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With office parties curtailed, businesses get creative to spread the cheer

Traditional office holiday parties were canceled this year, but businesses are finding other ways to celebrate, CEO at H2M Architects and Engineers, Rich Humann, explained how he is still bringing the holiday cheer to his employees this year.  Credit: Howard Schnapp

The traditional office holiday party is on pause this year, with many Long Island businesses finding other ways to celebrate the end of what has been a difficult year filled with uncertainty.

Some are turning to Zoom and Skype in lieu of in-person get-togethers, while others are spending party budgets on gifts for their workers.

And while the pandemic rages on, leaving much in the business world upended, experts say the holiday celebrations are important to maintaining worker morale and a team spirit.

"Every business has had to adapt and modify their practices. ... The same has to happen for traditions," said Josh Knauer, co-founder of JumpScale, a Manhattan-based business consulting firm.

"If they do just a holiday event, that’s a good start," Knauer said. "Continuing that type of engagement with employees is going to lead to stronger teams and better financial results for the company.

"We all need more interconnectivity as people," he said.

Keeping the spirit of the holidays alive is also a great way for employers to say thank you to workers who have had to cope with remote work or unusual working conditions for nearly a year, said Erin Lau, manager of HR services for Insperity, a national human resources firm based in Texas with offices in Jericho.

"If they’ve been fortunate to remain working throughout this year, they’ve been working harder than they’ve ever worked, at home juggling kids and other family members," Lau said of employees.

"The environment has been challenging," she said. "To have an opportunity to pause with your colleagues and genuinely take a step back and appreciate each other … it’s extremely important for employee engagement."

Giving to employees and beyond

In years past, employees at law firm Meltzer Lippe in Mineola would have celebrated with a catered party at the Roslyn Country Club with a cocktail hour, dinner, speeches, gift giveaways and dancing.

But with COVID front and center, the usual is "off the table," said managing partner David Heymann.

"Like most companies, the number of people we have would be too many," he said. "Our employees’ health is first and foremost at these times."

Instead, the firm is giving each of its 139 employees a $100 American Express gift card and will be hosting a virtual raffle for a number of gifts, including a 65-inch smart TV.

"Who knows, maybe some people will like that better," Heymann said. "They’re pretty nice gifts. I’m trying to squeeze my name in for the TV, but don’t think that will go over too well," he joked.

In addition to the employee gifts, Meltzer Lippe upped its usual charitable contributions, including making a $50,000 donation to Island Harvest in recognition of the firm's 50th anniversary.

"It’s very important — even more important during this time — to try to keep as much normalcy as possible and to recognize that everyone is dealing with different issues," Heymann said. "Just because we can’t be in person doesn’t mean we can’t recognize people."

Ugly sweaters go virtual

E Central Medical Management, a medical billing company in New Hyde Park, won’t be doing its usual in-person Secret Santa gift exchange and employee dinner this year, but the company hopes to "be as festive and merry as possible" through virtual equivalents including an ugly sweater party and gift exchange over Zoom, said CEO Bert Lurch.

The firm's 30 employees have worked alternating shifts for months to reduce the number of people in the office at any given time.

"We have the ability for people to bring gifts and drop them in the office," Lurch said. "If you see a gift with your name on it, you can pick it up and take it home with you."

Lurch said this year — the firm's 20th — has been difficult for everyone, making it especially important to try to keep spirits high during the holidays.

"We need that motivational booster, that mental booster, because this new norm is somewhat depressing," Lurch said. "We’re more disconnected now than we’ve ever been before. We said, ‘Yeah, let’s do something because we have to keep the energy high.' "

Bringing the gingerbread home

More than 200 employees at Bethpage Federal Credit Union are teaming up virtually to build 75 gingerbread houses this year in lieu of the traditional in-person competition.

While the credit union’s branch locations continued to operate throughout the pandemic, many of the employees at Bethpage’s headquarters went remote early in the health crisis. For a firm that prides itself on employee engagement opportunities and social gatherings, this year has been challenging.

"We’re a very socially oriented organization," said Linda Armyn, senior vice president of corporate affairs. "We had a lot of clubs that had to be discontinued this year. All of our volunteer activities were basically halted."

In order to recapture some of the traditional fun of the season remotely, the credit union sent participating employees gingerbread house kits, and participants — collaborating with co-workers through Zoom or working alongside family members at home — had until this weekend to submit photos of their creations to the company’s internal communication website.

"We didn’t want to completely lose the engagement with our team because that’s a big part of who we are," Armyn said of the move to carry on with the annual contest. "You want people to have that close connection to the company they work for."

Also altered, she said, is the organization’s annual employee appreciation awards party. The event, normally held in January at the Cradle of Aviation, brings in around 1,200 people. This year, it will be virtual, with some prerecorded segments.

"The virtual party is not going to be the real party … but it’s still something," she said, "to make everybody feel some sense of normalcy."

Celebrating every day

Ren Jainarine, owner of the Reynold Daniel Agency, a Jamaica, Queens-based insurance provider, said he had initially looked forward to treating his four employees to dinner and a night out on the town to celebrate the holidays.

But with COVID concerns and an end to indoor dining in the city, the 30-year-old Smithtown resident has instead worked to make the month of December festive day in and day out for his millennial workforce.

"We work hard toward that big celebration day," said Jainarine, who launched the business three years ago. In past years "we would go into Manhattan or maybe to Howard Beach. … We’ve done [indoor] archery at Queens Archery."

To help boost morale and make the most of a tough year, Jainarine said he’s gone all out with the holiday decorations at his office, buys lunch for workers on Fridays, encouraged them to dress "festive" this whole month, and recently visited each of their homes with boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

He said it's important to have these light moments to keep spirits high.

"You turn on the news, you open up your eyes, and you’re going to see current events and not all that is positive," he said. "That’s why I always want to make sure I give people good news."

Holiday bonuses

For Gene Walker, co-owner with his wife Gail of Premier Rubber Company in Farmingdale, this holiday season presents an opportunity to thank his 12 employees for keeping the firm running during a tumultuous year.

The company, which supplies manufacturers with the recycled materials needed to make rubberized gym and playground floors, saw a 20% hit to production levels this year. The firm avoided any layoffs and still plans to carry on with its normal holiday traditions, with some adjustments for COVID.

Despite the hard times, Walker said the company plans to give employees holiday bonuses and individual gifts selected by Gail for each employee. They normally invite workers to bring family members to the holiday party, but this year's socially distanced event will be employees only to keep it small.

"We’re in this together," Walker said. "I can’t do this without them. You respect the people you work with. You want the best out of them, and they want the best out of you."

Christmas in October

Anticipating the continued obstacles of the pandemic, some executives, like Erica Chase-Gregory, director of the Small Business Development Center at Farmingdale State College, opted for a holiday celebration a few months in advance.

"This summer I said, ‘I know we won’t be able to get together in December,’ " Chase-Gregory said. "This doesn’t look good, so I’m going to do an outdoor holiday party in October."

Normally, Chase-Gregory hosts her team of 13, a part of the Small Business Administration, at her home in December for a daylong celebration and gift exchange. But with COVID cases rising in the fall, she opted to host the event outside on her deck while the weather was nice.

"We played a game of bingo, did our gift exchange and just had an afternoon together," she said. "Everybody wrapped their gifts in holiday wrapping paper."

Chase-Gregory said it was important to celebrate — albeit earlier this year — to acknowledge the hard work of her staff.

"I just wanted them to know how appreciative I was for the amount of work they’ve done since the beginning of COVID," she said. With small businesses across the Island wrestling with the impact of the pandemic and seeking aid this year, "in three months we did what we typically do in 12 months," she said of the workload.

Looking forward to next year

In a normal year, employees at H2M architects + engineers in Melville and its eight affiliated offices across the state and New Jersey could look forward to a holiday extravaganza hosted at the Heritage Club in Bethpage.

The event, complete with a DJ or live band, dinner, open bar and luxury busing from offices farther away, has always been a way to celebrate the hard work of employees, said president and CEO Rich Humann.

"The overriding intention is to really allow them to let their hair down and celebrate a lot of the tremendous work that all of them put into making the company successful," Humann said.

This year, however, the firm will give gifts to its nearly 500 employees as a token of appreciation.

Earlier this month, it organized an ornament-decorating event at the Melville headquarters, where some employees are working on site, and ended the day with a surprise visit from Santa to wish employees well and take photos outside the building.

"Nothing is really going to be able to take the place of the celebration, but there are things that we’re doing to still acknowledge what our employees are doing," Humann said. Still, he said he'll miss the chance the traditional party gave him to get to know new employees a bit better.

"Every year you kind of know the employees less and less because you’re growing the company," he said.

And while a party is out this year, the company has already put its venue deposit down for next year in the hopes of continuing the tradition then. "We’re ready to go," Humann said.

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