What employees want in 2021

A few months ago, with COVID-19 rates falling, many companies were slowly returning to in-person parties, conferences, and team-building gatherings. But with the emergence of omicron (and reports of the variant making an early holiday party in Norway a superspreader event) some businesses are again putting a temporary hold on in-person celebrations.

So where does that leave the traditional office holiday party this year? A few weeks ago we asked CEOs and other executives what they had planned. But we were also curious: What do employees actually want out of their company’s holiday party this year?

According to a survey of 400 businesses by legal organization and workplace consultancy, Seyfarth at Work, approximately 40% of companies will be holding holiday office parties this season. (The consultancy conducted a similar survey in 2020, when only 6% of companies said they would send invites for an in-person gathering.)

We asked Fast Company readers on LinkedIn and Twitter what they would prefer their company do to mark the holiday season. In both informal polls (which together gathered more than 5,000 responses), many respondents said they would prefer to receive gift cards, over showing up to an in-person event.

A senior director of user experience, Janine Nock participated in our poll, and agreed to share her thoughts around group events. Nock pointed out that Christmas or other holiday-themed parties can exclude some workers. “There’s a need to simplify some of this over-indulgence of Christmas activities, especially since not everybody celebrates Christmas,” Nock says.

Being thoughtful of people’s different lifestyles, backgrounds, and time constraints can make a difference to workers. Noticeably, quite a few respondents from our polls echoed this sentiment.

Some would rather spend time bonding with their coworkers through hands-on activities, whether through a fun shared experience,  a charity donation, or a more close-knit gathering, maybe broken down by individual teams.

Nock agrees, saying companies often skip out properly soliciting employee feedback ahead of time, choosing to promote (and even mandate) attendance at over-the-top celebrations.  “Honestly, I think it’s reading the room, engaging the temperature of the group. Sometimes it’s sending out an [employee] survey of ‘what would you like to do?’ But I don’t think any of these things should be forced, and if it’s going to be a gathering, nobody should feel excluded.”

If you’re a manager or company leader, keep perspective around how high-pressure this time of year can be for employees—especially in a second year of the pandemic. Often, the last month of the year is a mad rush for employees. Many of your workers are looking forward to taking it slower and finding time to decompress before the new year begins. “Be respectful of people’s time,” says Nock. “They have a lot going on in December [even] outside of the holidays.”