As you approach the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, many a manager doesn't think at all about the potential cluster fuck of the winter holidays to come.
The largest percentage of religious belief in the US is Christian, so Christmas and all it's trappings bombard everyone (Christian, Atheist, Jewish, etc.), usually starting after Halloween, but seriously moving into overdrive after Thanksgiving.
This leads to:
1) Folks who do not buy into the holiday or do not observe it being in a different head space than others
2) Statistically higher levels of depression this time of year (regardless of belief, both because of the expected "family" behaviors and the fact that its pretty dark all the time
3) An otherwise dependable work force disappearing to the four winds at random times, often all at the same time.
4) Issues around holiday parties, gift exchanges, decoration, etc. in the work place
5) Workflow issues--trying to find work for folks who remain behind while 2/3rds of the rest of the company is on vacation...you know, the 2/3rds that contains the folks that the remaining folks need to talk to in order to do their work?
My recommendations for addressing these issues are as follows:
--Have a thirty minute or less group meeting in a room that you have reserved for an hour. In this meeting, get promises of time off reports in to you by end of day, end of the week, whatever. Bring up gently that not everyone celebrates the holidays the same way, and ask people to be kind to each other this time of year about their religious or non-religious views. Ask the team to send you suggestions of how you can all celebrate something together, as a team, that has no specific religious affiliations but is fun and bonding and, most importantly, involves being paid to do something fun while on the clock. Take questions from the crowd. Finally, let folks know you'll be here for the rest of the hour if they wish to discuss anything or have any questions they don't feel comfortable raising in the group.
--Get people to commit to the time they will be out (or are likely to be out) by the first week of December, if possible.
--Post who will be out and when on a public calendar--if this means a white board in the area where your team works or the calendar function in Sharepoint (or any other option), have it publicly available where everyone will be. This will help a lot in letting people answer their own questions about when and where their co-workers are.
--After the meeting, drift around and talk to members of the team about a winter celebration. In one-on-ones, get the ideas of what they really don't want to see in such a celebration, as well as what they do. Also fish around for dates that the most number of your team will be present.
--Talk to the folks leaving during the time frame and establish deliverables to be handed off to team members who are remaining. Work with the project manager (or any other group dependent on your team), letting them know about the deliverables, where they are going, when they are going, and the overall vacation time for your staff. For those who remain, make sure that even if they don't get the deliverables they are promised, that they have a backlog of tasks on which they can work, either with other folks remaining and/or on their own. If you, too, are leaving for the holidays, make sure that you have someone "in charge" while you're gone to help make decisions...such as when to call you at home for help. Leave your contact information with the team, as well, when you're out.
--Encourage your team to decorate their space; I like to pick up a bunch of stuff from the dollar store that is basically snow, snow man, moon, stars, santas, icicles, etc. related. Non-denominational stuff. No angels, no crosses, and stars that are clearly non-denominational. If people are okay with it, I'll get each one an ornament as a present and bring in a tree, then we'll take an hour meeting and decorate it with each of their ornaments plus whatever else I've got.
One year, when working on projects for a company that produced Dungeons and Dragons, I got all fairy, dragons, knights, magic users, etc., with which to decorate the tree.
If they aren't okay with a tree (or your company is not), feel free to get fake garlands from the craft store and let folks use them in their cubes and hang whatever you've brought in their cubes with their ornaments. Holiday lights are ALWAYS popular with teams (though not always with facilities--so check before you get them).
Wreaths are also pretty easy to make and non-denominational--purchase a fake fir wreath from the craft store, wrap ribbon around it with a bow, and tie on small ornaments that reflect your team or company. Hang on cube wall or office door.
--After getting input about what they'd like to do as a team, do it. If that's going to lunch as a team, do that. If it's secret Santa, arrange that. I have had the most success with White Elephant parties, provided that the rules of the gifts are very specific: must be under $10, must not be anything that HR would put in your permanent file about, no explosives, etc. As the presents come in, stack them--if you have a tree, put them under the tree. Anticipation of the event is as much fun for some as the event itself.
You are the manager, so manage the event when it happens; that may mean making reservations at a suitable restaurant for all the food requirements of your team. That may mean enforcing the rules of a White Elephant gift exchange. That might mean booking a room for a gift exchange (secret Santa or otherwise). It also means bringing extra presents in case some folks forget, or in case someone's secret Santa is unclear on the concept--the "bad" gift can be whisked away and a new one left in its place (An excellent cook in the group getting "Cooking for Dummies" as a joke might not think it's funny, and that could cause serious problems for group cohesion as well as his/her personal happiness).
--Accept that total hours worked over winter holidays are never exactly what they should be. If these are people you trust and believe in year round, let things go. This is not to say that you should allow them to make a habit of only doing a six hour work day, but if there are the occasional six hour days, or days working from home where less work than you expected got done, don't fret it. Holidays take a lot of personal time for you and for your team. Be flexible. Just don't get run over.
--Enjoy the emptiness of the office. I love to work during the holiday times that most people take off because I get so much done. It's so quiet, and it's an opportunity to take folks to lunch you might not otherwise get one-on-one time with.
--Get a little something for the team; above I mentioned a little ornament for each, though you can suggest they each bring in an ornament from home. In previous years I've given $5 coffee cards or, in one place where I worked, where chairs were were stolen frequently and not returned, I made a set of "chair charms" so people could always get their chairs back. It's not the amount of the gift, it's the thought of it; thinking about people in a positive way when they're not around lifts spirits and creates and strengthens bonds with your team. Even if you're just giving out holiday cards, it works wonders. This time of year is a great time to build and grow these relationships that will make you all more productive and happier as the next year progresses.
So that sums up my holiday suggestions. I hope you all have a lovely Winter holiday and an awesome New Year!