Adjusting our lives to keep each other safe during the COVID-19 pandemic requires sacrifices. Some are small, such as wearing a mask and keeping two metres apart from each other. Others are a bit tougher to take – smaller Thanksgiving gatherings and rescheduled weddings, to name a few.

In the middle of all these sacrifices is the company holiday party. Yes, that one special time of year where you wear a suit or a dress, or maybe just a T-shirt without a logo on it. But 2020 has taken that away, too.

Thankfully, there are some options out there that you can use to connect and celebrate with your team – while staying apart and keeping each other safe.

Recognizing your team

Some great startup ideas often have their beginnings inside existing companies. Vidyard came out of a video production company. Slack started as a messaging tool for an online gaming company. Chocolate Soup, an employee recognition startup here in Waterloo Region, has its roots inside the multiple startups created by entrepreneurs Dan Silivestru and P.J. Lowe. “This is P.J.’s brainchild,” said Silivestru. “Chocolate Soup is essentially what P.J. has always done for our own employees, making sure that we recognize them for those events that we know are important to them.”

Silivestru and Lowe saw a gap within companies trying to solve culture and employee engagement through software. “In our opinion, it is the least personal way of doing it,” said Silivestru. “We wanted to introduce a way for companies to be able to recognize their employees the way that we have, without all the heavy lifting.”


Chocolate Soup’s holiday-themed box in their

Waterloo facility.

Chocolate Soup curates unique, customized gift boxes for employee recognition through a subscription service. The boxes aren’t just for corporate milestones such as work anniversaries, but for almost anything you can think of that’s important in your company culture. This includes birthdays, wedding anniversaries or any other personal milestones. “We've always gone out of our way to make sure we recognize them for those events. And then we saw the tremendous impact both to our culture and loyalty, and it really helped build a sense of family within our organization.”

Silivestru said a secondary benefit to employee recognition boxes is in attracting talent. “Folks tend to post about what they get online and when their friends and their folks within their network see that, your place of employment becomes even more appealing.”

One of the core values for the Chocolate Soup team is supporting local. They work to source gift box items from small businesses between Windsor and Ottawa. “The really cool part is that now that we're into much larger volumes with some of these smaller makers, when we place an order with them, oftentimes now it's going to be larger than what they would normally be making in a month.”

In addition to the subscription service, Chocolate Soup also offers employee care packages and holiday gift boxes – both great replacements for your holiday party this year. “With COVID showing up and everyone moving to a remote-first or digital-first strategy, we've introduced care packages to help companies recognize all of their employees all at once, either as a thank you for the hard work during these tough times or as a thank you for doing a great job.”

Art for you and a good cause

We wrote about Artshine back in January. Their core mission is to make arts education accessible to everyone, regardless of their financial situation. They had just launched their Artshine in a Box subscription service and then in March, their in-school program had to pause due to school closures.


An Artshine in Box kit.

With schools reopening with enhanced safety procedures, Artshine has moved to a virtual program for schools. “Things have been so crazy,” said Paul Field, the founder and CEO of Artshine. “I wasn't sure if they would, because what parents want to pay for something while their kids are sitting there? But parents are loving it, and they can cook dinner while their kids are engaged with our artists.”

Artshine has seen a pick-up in interest in the virtual programs beyond Waterloo Region. “Because we can ship this anywhere, we've got individuals and companies from Calgary, from Halifax, Toronto and the GTA region companies as well,” Field said. “Previously we really focused on just locally or wherever we had instructors.”

In addition to after-school virtual programs, Artshine is also offering virtual team building events for companies. Due to group size restrictions, Artshine sends individual kits out to participants at home. The kit includes supplies for an art project that you do at home following along with an instructor. There’s also an optional add-on for a communal piece that ends up going back to your office. “It’s a mural feature. Each person gets their own pre-drawn canvas with a logo or something from the company, like a mantra, and they work on it together.”

Get outside together, two metres apart

Connecting with your team while working from home can be a challenge. Video calls can’t replace the energy you get from talking face-to-face. But with physical distancing being a necessity, for the time being, Stroll Walking Tours is a great option to not only connect with your team, but to connect with the history of our community.

“The more closely we're connected to the things that affect our daily lives, like our neighbourhoods, the more connected and engaged our daily lives are,” said Juanita Metzger, owner and operator of Stroll Walking Tours. “That is an essential element that we need for well-being – to be connected to the place that we live and the people who live near us.”


On the 1918 pandemic tour with Todd Bowman

and Junita Metzger.

A longtime promoter of hyperlocal tourism, Metzger has contributed a column to The Community Edition and has also been a Jane’s Walk leader and organizer. Metzger said she prefers slow travel – spending a long time in a single place and connecting with that community. “What makes it tick? What are the businesses? And what are the events? And what is the art community like? I find those are the things that really give you a sense of what a place is all about.”

Those passions drove Metzger to launch Stroll Walking Tours earlier this year, although with a different customer market in mind. “There was a gap in our region that nobody else was doing walking tours. Originally, I was planning to focus on conferences and multi-day events, like True North Waterloo.”

With the pause on large events and conferences, Metzger pivoted to focus on local Waterloo Region residents and engage people in hyperlocal travel. “These are opportunities to explore our own communities through stories and by visiting neighbourhoods and areas of the cities that people might not be familiar with,” added Metzger.

The tours aim to help people to explore their city and feel like they're having a travel experience. Each tour is designed by its guide, giving personal insights into the neighbourhood and the history being explored. “I think the most important ingredient,” Metzger said, “is that the guides live in the neighbourhoods where they walk and talk and that the walk is researched and designed by them.”

At the end of September, I went on the Pandemic! Kitchener and the 1918 Spanish Flu tour with a local tech company. I had no understanding of what the 1918 pandemic was at all and no idea how it affected the residents of Berlin at the time. The tour, led by Kitchener high school history teacher Todd Bowman, took us from the train station on Victoria Street down to the current Google office and back to learn about the impacts of the pandemic. “You get a narrative of a city's experience, something that you might read in a history book, but it doesn't have the same impact or effect as when you're walking the streets and walking by somebody's house that is connected to the story that's being told,” said Metzger.

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While we’re waiting for you to get off mute, I see and hear that...Good Co. Productions has a live broadcast of Jared & the Mill with local favourites I, the Mountain on Oct. 22 at 8:30 p.m. ToastyToes Waterloo Region is kicking off #ToastyToes2020 – and this year, it’s all digital. Instead of socks, they’re collecting funds for the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation. The Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region has a virtual Halloween Fun Run on Oct. 24. Sign up, collect pledges and walk, run or roll five kilometres in support of survivors of sexual violence.