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Bosses should take these 7 steps to get teams through the holiday slump and motivated for the new year

December 20, 2022, 7:30 PM UTC
Employees listening to a colleague's presentation in the office
Here’s how to reenergize your team in the days leading up to the new year and once everyone has regrouped in January.
Tom Werner—Getty Images

Something happens to teams after the Thanksgiving break. Maybe it’s the lingering effects of that turkey tryptophan, or the sudden urge to hibernate as temps drop. But most bosses recognize it as a holiday slump. 

“Everything slows down and hurries up at the same time,” says Joe Mull, host of the Boss Better Now podcast. “People are distracted and we get a little bit of senioritis at the end of the year, right as the holidays come upon us.”

To compound that general malaise, the flu, RSV, and COVID continue to plague the workforce and many are calling out sick, adding to their team’s workload in the final countdown to the holidays. 

But there is a way to transform the malaise into greater workplace productivity. 

These experts offer advice on how to reenergize your team in the days leading up to the new year and once everyone has regrouped in January. 

Spot burnout

In order to combat this general slowdown you have to be able to spot the signs first. 

Deb Muller, the CEO of HR Acuity, a 2021 Fortune Best Small Workplaces, says it manifests on her team as irritability, sudden tardiness to meetings, or an influx of sick requests. Employees might appear disengaged or become more sensitive to feedback. 

Muller’s team is remote, and spotting burnout when you don’t work together in person is a bit different. 

“People start not showing on video, or they look disheveled or they’re late,” she says. “Maybe they aren’t showing to meetings or are keeping to themselves.” 

Plus, unlike other holidays your team might look forward to, the winter holidays are family-oriented and likely fraught with tension for many employees. Others might not have anyone to celebrate with this time of year.

“The holidays are not always happy for a lot of people, whether it’s a mental health issue or people don’t have friends or family around them and they’re isolated,” Muller says. In these situations, Muller reminds employees of available support hotlines. 

And even if you’re a huge fan of Christmas, you can’t escape the bevy of events: ugly-sweater parties, your son’s school play, the live Nativity at church, and the gift exchange with college friends. 

“This time of year, people are exhausted,” says Natasha Maddock, cofounder and nonexecutive director at Events Made Simple, a corporate events planning company.

Give them a break 

At a time of year when everyone is busy with their personal lives, scheduling a fun team-building exercise can just compound the burden employees are feeling to stay on top of everything. 

Instead, Mull says the best way to energize staff is to give them time off. That might look like offering a random half-day this month, shutting down the office early, or canceling a few afternoon meetings on a Friday to give everyone time to finish shopping or just relax. 

“After the two-plus years workers have endured and amid the craziness of the holiday season, nobody wants to attend mandatory fun,” he says. “They also don’t want to be encouraged or asked to be resilient. What they want is less work, time away, and more flexibility.”

Allowing for that break might also mean reviewing your team’s PTO requests and making sure everyone has taken advantage. If you have to accommodate a lot of time off this month, Mull recommends flexible scheduling. Let employees work late one day so they can leave early the next. To create buy-in, he suggests holding a team meeting so everyone can decide how to help out so everyone can take time away. 

“When my job fits into the rest of my life like a puzzle piece, I become more loyal to that workplace,” Mull says. 

Maddock also suggests lightening loads by looking at tasks that can be pushed off to the new year. 

“I tend to ask three questions,” she says. “Does it have to be done? If it doesn’t, get it off your list immediately. Second is, Does it need to be done by me? Could I delegate this? And finally, does it have to be done now?”

Keep things light

Amy Spurling, the CEO and cofounder of Compt, says December is the busiest month for her team as they finish out their fourth quarter and finalize a litany of new clients who plan to launch the company’s HR platform on Jan. 1. That means everyone has to buckle down for December; it’s not time to coast. 

With that in mind, entertaining half-days or a bunch of PTO just isn’t possible. Instead, Spurling tries to keep things light. 

“There’s a lot of memes and sorts of things that happen in Slack, but we make sure leadership is taking part in that,” she says. “It just takes the temperature down a bit and ups the fun factor for folks so there’s some levity.”

Manage remote relationships

Got a remote staff? The game changes a bit. Whether your company functions through Zoom by necessity or as a function of the pandemic, spotting burnout is complicated by the distance. And it can be difficult to connect and team-build as a result. 

One way Muller tries to give her team a break is by canceling a planned meeting every once in a while and suggesting her staff take a break from their desks to read a book, walk the dog, or grab a cup of coffee. If a particular employee is struggling, she might suggest that their one-on-one phone call take place while each walks their neighborhood. 

“Why don’t you grab your Airpods and let’s just walk and talk,” she says. “It’s important to model those kinds of things.” 

Plan ahead

The holiday slump is here, but you can prep for the 2023 slump now by incorporating better practices beginning in January. 

Muller uses summer Fridays to give employees half-days throughout the summer. First Fridays are held throughout the year to give everyone a half-day on the first Friday of the month. 

Spurling monitors PTO requests all through the year to make sure employees are using their unlimited time off, which includes a mandatory minimum of three weeks throughout the year. That might mean forcing a vacation in June, so your employees can give it their all come the busy time of year. 

“One of my VPs is known for that,” she says. “People need to know that there is an expectation that they’re going to take time because people need to recharge.”

Show appreciation

If you’re going to compliment your team this time of year as a way to reenergize them, be specific, Mull says. 

“The most important thing is that we specifically articulate to people the difference they make in the lives of others, and not with general platitudes like ‘Thank you, you’re appreciated,’” Mull says. “But we list specific habits, routines, and characteristics noticed by their boss and teammates.” 

Words of affirmation are great, but money speaks louder. A holiday bonus can invigorate some staff if it’s a possibility for your company. Mull suggests coupling those expressions of gratitude with gifts, rewards, and bonuses “that carry a high perception of value to workers.” 

Capitalize on the New Year mindset

When your team regroups in January, use this time to set and articulate company goals and plans for the year. It’s the perfect time to revisit job descriptions and get back into the groove. 

“The first few days back after a break are always hard, but they also provide an opportunity for supervisors and leaders to empower their teams to think and work in new and exciting ways,” says Laura Ashley-Timms, COO at Notion.

Danielle McMahan, Wiley’s chief people and business operations officer, says one way to do this is to speak to employees about their roles and how they can advance within the company. Holding check-ins to see how they feel about their roles can help them to feel more engaged and fulfilled. 

“These activities, as well as performance feedback, ought to be prioritized rather than placed on the back burner,” McMahan says. 

Spurling says her team doesn’t experience a lag come January because they know the first quarter of the year is one of their busiest, and the company’s expectations and priorities are clear.  

“The game plan is already set, so they kind of roll back in,” she says. 

Holding a meeting when you return to the office can give everyone a sense of direction as they get back into the swing of things.

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