The holidays are a challenging time for maintaining high levels of employee engagement, yet potentially one of the most rewarding, too. In the United States, the season begins the week of Thanksgiving and extends through New Year’s Day. During these weeks, the festivities can distract and possibly demoralize staff. It can also be a great opportunity for building stronger teams and raising morale.

The outcome all depends on whether management decides to spread a little holiday cheer or act like Scrooge. Employees take their cues from the top. It’s possible to devise inexpensive ways to reward their hard work throughout the year. Such efforts do not have to cost a lot and can pay big dividends in increased employee focus and effort during the season.

Depending on company size, the traditional December party can be large, overwhelming and intimidating. Instead of one big blow-out, think about more intimate, departmental gatherings during office hours. Employees will appreciate the brief time away from tasks. A slightly longer than usual holiday lunch that includes contractors and maybe even clients is a possibility. Start a tradition that gives workers the chance to chat informally and develop closer ties.

Be inclusive when celebrating

Office parties require decorations, but deck the halls with multiple faiths in mind. Set up a menorah near the Christmas tree, possibly some Happy Kwanzaa or Rohatsu signs, too. Try to be inclusive so that no one feels ignored. The act of decorating can be a team-building effort that brings departments together. Maybe even a contest between departments for the best decorations, with a small reward for the winners. The point is to lighten the mood with a little levity. Happy employees are more productive.

Two of the seasonal perks that employees most appreciate are cash bonuses and more time off. During an uncertain economy, the cash may not be feasible, but most businesses can grant extra time off. Employees’ home lives are often hectic during the season and more time away from the office when work slows down is a true gift. One or two extra vacation days or early release the afternoon before the holiday is all that is required. Be sure to give enough advance notice for employees to plan accordingly. Last-minute time off can create more problems than it is worth, especially for workers with children.

Give back to the community

If your business cannot give cash bonuses, you can still spread the wealth. Share those inevitable holiday gift baskets in the kitchen or reception area. As staff members partake of the snacks they engage with one another.

Many businesses take on holiday charities, like collecting new toys for Toys for Tots or canned food for a local food bank. Find a charity that aligns with your company culture and values and ask employees to become part of the seasonal efforts to help others. Remember, also, that charity begins at home. Challenge every staff member to do one thing each day during the holidays to make someone else’s life a bit easier. This puts a little holiday fun into the workday and fosters a sense of camaraderie.

Above all, celebrate your workers’ successes. Send handwritten thank-you notes or make a phone call to employees who are performing well. If a department has done well during the year, take all the members to lunch or to a seasonal movie.

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