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Sunny days are here again: How to keep your staff engaged during the summer months

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After a long, hard winter in most parts of Canada, many people are counting the days until they are able to get away to the lake, the ocean or even just the balcony to savour the season. But the fact that most of us have to come to work for a large part of the summer doesn’t mean that our summer experience has to be squeezed into evenings and holidays. Summer can be a great time for workplaces to change their pace and enjoy the joys of the season — while still getting work done.

Nonprofits can lead the way

The nonprofit sector has long been progressive and creative about offering rewards beyond financial compensation. For many nonprofits — with the exception of service providers and nonprofits that offer specific summer programs — summer can provide a real opportunity to give back to their staff.

“It’s important to really acknowledge the uniqueness of the summer season,” says Denise Lloyd, CEO of Engaged HR. “After a long year, staff are often tired. And when September and October come, it will be crunch time again. There’s no point in just forcing them to sit at their desks all summer and do hard work in an unhappy way — it’s counter to what you’re trying to achieve. Instead, as part of a wellness strategy, we need to find ways to bring the joy of summer into our organizations.”

Nancy Ingram, president of Foot in the Door Consulting agrees. “This is the rest season. We ask staff to go above and beyond throughout the year but summer can be a chance for a rest.” She adds that recognizing this need is “immensely respectful” and notes that the long hours people work over the course of the year can easily balance out any summer lull.

Begin with the end in mind

At the same time, as Gayle Hadfield, principal of Hadfield HR, says, you can’t let performance management slide just because it’s summer. A key to successfully shifting gears into summer mode is, as Lloyd says, “to be really clear on what results you want to achieve by the end of summer.” Ingram strongly encourages nonprofits to adopt an outcome-based approach to goal setting, especially in the summer, so that staff know their responsibilities and tasks.

An outcome-based approach begins with strategic thinking and negotiation about what the organization’s goals and benchmarks are. Ingram advises nonprofits to plan strategic retreat meetings in the spring where together staff can examine deliverables, workloads, holiday schedules, resources needed, etc. Hadfield agrees, encouraging managers to have check-in discussions with each employee before the vacation period starts, to discuss where projects are at and what they foresee as challenges.

Once staff understand the big picture, Lloyd says, “If someone has the equivalent of a rainy day, they know what they need to achieve. But when and how they do it is less controlled.” This is where seasonal perks like flex time, compressed work weeks, shorter days and revised work schedules can come into play. The nature of the work of some organizations makes this impossible, but for many others, flexibility can feasibly be built into the work week. Lloyd suggests that an organization might plan a rotating schedule where one team leaves Friday at noon one week, and another team leaves early the following week. She further points out that flexibility doesn’t have to require a formalized office closure, but could involve empowering staff to flex their own hours so they can be part of activities outside of work that matter to them, such as children’s track meets or public concerts. She says that offering flexibility to staff is “an acknowledgement that throughout the year, you come to work in the dark and leave in the dark, so when we can, we’ll encourage you to enjoy some extra light.”

Research shows that employees who have choices about how, where and when they work are more productive and engaged, as well as healthier and less stressed.

Acknowledge and embrace distractions

Even the happiest and most engaged employee may struggle to be at work on a perfect summer day. University of Waterloo labour economics professor Mikal Skuterud determined that the weather most likely to encourage absenteeism — what Skuterud calls “the bliss point” — is a clear day with a humidex of 27.2 C and a 14.7 km/hr windspeed. 

While it isn’t reasonable or responsible for organizations to allow seasons and weather to determine whether staff work or not, it is useful to acknowledge and respond to what are very real distractions. As Hadfield says, “People work year-round in other parts of the world where it is always hot so it can be done, but it is important to set up a comfortable working environment.” This can involve encouraging staff to take an extra fifteen minutes at lunch to enjoy being outside on a beautiful day or altering dress codes in sweltering weather.

According to Lloyd, it’s important to be aware of working conditions and to find ways to make the environment more conducive to work — whether that is encouraging someone with a west-facing office to come in early and leave early, bringing in popsicles if the air conditioning breaks or giving staff a day to work from home when the humidex reaches 45 degrees.

Of course there are other summer distractions as well — discussions of holidays or weekend plans, for instance. Consider inviting staff to post photos on an actual or virtual bulletin board or even to write about their summer on your organization’s blog, as appropriate. This can give a good outlet for such conversation, encourage work-life balance and help people interact on a personal level, making it easier to work together.

Get outside

Sometimes, it’s about completely embracing a bliss point day and finding ways to work outside. Many of Ingram’s clients have embraced the strong link between productivity and nature by adopting walking meetings. She notes that this approach has helped one nonprofit immensely with retention, productivity and lack of illness.

The Perimeter Institute, a theoretical physics research centre, is located next to a large city park. “With sitting being the new smoking, we encourage leaders to have their teams go for walking meetings where possible. You tend to think differently when you’re walking,” says Patricia Butler, culture and development advisor, Perimeter Institute. The organization also encourages physical activity through a month-long summer wellness challenge where staff teams record the kilometres they walk, run, bike or swim. Butler says this creates good communication between people who wouldn’t normally work together, and also offers positive peer pressure with team members encouraging one another to be active together. “We don’t have a lot of money to put into such programs,” says Christina Bouda, Perimeter’s Recruitment and Benefits Specialist. ”But this is very simple and has no cost.”

Refugee housing organization Welcome Home also gets its staff outdoors in the summer even though they work in the middle of a city. “We have held staff meetings on the patio of a nearby farmer’s market,” says Sharon Schmidt, director. “We held a one-day meeting at a cottage on a lake. Staff have one-on-one meetings in front of an outdoor fountain or while walking on a trail. It contributes to a sense of well-being and felt like a reward. It also led to more creativity.”


Holidays allow staff return to work more refreshed, creative and engaged. With summer being prime vacation time, it’s important to schedule vacations early, fairly and transparently. There are many ways to approach this but the key is to have a clear and fair policy that everyone knows about. It’s also vital to develop policy around work attendance so an organization is prepared in the case of increased summer absenteeism.

Different organizations have different policies around people who resist taking holidays, but at the end of the day, these policies need to be clear to your staff. Hadfield says, “If someone doesn’t want to take time off and isn’t stressed, we can still support them in their wellness.” This can mean helping them think about what they could do with their time off or suggesting an employee take some long weekends if they are banking holidays for a future vacation.

Often a true holiday break is disrupted by technology and by staff staying connected while on holidays. How to deal with this depends on the nature or sensitivity of your work and often the employee’s role, says Ingram, who acknowledges that sometimes a staff member needs to continue to monitor a situation while on holidays. Much of the time, however, Lloyd says a business continuity plan can help anticipate crises so that, even in the absence of key staff, everyone knows who is responsible for what. This is another factor in planning ahead so that work can function as usual even in the absence of staff. Hadfield also points out that arrangements can also be made whereby an ED calls in weekly while on holidays or where staff agree to contact an ED in the event of a true emergency.

Have more fun

“Too often we forget the fun feeling of summertime,” says Hadfield. “People remember fun things and this connects with employee engagement and job satisfaction, how much discretionary effort they will apply and how much they will commit to your organization.”

Here are some tried-and-true ideas (many of which are free or low cost) for having more fun in the summer with your staff:

  • Invite each team to host a weekly Joy of Summer activity for other staff — bringing in blenders to make fruit smoothies, for instance.
  • Host a good old-fashioned company picnic for employees and their families. (Hadfield says that unlike December holiday activities which come with a sense of obligation, a summer event with games and prizes, is a relationship-building fun time for all.) Care BC says, “We always plan a little summer potluck at the beach to thank staff for all their hard work.”
  • Join up with other nonprofits for recreational activities.
  • Offer Fishbowl Fridays. Draw a name each Friday to see who gets let out early that day. 
  • Ask employees for their ideas and ask what would make summer fun for them.
  • Plan events – such as golfing or hiking together - so employees can be home in the evenings.
  • Perimeter Institute holds weekly socials for the last hour of the work week to celebrate milestones and to enjoy being together.

Keeping productivity up

Even though the sun might be shining, it's true that work still needs to get done. Unfortunately, studies have shown that during the summer, productivity drops by a full 20 percent — despite strategies to encourage flexibility and work-life balance.

It’s important to pay attention to the effectiveness of summer innovations. One study found that “summer Fridays” actually increased stress among staff but that allowing telecommuting offered better productivity and reduced stress.

Some reduction in productivity might be a question of expectations. Lloyd says many managers forget that “people are often covering for those on holidays — dealing with both their job and someone else’s. It’s important not to load people up with too much work when they are covering for others.” Hadfield recommends determining what is critical and what can be left until the vacationing co-worker returns.

Summer can offer a chance for organizations to catch up and plan ahead. BYTE Yukon says that in addition to their summer programming, the summer is a good season to “catch up with all our admin.” Schmidt says summer is a “time to plan for the coming year and work on administrative assignments, like strategic plans, grant proposals and reports.” Ingram tells of an organization with little time for administrative tasks, like filing, or for big picture planning. On a monthly basis, they hold mandatory “serenity days” where all staff (including the executive director) use that day to do these important tasks instead of daily work. Initially, the serenity days were optional, but those who participated struggled with feeling guilty so the organization made it a mandatory policy, regardless of what else was happening.

With careful scheduling, summer can be an ideal time for training and development, and can also be an opportunity for staff to take on a stretch project or assignment. Staff who are particularly productive in the summer should be recognized for their accomplishments, without giving a message that the organization doesn’t respect the need for holidays. Hiring a student for the summer can be a way of making sure an organization is able to get work done throughout the summer, while giving young people meaningful learning and work experiences, says Schmidt.

“Anything you do for employees has to benefit your organization in some way,” says Hadfield. “Executive directors often worry that things will slip if employees have too much fun, but in the bigger picture, we need to think about what will be extrinsically motivating. People like working in the nonprofit sector because of shared values and passion, but even low- or no-cost summer activities can help an employee feel that your organization values their wellness, helping them be engaged and wanting to keep working with you.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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