What’s the Hot Holiday Gift for Employees in 2021? Autonomy.

Leanne Buehler, Ph.D., Principal Science and Innovation AdvisorCulture, Employee Engagement, Future of WorkLeave a Comment

It’s not new news that employees are burnt out at work. The covid pandemic and ongoing economic uncertainty are contributing to high levels of employee stress. Termed the Great Resignation, employees are leaving the workforce in record numbers, especially women. Why? The pandemic has led to a reevaluation of priorities, new demands for flexibility, and calls for better working conditions.

And now…bring on the holidays! The busyness and financial pressures of the holiday season often add to increased stress levels (which also tend to be higher in women). However, for organizations that are committed to creating a great employee experience, the holidays may be an opportunity to build loyalty and help employees feel appreciated.

Newmeasures’ work with clients in 2021 indicates that employee engagement is trending down, driven especially by a reduction of intentions to stay and feeling valued. Employees are seeking more flexibility, acknowledgement of their efforts, and connection through their work experience. Here are two ways organizations can address these top employee concerns while also bringing a little holiday cheer.

1. Give the gift of appreciation and connection. Strong relationships at work are a key ingredient of employee well-being (Taylor, 2011). Managers can use the holidays as an opportunity to make space for sharing and storytelling at work. Consider hosting a team meeting to ask people to share personal experiences using one of the following conversation prompts:

  • Share a favorite holiday memory or tradition
  • Share something you are looking forward to this holiday season
  • Share one thing you appreciate about or have learned from another team member

Within the Newmeasures team, we have spent time sharing our favorite holiday traditions and memories. As a leader, it helped me better understand what is most important to my team so I could support them in their priorities. As a human, it opened up connection, laughter and gave each of us a glimpse into each other’s lives. Creating space for such conversations is simple, yet pays off in dividends.

2. Look for opportunities to offer autonomy. A key ingredient to building an engaged workforce is autonomy. When employees feel a sense of ownership and agency to determine how their work gets done, they are motivated to perform and give their full effort (Deci, Olafsen, & Ryan, 2017). This classic driver of engagement, plus the new realities from the covid pandemic, make looking for opportunities to offer ownership and choice a smart approach to letting employees know they are valued and appreciated. Look for ways the holidays present unique opportunities for employees to have control over when and how they work, in ways that are meaningful to them.

For example, a one-size-fits all approach does not work when it comes to things such as holiday celebrations or time off. People have different religious and spiritual beliefs, family structures, and traditions, which means the “typical” holiday calendar only works for some. Here are a few opportunities to give employees more agency:

Holiday Celebrations

Encourage employees to decorate their own space for the holidays so they can represent the things that are important to them. Alternatively, create a holiday decorating committee that accounts for diverse backgrounds and traditions. Or, for those working virtually, invite employees to set up their own unique virtual meeting background that represents something festive to them.

Time & Schedule

Consider the following to give employees flexibility and autonomy over when and how they work during the holiday season.

  • Discuss schedule needs as a team: One employee may value taking off New Year’s Day, while another puts priority on Christmas Eve.  Set clear expectations for the work coverage that is needed and craft schedules based on employee priorities as much as possible.
  • Floating holidays: Allow employees to choose when they take their time off rather than stick to a strict holiday schedule.
  • Flexible hours: Giving employees control over when they work could allow them to participate in personal events that are meaningful to them. When they do show up to work, they will be more focused and present.
  • Flexible location: Allow employees to decide where they can work – from the office, from home, or another remote location, all may appeal to different people for different reasons. Set clear expectations for performance and let employees decide how work gets done from there. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Reisinger and Fetterer recommend establishing principles instead of policies to give employees more autonomy.
  • No meeting days: Consider times during holiday weeks where there is agreement that there will be no meetings, so employees can make solid progress on work without interruption and be ready to take time off with work in a good place.

While the ideas suggested above are useful for all employees, they may be especially helpful in building loyalty and commitment among women. Given that women often shoulder a large portion of preparations during the holidays, increased autonomy and flexibility may be critically important for this segment of the workforce which is already feeling extra pressure from the pandemic.

As an extra bonus, trying out some of the above ideas during the holidays could serve as a “pilot” to allow leaders to evaluate if any of these approaches might be practical over the long-term. As employees demand more flexibility, the holidays can be a good opportunity to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  With the current labor shortage, organizations that figure out innovative ways to offer flexibility will have a leg up in attracting talent.

We’d love to hear your ideas…how has your organization offered more autonomy to employees recently?


Deci, E. L., Olafsen, A. H., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). Self-determination theory in work organizations: The state of a science. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19-43.

Taylor, S. E. (2011). Social support: A review. In H. S. Friedman (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of health psychology (pp. 189–214). Oxford University Press.

Leanne has helped organizations and executive teams develop employee listening strategies for the last 20 years. She is passionate about cultivating deep human connections and unlocking each employee's potential. 

Leanne Buehler, Ph.D. Principal Science and Innovation Advisor