How to use the Christmas bash for smarter staff engagement

Having a wild time is a prerequisite of the Christmas party but so increasingly is knowledge that it will provide year-long motivation and reward performance.

As UK companies cautiously welcome the economy’s move into growth once more, it’s evident that the grand Christmas bash is back on the agenda. Event organisers Evolve Events saw a 12 per cent increase in bookings in 2013 with a 17 per cent rise for smaller events of 150 guests or less, while Best Parties Ever experienced a 20 per cent increase.

Despite the rise in smaller parties, at the other end of the scale event companies are also moving into ever larger spaces to accommodate the high numbers of revellers, entertaining them with show-stopping displays from circus troupes, rock bands and even having entire fairgrounds, complete with carousel and dodgems, to get everyone in the festive spirit.

During Christmas 2013, big name brands did not disappoint on the glitz scale. Google hired London venue Troxy to accommodate its 1,500 employees across different floors, creating a self-contained ‘winter wonderland’ complete with German market, Speigeltent and reindeer. Meanwhile, Standard Chartered reinforced the glamour with a James Bond-themed ‘Skyball’, based on the film franchise’s Skyfall release. 

Christmas party venues
Extravagant venues, such as the Troxy, hired by Google, and amazing prizes such as the Mustique holiday, given by Dennis Publishing, give staff a morale boost

Sony Mobile hosted what the company said was “just a small party in a hotel”. However, that hotel was boutique and the drinks area had a pool with a synchronised swimming team. Interestingly, the company’s event organiser Flourish noted that the company still managed to get ‘the day job’ into proceedings, with the swimmers incorporating the Sony Xperia Z1 underwater camera into the swimming entertainment.

Keeping an eye on brand objectives while shaking off the work shackles and ensuring the Christmas party brings value back to the company is also a post-austerity trend. It is a good opportunity to do so, as companies receive a tax break on an annual event where the spend per employee does not exceed £150. 

Companies increasingly want to make their parties work harder for them, especially in staff motivation, and some approach this more subtly than others. For Postcode Anywhere, a business in the middle of a strong growth push, motivating staff to deliver that growth is a priority all year. However, Christmas is when founders Guy Mucklow and Jamie Turner try to make a big impact. To that end, the company hired Eastnor Castle in Ledbury, laying on a three-course medieval banquet, open bar and murder mystery entertainment.

“We wanted something extravagant for our Christmas party to celebrate both Christmas and our company’s 10 years in business. It’s a great way of recognising and rewarding everyone’s contribution to our success,” says PR manager Natalie Green. 

Giving back to the community has become a strong part of our company        ethos, as well as creating a strong team bond

Natalie Green, Postcode Anywhere

A night to remember certainly adds to overall levels of staff contentment but it is increasingly being seen as an incentive to encourage greater productivity. “This year, Guy and Jamie have put the focus on working together as a team to achieve a goal of growing by 50 per cent over the next year,” says Green. “If we make it, the company has been promised a Christmas party abroad.” 

Christmas is traditionally the time for distributing bonuses too and the trend of prize-giving has been growing. IT company UKFast uses the occasion to hand out cheques to members of its five- and 10-year ‘clubs’ (referring to longevity of employment) totalling, £1,000 and £10,000. 

For the past 17 years, Dennis Publishing has given four employees who have provided exceptional service the holiday of a lifetime at late founder Felix Dennis’s Mustique home (see case study).

But cash remains king for employees. A December 2013 survey by MetLife Employee Benefits found that 70 per cent of employees would prefer cash to a party. In the North-east of England this rises to 81 per cent but drops to 66 per cent in the South-west.

Not every company can engage in burlesque shows or shower cash on their staff but most recognise that making the Christmas party a talking point and a morale booster is important. If scale is an issue, it is still possible to innovate. 

Christmas party castle venue
Postcode Anywhere chose Eastnor Castle for its Christmas party to thank staff for their hard work and to celebrate its 10th anniversary

Training company RogenSi has fewer than 50 staff and would appear to be a typical customer for shared party spaces. However, senior client services manager and party coordinator Joeann Woods believes that a Christmas party needs to be more of a team-orientated affair. “All of our team care about spending time together, having great food and wine. The team doesn’t want to share their experience with other people.”

Last year, the company engaged event manager Shuttlecock to create a party that maintained intimacy but was still a talking point. While for some, the anticipation of the Christmas party lifts employee spirits for two months before the event, RogenSi adopted a policy of omertà.

“We kept it a secret, to the extent that even once staff were at the party, to begin with quite a few people still didn’t know what was going on,” explains Woods. 

The conceit was that RogenSi’s staff had accidentally crashed another company’s party while also being thrown back into the 1980s. Waiting staff doubled as actors, who interacted with party goers, adopting the roles of the boorish colleague, the un-PC office bore or the company boss complete with shoulder pads. The venue was decorated in an 80s theme with typewriters, ‘brick’ phones and accessories. 

Actors played their roles without revealing the concept until it was time to start the dinner. They would interrupt conversations without explanation, leaving staff wondering who they were. 

Going for the unusual approach was a risk, Wood admits: “People were taken aback and we did have mixed reactions but no one said it was a bad party.”

She says that around 90 per cent of the company were happy with their Christmas experience but also notes that you cannot please everyone. She says that while there are distinct trends in what is hot for Christmas entertainment, it has to be a good fit. 

“Burlesque keeps popping up in the brochures I’m getting this year. However, although we are a laid back company, it doesn’t work for us. It goes against our values.”

With the focus on high production values, it’s easy to forget that employees also value the opportunities for altruism that come to the fore at Christmas. This is a time when brands can engage in morale-boosting community events, big or small. On the one hand, Age UK is hosting its annual celebrity carol concert at St Paul’s cathedral, involving the public and making a big news splash. On the other, smaller companies such as Postcode Anywhere are taking the opportunity to get fully into the spirit of Christmas.

Green says: “We have been visiting a different care home every year since about 2008, which is organised by our corporate social responsibility officer. We visit pensioners, take them gifts and sing to them. It gives us a great deal of satisfaction to bring Christmas spirit to our elderly community, and giving something back to the community has become a strong part of our company ethos, as well as creating a strong team bond.”

Chief executive Mucklow adds: “We have so many new members of staff on board, involving them with our CSR activities has been a great way to welcome them into the company and get them to know the rest of the team.” 

And it’s probably less daunting than the dance floor, even if it does mean singing in public.

Case study: Dennis publishing

Dennis Publishing Christmas party

Dennis Publishing’s director of human resources Alison Hunter makes no apologies for the fact that the company’s Christmas party is an all-out, hair down, end-of-year jamboree. “With an eight-week build up it’s a huge event met with great anticipation. People spend weeks planning their costumes.”

Working to a formula that’s been tried and tested over 15 years, Hunter insists that there are only two keys to Christmas party success. First is fancy dress, with every year being built around a theme, whether it’s a masquerade or the letter D after founder Felix Dennis, although one creative soul came as a pack of Doritos. 

Second is that the staff feel they have one night all to themselves where, as Hunter cheerfully notes, it’s “a free for all”.

But while the concept of a raucous, extrovert party fits with the brand values established by Dennis himself, the maverick publisher who died earlier this year, the prospect of a little too much refreshment while dressed as a corn snack is only part of the picture. 

“The Employee of the Year award is hugely coveted and two weeks are spent canvassing votes for 16 candidates,” says Hunter. This is where the party gets truly extravagant. 

While the publisher’s core business is sales and the product editorial, it is easy to focus on these two units without saluting others who keep the cogs turning. The company makes this distinction by selecting one winner each from its sales, editorial, service units and management teams – the latter fondly known as the ‘Big Cheese’ award.

The winner and their partner receive an all-expenses paid trip to Dennis’s Mustique holiday home for 10 days of unparalleled luxury. The company’s 400 employees have an ‘eye on the prize’ mentality for a significant chunk of the year, reaching fever pitch in the two months before the December deadline.

In numbers

20% – increase in spending on Christmas parties last year, according to Biggest Parties Ever

£150 – cost per employee for an annual party below which employers don’t pay tax

70% – employees who would prefer a cash bonus to a Christmas party, according to MetLife Employee Benefits

Top three challenges 

1. Understanding value

With large event companies racing to outdo each other in terms of spectacle, it is easy to believe that bigger is better and one upmanship is key. If staff motivation is the driving force behind Christmas entertainment, companies have to balance their priorities. For training company RogenSi, fine dining is high on the list: “It’s not possible to get an amazing dining experience when you’re one of hundreds of tables. We wanted to focus on food because that’s what our staff value,” says client services manager Joeann Woods.

2. Being inclusive…

Being able to engage the entire company with an event is a difficult balancing act. It is often the sole opportunity in a large company for employees to see anyone outside their silo. For those not directly involved in the brand’s output, it’s one of the few instances when the company can demonstrate its values. Strategies such as that of Dennis Publishing, offering a paid-for trip to the founder’s holiday home, make sure every department has its time to shine.

3. …and exclusive

If the focus is on rewarding and bonding with staff, it’s important that all involved realise it’s a company event: “The biggest difficulty is keeping control of the numbers. People want to bring partners or potential clients. We have to keep reminding everyone this is just for us,” says Dennis Publishing director of human resources Alison Hunter. If the brand is trying to cultivate a ‘family’ atmosphere, parties with partners make more sense; or else creating separate, smaller events where the pressure is off.

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