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by Matt Alderton | November 28, 2016
The holiday season is supposed to be filled with mirth and merriment. For many employees, however, it's filled with the opposite: stress and strain. In fact, a 2015 survey by insurance company MetLife found that December is the most stressful time of year for 42 percent of workers. For employers who want to keep their teams satisfied, engaged, and motivated, that makes the last month of the year one of the most important.

"Research shows that December is the No. 1 most stressful month for employees, so it is important to pay close attention to how you are supporting your workers during this busy holiday and end-of-year season," says Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communications at employee recognition firm Michael C. Fina Recognition, which recently published a list of ways to keep employees engaged during the holiday season. "Showing extra consideration for employees' time, as well as increasing recognition efforts with a meaningful holiday gift or special thank you, is critical."

Among the ways Michael C. Fina suggests increasing end-of-year engagement is celebrating the holidays together as a team. Unfortunately, fewer companies are hosting holiday celebrations these days, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which surveys HR professionals every year about their companies' holiday party plans. Last year, 30 percent of HR professionals said  their companies don't typically have year-end parties -- the highest percentage recorded in the survey's six-year history.

Those companies are missing out, suggests Michele Nichols, founder of Unique Venues, which connects meeting, event, and incentive planners with nontraditional venues such as colleges, universities, museums, mansions, theaters, and restaurants, just to name a few. Holiday parties aren't frivolous, she says. Rather, they're strategic.

"Companies can benefit immensely from throwing an end-of-the-year party," Nichols says. "While these events provide an enjoyable evening for employees, they also boost morale, encourage bonding, and allow companies to show appreciation in a more personal way."

Indeed, Nichols thinks of holiday parties as rewards. Executed well, she argues, they can demonstrate appreciation for the prior year's hard work while also motivating employees to continue working hard in the year ahead.

"I think it's important to have fun with the people you work with," Nichols continues. "It gives you the opportunity to connect with your team on a different level."

That connection hinges on a few key ingredients, according to Nichols, who says there are at least three things distinguishing holiday parties that engage employees from holiday parties that merely distract them:

1. The Venue
When it comes to the venue, think outside the box, suggests Nichols, who recently organized an event at a movie theater, and another one at the History Colorado Center, a Denver-based museum dedicated to Centennial State history. Both delighted attendees by surprising them. "It might be easy to say, 'Let's just do something in the office,' but you won't get the same 'wow' factor that you'll get from a nontraditional venue," Nichols says. "Nontraditional venues work really well because they're different and fun."

"Different" and "fun" are two ingredients that will help employers maximize participation in their holiday celebrations -- and thanks to social media, could even help them fill their recruiting pipeline for the year ahead.

"Are people going to post about their company Christmas party on social media if it's held in a hotel ballroom?" Nichols asks. "Probably not. But if it's at a movie theater or museum, they might."

2. The Theme
One of the reasons Nichols like nontraditional venues so much is that they often have unique themes built into them -- "Hollywood Holidays" at a movie theater, for example; "Swanky Santa" at a mansion; "Christmas in Italy" at a beloved Italian restaurant; or "New Frontiers for a New Year" at the planetarium. When they're incorporated into everything from the food to the décor, such themes make holiday parties more memorable. And as a result, more effective.

"We have a saying around here: That which is unique is inherently more memorable," Nichols says. "So it is with your theme."

3. The Program
If you're going to position your holiday party as a reward, it's a good idea to build employee recognition into the event, according to Nichols, who says recognition can come in the form of an address from senior executives, an awards program recognizing outstanding employees and teams, or even a contest or game that incentivizes employee participation with prizes and giveaways.

Concludes Nichols: "Think outside the box. Don't just hold an after-work gathering in the office. Get employees out of the office and plan an event they'll actually be excited to attend."