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Employees find merry alternatives to Yule party

Email|Print| Text size + By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / December 5, 2007

Fallon Community Health Plan's 670 employees didn't receive gold-sealed invitations this year heralding a company holiday dinner and dance at the nearby Holiday Inn. In fact, for the first time in many years, they didn't get any invitation at all.

Instead, workers found a prerecorded voicemail message from chief executive Eric Schultz giving them a day off. Over the past five years, fewer than half of the Worcester-based company's workers have shown up to the party, so in lieu of the semiformal affair, Schultz said, workers are getting the day before Christmas off.

"People's lives are so busy," said Teena Osgood, Fallon's chief human resources officer. "If you can give people back their own time, then that's a very valued benefit."

Gone are the days of the mandatory corporate Christmas party in December. For years, employers facing tighter budgets have cut back on elaborate holiday parties. And now, employers, recognizing the demands of dual-career families and the busy lives of their workers, are remaking the tradition altogether - throwing parties during the workday rather than on a weekend as is common at some companies, hosting parties in an executive's home instead of at a restaurant, or postponing them until January or February when it's less expensive to rent restaurants and other venues. And that's if the parties are held at all.

The lavish December party is fading in the interest of stretching budgets further, avoiding the headaches and expense of trying to book a place during the hectic holiday season, and offering employees a more enjoyable experience. According to a national survey of 100 human resources executives by Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based consultancy, three of five companies say they're spending the same or less on holiday parties this year than in the past. Additionally, twice as many companies as in 2006 are not allowing employees to bring guests, 80 percent more are holding parties at the office, 60 percent more are scheduling them during the workday, and 35 percent more are axing alcohol.

The changes are as much about employee perception as they are about the bottom line.

"Companies are more sensitive to not sending the wrong message, so people won't say, 'I wish I had the money the company spent on this,' " said Joseph Weintraub, a management professor at Babson College in Wellesley. They're also more sensitive to employees' emphasis on work-life balance.

That's why Lionbridge Technologies Inc., a Waltham technology outsourcing service, is organizing a potluck lunch on-site for the headquarters' 85 employees tomorrow. Last year, it treated workers to a workday lunch at The Chateau Italian restaurant in Waltham.

Some executives are inviting employees to their own homes, creating intimacy while cutting costs. Karl Leabo, a partner at Concord Architects in West Concord, is inviting his business partner, their 10 architects, and their spouses to a catered dinner at his antique farmhouse in Belmont on Friday.

"It offers their team a warmer welcome if we celebrate in our homes," said Gale Pryor, Leabo's wife and the chief planner of the tropical-themed Christmas soiree. "The first time, the party was in a Chinese restaurant. The food was wonderful, but we were at these two huge tables and it was difficult to mingle."

Something Savory Catering will serve Caribbean food at Leabo and Pryor's party and at about 15 others that also are booked in executives' homes this month. Jodi Auerbach, owner of the Arlington Heights-based firm, says it's because "people can spend a little bit more money on their food and their beverage if they're not spending $2,500 on a mansion or hotel space."

Other companies are delaying their bashes. Microsoft Corp. is inviting the 550 employees and their significant others from its Cambridge, Waltham, and Beverly offices to the celebrate the holidays Jan. 19 at the year-old, ritzy InterContinental Boston Hotel on the waterfront. The software giant was able to score great deals. For instance, the musicians Microsoft booked would have charged $10,000 to play in December but lowered the price tag to $7,500 for January.

Microsoft has for the past few years held its party in January to boost employee turnout and host fancier affairs. "By doing it after the holidays, we're definitely able to stay within our budget," said Ted MacLean, Microsoft's general manager for the Northeast.

A late-January or early-February holiday gala for Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge LLP works better because in December, lawyers and staff at the law firm's Boston office are scrambling to close deals for clients. "Everyone can relax a little bit and take a deep breath and have a good time," said Gerald Hendrick, the Boston office's partner in charge.

The end of the year is also frantic for Fallon, which is fielding questions about healthcare enrollment and processing forms. The company said closing for a day will cost "significantly more" than the $30,000 to $35,000 it spent on the yearly holiday party, but an extra day off is a perk all employees can enjoy, not just partygoers. The company will have a skeleton staff answering phones on Dec. 24.

Michelle Jansson, an administrative assistant at Fallon, said she enjoyed last year's holiday party. But with a 2-year-old daughter at home and a Christmas feast for seven to host, the 36-year-old is thankful for the extra time to wrap presents, bake a pumpkin pie, and clean the house.

"I think this is really a nicer option," she said.

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com.

Party time

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