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Some Canadian companies are getting creative with their holiday parties this year due to COVID-19 restrictions.AleksandarNakic/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Forced to forgo their traditional holiday galas because of pandemic restrictions, some Canadian organizations have found other ways to reward the fortitude of employees this year.

Ottawa-based Modern Niagara Group, a national firm of electrical and mechanical contractors, is treating its staff to ordered-in restaurant meals and a live online concert by Blue Rodeo. Toronto human resources firm Bright + Early, which normally celebrates the holiday with dinner out for its 10-member team, is staging something completely different this year: a virtual bingo party with drag queens.

M&M Food Market is delivering gifts to the homes of corporate employees across the country and donating money it would otherwise have spent on holiday parties to Boys & Girls Clubs in their communities. Employees will all log in and open their presents at the same time on Dec. 17, and be formally recognized by chief executive officer Andy O’Brien for the extraordinary efforts they have made to keep M&M stores safe throughout the COVID-19 crisis, said Pegi Klein-Webber, M&M’s vice-president of people and training.

In Hamilton, ArcelorMittal Dofasco made “the very difficult decision” to cancel its annual family Christmas party – a storied tradition since 1937. However, Dofasco is distributing the 2020 edition of its collectible nutcracker to all employees and retirees – a custom that started 25 years ago – and has “other surprises up its sleeve” for employees as well, a spokesperson said.

Bright + Early’s bingo party will feature music, comedy and “have absolutely nothing to do with work” – important considerations when so many remote office workers are suffering from Zoom-meeting fatigue, said company founder Nora Jenkins Townson.

“Appreciation is the name of the game,” Ms. Jenkins Townson said in an interview. “I want my team to feel really proud that we came through a challenging year, and that we are even stronger as a team having come through tough times.”

At Modern Niagara, chief operating officer Chris Hill said that, until an effective vaccine is ready and widely available in Canada, companies cannot afford to relax their vigilance, but he sees signs of pandemic fatigue setting in. “People are longing for the end of this.”

Mr. Hill feels, as Mr. O’Brien at M&M does, that his company has been able to continue work on essential infrastructure projects – including the new Calgary Cancer Centre and expansion of Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital – because of the professionalism of employees and their strict adherence to safety protocols.

While the company’s holiday tradition of dining and dancing is out of the question this year, “we wanted to do something special and unique” that everyone in the company will look forward to, he said. On Dec. 12, from their living rooms in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa, Modern Niagara families will settle in for their own private Blue Rodeo concert. The band has agreed to a question-and-answer session after the concert.

“The response from employees has been fantastic” and excitement is building, including in Mr. Hill’s Ottawa household. “I have three girls, they are all quite musical and they’re all big Blue Rodeo fans. They’ve started practising one of their favourite songs, Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” he said in an interview.

For organizations in the position to play host to parties this year – and many are not – the events should be virtual and well thought-out, Ms. Jenkins Townson at Bright + Early said.

(Or, as U.S. business author Gwen Moran wrote, in a recent Fast Company article headlined How to Plan a Virtual Holiday Office Party that Doesn’t Suck, “the thought of throwing yet another Zoom meeting with everyone dressed in ugly sweaters and holding cocktails is downright depressing.”)

While Bright + Early’s virtual drag queen bingo party will be fun for her group, “it might not be for everyone,” Ms. Jenkins Townson said. “But there are a lot of opportunities out there to be creative.”

A company that cannot spring for an online event might still co-ordinate something like a Secret Santa gift exchange between employees, for instance. It’s been a tough year for everybody, she said, and it’s important for employers to recognize the pressure employees are under. Even a handwritten letter of thanks from a manager can make an employee feel valued.

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