Text messaging-based personal shopping concierge service Jet black has 370 employees, two-thirds of whom work outside of its New York headquarters. When it comes time for its annual holiday party no one is left out, though. Instead, remote workers get their own take on the festivities so everyone feels like part of the team.
Jet black's holiday celebrations include a company-wide gift exchange, deliveries of restaurant gift cards to those who work the holidays, and a remote holiday meet-up. "We make a conscious effort not only to include but also engage our remote employees," explained Odette Lindheim, the company's director of people operations. "We get a room that's central to our remote workers, set up games and snacks, send them company swag, and put on holiday music. People are invited to come for an hour or all day. It gives our people working from home offices a way to get that office party feeling even if they don't normally go into an office."
'Tis the Season
Holiday parties have a firm foothold in corporate America. At the same time, remote work is way up. The 2019 "State of Remote Work Report" by Owl Labs found that 62 percent of employees worked remotely at least once a month; 49 percent of those respondents say they work remotely full-time. According to Buffer's "State of Remote Work 2019" report, remote workers also cite loneliness as the second-largest struggle they face.
Keeping these facts in mind, HR managers and those who are planning the company holiday party may want to make a more concerted effort to bring remote workers into planning parties and celebrating, says S. Chris Edmonds, president and CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group, a work culture consulting firm based in Conifer, Colo. They shouldn't feel isolated or alone during what is touted as the happiest time of the year.
"Keeping people connected and sharing information with each other is something companies must think about throughout the year. Sharing common experiences and giving employees the opportunity to have some fun around the holidays helps improve relationships and is immensely powerful," he said.
The most obvious way to accomplish this is to fly everyone in for whatever event you plan at the main office. This may not be the easiest option for those companies that have a significant number of remote employees, though, simply due to cost and logistics. For some companies—although flights, hotels, and meals add up—the extra cost and trouble can be worth it, says Cheryl Johnson, chief human resources officer at Chicago-based software company Paylocity. Johnson, for example, piggybacks her own 150-person department's—half of whom are remote—holiday celebration with a staff-wide meeting and professional development program.
"As a company, when we look at employee experience, we believe that everything should be equitable," Johnson said. "We budget a certain amount per head and plan events that cater to every group."
There's a similar plan in place at the Ken Blanchard Companies, although inclusion takes a more virtual bent. About half of the company's 300 employees work remotely, with office locations scattered across the U.S., France, the United Kingdom, and Asia. In order to show appreciation and create team bonding, the company holds an annual Shop and Share program, sending out $50 to every employee and asking them to do a show-and-tell with what they buy. Originally, the company flew everyone in to the main Escondito, Calif., headquarters, but today that's changed.
"Now we start the Shop and Share program with an all-company meeting that everyone participates in, either in the headquarters or through a live broadcast. After the meeting and at an appointed hour, everyone goes out shopping for something for themselves," said Shirley Bullard, the company's chief administrative officer and vice president of HR. "Then we all come back and share our purchases with each other. As we have become more decentralized and people move into the field, [the program] becomes more and more important because it helps us stay connected."
Bullard says it's just one of many strategies that the company employs to help people feel engaged. Organizations that can't fly everyone in can try holding a similar virtual holiday celebration, using Facebook, Google Hangouts or Zoom so employees can interact and get that crucial face-to-face contact that helps bring people together.
It's also important that all employees get the same holiday perks whether they make it to a holiday party or not. At Paylocity, for instance, remote employees who don't live close enough to one of the three office-hosted parties can choose from three end-of-year gifts. This year, those employees will also get in on their annual party raffles, too. "We created a virtual raffle. In order to get that virtual ticket we want them to answer a survey question: What are you grateful for? It's new this year, and it's about giving people one more way to feel connected," said Johnson, who says it's just another piece of the company's overall remote employee inclusion program.
This kind of commitment is important, say experts. While it's nice that remote employees feel included during December, such efforts should be part of a larger, year-long program. "It's not just about the holidays," Bullard said. "It's about sharing life events throughout the year so [the employee] feels like a part of the organization no matter what. That's why anything we offer [at the main headquarters], we are always asking, 'How do we bring it to our remote staff?'"
Karen J. Bannan is a freelance writer based in New York.