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Work Smart

The Productive Manager's Guide To The Holiday Season Slump

Easing up on certain rules this time of year rather than enforcing them may actually lead to better outcomes.

The Productive Manager's Guide To The Holiday Season Slump

[Photo: Flickr user Dean George; App Photo: Universal Pictures ("Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas", 2000)]

The approach of the holiday season is something many managers greet with quiet dread. From Thanksgiving onward, a steadily rising wave of excitement and distraction can threaten to get in the way of focused work. But the wisest—and, ultimately, most productive—approach is not to fight it. Making room for a little festive fun, within limits, can be a great way to bring your team together when they're having trouble staying focused on their own.

Think Before Enforcing The Rules

Rules can't be regularly flouted, as every good manager knows. But there are certain times when enforcing them as strongly as you would at other times is actually counterproductive. As the author Terry Pratchett once wrote, rules exist "so that you think before you break 'em."

Maybe you have a rule that every team needs to have someone present during business hours in case of an inquiry—makes sense. But is your B2B sales team really going to generate any major leads between Christmas and New Year's? Is anyone going to be contacting the internal auditors when other teams are down to skeleton crews? Maybe at this time of year, some teams can be let off the hook while vital services like IT keep someone on site.

Think through the typical rules you enforce during the rest of the calendar year, and ask yourself whether they'll really lead to the desired outcome during the run-up to the holidays. If there are any you can ease up on, make sure you clearly explain why it will or won’t be enforced. You don't want it to look arbitrary. Flexibility and understanding are easy ways to show employees that you see them as human beings, and this is an ideal time of year to remind them of that.

Make Space For Silliness

People will want to have some fun this time of year. Maybe it’s wearing a Santa hat, or racing tinsel-covered wheelie chairs down the office hall 10 minutes before closing. Don't license mayhem, but realize that stamping out all the fun will make people grumpy and disengaged. Letting them get away with too much, on the other hand, will stop any work being done. So strike a balance.

Let people get a little more playful in controlled ways—festive decorations are probably fine, for instance, as long as they don't intrude on others' concentration. Let people mess around a little in the last week before the holidays, but keep an eye out for too much time being lost.

Reward Good Discipline

With people so easily distracted, this is the perfect time to give rewards and praise for those who stay focused.

Some people are going to behave themselves no matter what. Some will have big deadlines they still need to hit. Some may just not be in the mood for frivolity. And keep in mind, too, that many don't celebrate the holidays the same way or even at all. Whatever their reasons, the efforts of those who stay extra focused should be recognized.

Public praise or recognition from your usual reward system can help deserving team members feel validated, rather than left out for working hard while their coworkers may be slacking off. It’ll also encourage others to knuckle down at a time of year when that tends to get harder.

Join In The Fun

Trying too hard to be the "fun boss" can backfire. But as a manager, keeping your distance and staying too remote can turn out just as badly.

The holidays are a perfect time to show your fun side. Join in with festivities, but do it as an equal. For the length of a team dinner or happy hour, let yourself be part of the crowd, and talk about sports, TV, and holiday or vacation plans. Just don’t try to dominate the socializing—that will only remind people that you’re still fixated on being their boss.

Let Employees Craft Their Own Celebrations

The business—or just you as a boss—can actually facilitate some work festivities this time of year. A lunch together to celebrate the past year's accomplishments is an easy way to help a team bond. An after-work holiday party can bring folks together and help everyone relax.

A little funding helps, too. Even small investments can create a nice show of goodwill. If you’re paying for a celebration, even in part, then employees are more likely to turn up, rather than ditching work festivities for personal plans.

But there’s a big difference between paying and running the show. If possible, let employees shape the celebrations for themselves. This might mean letting your team pick where to eat or improvising a social committee to plan an office party. Whatever you do, make sure any year-end celebration is inclusive, and that your employees are in control. The more it’s to their tastes, the more they'll engage with it, decompress, and have fun. All of which adds up to better engagement with the business and their work once the party’s over.

Be Flexible About Time

The holidays can put a lot of pressure on people, especially on their time. They’re shopping for gifts, attending their kids' school functions, making travel arrangements, and trying to attend a host of social functions—all while working. So try to avoid adding to that pressure.

Wherever possible, try to be a little more flexible than usual about time. Shuffle schedules around so people can let off some steam when they need to and take care of the responsibilities in their personal lives that tend to pile up during the season.

If you offer flex-time, now's the chance to let employees use it, and simply make up any additional time off in the New Year, once things settle down. They’ll feel less stressed, better engaged, and more positive about work—not to mention their lives outside it.

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