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Party ban during COVID-19 prompts B.C. seasonal staff appreciation rethink

Faded photo of a Christmas party with tree lights. (via File photo)

B.C.’s public health order banning events has prompted employers to cancel staff-appreciation parties during the holiday season and contemplate new ways to provide festive cheer and keep staff engaged.

Logan HR partner and compensation consultant Vincent Chow told Glacier Media that it is not incumbent on companies to share the saved expense of not putting on a holiday party.

“Holiday parties are part of the employment experience but not compensation, or pay, to employees,” he said. “Companies do not need to pay anyone if they decide not to host events.”

The reality, however, is that employee morale could suffer if employers pocket the savings of skipping an annual festive social event, and do not provide an extra day or two off work or a larger year-end bonus cheque.

What employers do depends in part on how well their business has fared during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The grocery sector, which has done better than most retail niches, employs people who can’t work from home and who must be in contact daily with customers. Most of those employees likely expect a year-end bump in compensation.

“Absolutely, we’re going to do something for our team members,” Save-On-Foods president Darrell Jones told Glacier Media.

“They’ve done an incredible job through COVID, and it’s a really tough time for everybody – not being able to get their families together, so we’ll do something to allow them to get something a little extra special for Christmas.”

The legal sector has similarly remained busy, as has Vancouver’s largest law firm, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, longtime managing partner William Westeringh told Glacier Media.

Fasken normally holds a gala dinner for staff at a downtown hotel – an event that comes complete with a large meal, drinks and taxi chits.

Westeringh said he knew in September that the firm was unlikely to be able to hold such an event, so he and others developed a fall program aimed at helping staff feel connected with the firm, even as they worked at home.

Free online fitness classes, yoga sessions and games such as trivia contests or bingo were introduced, with prizes up to $500, he said.

Charitable work for the United Way continued virtually, Westeringh said, so Fasken staff could feel part of efforts to help those who are less fortunate.

The firm is providing year-end gifts to all staff, either by putting the offerings on desks or mailing them.

A December 16 Zoom call will be a virtual party, where what Westeringh calls “relatively valuable gifts” will be raffled off with winners’ names being pulled out of a hat. Westeringh also plans to announce the size of annual bonuses at the event.

“The gifts will be more generous this year than in other years,” he said.

Fasken has also cancelled its annual party for employees’ children, but Westeringh said presents will be delivered to parents in lieu of that event.

In sectors that have not done as well during the pandemic, year-end bonuses are unlikely to be larger than in years past.

Venue West Conference Services spent 2020 surviving the downturn in the event sector – and celebrating its 50th year in business.

President Sue Daugulis said her firm endured a “huge drop” in revenue, as conferences were cancelled and new virtual events provided a fraction of the income.

She avoided laying off any of her 15 employees and did not renew her Yaletown office’s lease, which  ended in July.

“Every year we have a big Christmas party with games and a fabulous dinner,” she said. “Last year it was at the Wall Centre.”

This year, employees are buying each other small gifts as part of a secret-Santa initiative, and the company is holding a 90-minute, virtual staff meeting on December 17.

All employees are set to be given year-end bonus cheques, which are likely to be the same size as last year, Daugulis said.

“They are all super-appreciative and happy that everyone has been able to keep their jobs.”