gathering. Who is really enjoying it? Who thanks you for the treat? Those are the folks who like to celebrate and might be happy to take it on.

Be careful not to delegate and run! Instead, ask them to take on ownership, but be sure to encourage them, suggest things to them that have happened that can be celebrated and show that you’re supportive of their extra efforts.

Start celebrating NOW
Like so many good ideas, this idea of building a company culture of growth and gratitude is only as good as its execution. Letting this good idea linger isn’t going to change the company culture. Carpe diem

Coach’s Questions

When was the last time you celebrated success and hard work with your team? How can you make celebrating part of your company culture? What can you celebrate this week?