High Employee Morale for the Holidays: How to Finish the Year Strong

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November 30, 2023 Culture Blog
Employees with high morale during the holiday season.

The end-of-the-year craze spares no industry. In retail, people rush out during stores’ extended hours to find Christmas presents. In hospitality, travelers book flights and hotels to visit family (or escape them). And in health care, doctors and nurses work hard to combat the chaos of cold and flu season; sickness takes no holidays! No matter what industry you work in, there are strategies you can use to ease the stress of the holidays for you and your team.

“Years ago, I was in [a job] interview for a behind the scenes office role at Disney,” recalls Zack Robertson, Talent Plus leadership consultant. “One of the questions that really caught my attention was regarding their commitment to providing an excellent guest experience all of the time. They essentially said, during the holidays, it’s all hands on deck. They asked ‘Are you okay with stepping away from your family on Christmas Day to help park strollers out in the park?’” 

This question was a litmus test for their culture. If people answered no to that or they liked their work-life balance, they were considered not to be a good fit for Disney.

This isn’t necessarily a healthy expectation of all employees in all companies, but Disney was hiring for the job they needed and we can learn from this. The job you’ve hired for may or may not require employees to work on specific holidays but hiring those who thrive in the moment is crucial to your culture. If the job is in hospitality or retail, for example, you’ll need someone who loves helping others and doesn’t mind the high-stress, high-energy times. Why not think about that in the hiring stage?

Select the right people who are positive to begin with. Negatively is exacerbated in times of stress.

Christine McGuire, director of consulting at Talent Plus, says that when she worked in retail, she used the unpacking of holiday decorations as a segue into a conversation with her staff. 

If you work in retail like Christine did, you know these decorations come out before Halloween! Not only is it a fun energy, it’s also the best time to have a conversation about holiday plans. Talking early helped her find out her employees’ needs — like who needs a morning shift versus an evening shift, or who plans to visit out-of-town family. Then as the holidays got closer, she could communicate clearly about schedule changes and deadlines to prevent misunderstandings and last-minute rushes.

Whether you organize a holiday party, give bonuses or write your team members a note, recognizing their contributions at the end of the year shows you care about making employees feel valued. Productivity starts with morale.

Even seemingly small acts like ordering pizza on a Friday, or bringing bagels in for breakfast, go a long way to show you value your team. 

Talent Plus Leadership Consultant Aaron Whiteford says “surprise and delight,” an unexpected act to say thank you, is the best kind of reward. He adds that you should know your team well enough to understand and adjust to what a good reward would be for them. And don’t forget the night shift!

How engaged is your team at work? Nothing is a substitute for checking in often and without an agenda. An employee will trust a good leader so they can safely say “I’m not doing well…” if needed.

If you show up once a year with donuts to display appreciation for your staff, it comes across as opportunistic rather than morale-building. Leaders must build rapport in doing these acts often — otherwise it looks like a social media grab. “You can’t make up for 11 bad months of leadership with one month of good leadership during the holidays,” Robertson says. Authenticity and consistency is key. 

If you’re talking to your team early about holiday plans, you should be able to adjust schedules according to what people need in terms of flexibility. Some employees may want adjusted work hours, compressed workweeks or remote work options.

Employees will often travel during the holidays, so offering remote options allows them to maintain job responsibilities while being available for family events. Half-day Fridays also help employees plan for holiday parties and after-hours events. 

As long as employees remain accountable for their work, granting them flexibility during the holidays only helps job satisfaction and workplace morale. It also shows you trust them.

The actions of leadership are always noted. While you might encourage your team to take some time off, you must do it yourself too. Some employees may be fearful of using their time off because of workload or being perceived as less committed. Some may hesitate because they don’t want to leave the workload to their colleagues to manage.

These are all valid reasons for employees to be concerned about taking PTO, but if you can show, through your own example, that taking much-needed R&R is important and acceptable, your employees may follow suit. And when employees take vacation, they return happy and productive.

When on the clock, be sure your team is taking necessary breaks, too. Say your team is working Black Friday in retail, for example. Even when it’s busy, ensure they’re tagging each other out, eating and hydrating and recharging with a little quiet off the main floor.

The best teams are built by talented, engaged leaders. And those high-performing, adaptable, strong employees — who can weather both calm and craze — aren’t hired by accident. Develop and build durable team relationships and end the year with strong morale.

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