Dec 21, 2020 6 min read

The Gift that Keeps on Giving: Highland's People First Culture

In true Highland form, we opted out of exchanging gifts and decided to celebrate the holidays by being together

  • Culture
Katie-Sue Fisher

Katie-Sue Fisher
Business Solutions Operations & Finance Manager

It’s that time of year again: the office holiday party. 

Highlanders work hard, but they also know how to have a good time. Although 2020 is a little different, we certainly weren’t going to let a global pandemic get in the way of celebrating the holiday season. And Highland turns 21 (!) this year, so we have even more of a reason to party.

Carlton from the 90s Sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, doing his signature dance 'The Carlton,' in front of a wall of stockings

This year we’ll celebrate the holidays like a lot of people: virtually. 

When tasked with the challenge of how to make a virtual holiday party fun, our Party Planning Committee brainstormed a few ideas: 

  • A mailed gift exchange,

  • A round of virtual trivia, or 

  • A virtual cooking class.

We put it to a poll (shout out to the /polly feature in Slack) and while the responses for the two activities were tied, one thing was for sure: Highlanders weren’t interested in a gift exchange.

Gif from NBC's comedy The Office, showing Phyllis, Angela,  and Pam sitting in the conference room, with Meredith peering in.

To be honest, this response isn’t all that surprising. In the past, Highland has always done some sort of group event. In previous years there have been cooking classes at Chopping Block, talent shows, murder-mystery theater, even ax-throwing on Valentine’s Day. 

Highlanders standing around a long table wearing aprons, preparing to cook at a past holiday party at Chopping Block

We knew how we didn’t want to celebrate

COVID-19 and Consumerism

It’s easy to get things for a gift exchange; my household is definitely on the Amazon frequent-flyer list. But as one Highlander, Michael, put it: “I don’t need more ‘stuff’ in my life.” Curtis 🐐 also posed a distaste for gift exchanges from a consumerism perspective: “Gift exchanges nearly always contribute to rampant consumerism and creates a lot of waste, which is bad for the environment.”

This year especially, it felt wrong to pick presents over experiences that could bring us together. Online shopping has increased dramatically during the pandemic: a recent survey by Selligent, a marketing firm, found that 40% of people’s weekly purchases are made online, up from 30% prior to the pandemic. And it makes sense: shopping from the comfort of your own couch not only helps to avoid the risk of exposure that comes with going into stores, but it has also evolved into another form of entertainment in an otherwise gloomy quarantine.

“I think overall, people are just plain bored,” says Sylvie Tongco, VP of Communications and Corporate Marketing at Selligent. Whether it’s batteries, pet food, a new yoga mat, or a video game, who doesn’t love a package showing up at your door?

And buying online makes it easier to spend more, too. Unless you’re using Amazon Prime, more often than not you’ll be paying for shipping. Or you’ll be spending more to try and score that free shipping deal. How many of us have fallen victim to spending an extra $20 to save a measly $6 in shipping? Or purchased something we really didn’t need because the bargain was too good to pass up? I get at least 20 emails a day from different retailers hawking insane discounts and holiday deals. And the fact that I can shop without having to put pants on, makes it even more tempting to click through that email and load up my shopping cart. 

Gif from the animated South Park showing Randy Marsh on the ground looking at stickers

The problem with material things, though, is that the feelings of happiness they bring about are fleeting. The thrill is over quickly—and suddenly you’re ready to buy the next thing. 

Research shows that experiences result in longer-lasting positive feelings than material items. Dr. Thomase Gilovich, a psychology professor out of Cornell University, has been studying the connection between money and happiness for more than 20 years:

Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.

There’s something about swapping presents…it just didn’t seem to capture that hankering we had to be in the same place as our team. So, we decided to seek out a celebration that suited us — one that dodged pointless presents and centered around what mattered to Highlanders: being together.

Prioritizing Experiences that Matter

Working with mission-driven organizations

Highland describes itself as a digital experience agency with a goal to help mission-driven organizations create digital products and experiences that improve people’s lives.

We’ve worked with Children’s Wisconsin to map the experience of families visiting the ER, helping them to understand a journey often rife with opportunities for anxiety and confusion. In turn, they were able to improve the hospital experience for children and their loved ones.

We’ve also teamed up with Make-a-Wish to create a mobile experience app that put wish journeys in the palm of your hand, helping to facilitate experiences that build resilience and agency in wish kids. We connected with HelloBrigit to brainstorm ideas for a mobile app that makes it easier for people to get control of their debt.

3 elderly people in a hospital room, all smiles. A woman is lying in bed, her husband at the foot of the bed, a friend nearby

Most of us haven’t seen our teammates in person since March.

Since we moved to remote work, we haven’t all been in the same room. One thing that we all miss is interacting with each other in-person on a daily basis.

When we experience something with another person, it creates even more of those warm, fuzzy feelings because of the shared connection. At Highland, we’re proudly People First — we believe it’s the experience and the connection that people ultimately carry away with them. It’s a big part of who we are, as a company, and why we work. 

We consume experiences directly with other people…And after they’re gone, they’re part of the stories that we tell to one another.

A Very Highland Holiday

So, what does this mean for Highland’s Holiday Party? It means we will be celebrating not by giving gifts but by sharing a virtual evening together, enjoying each other’s company. 

We decided to keep it simple with a game of competitive team trivia, and enjoying dinner together. We had meal kits delivered to everyone so that we can cook together before sitting down at our virtual dinner table. While this year’s office party will look a little different from previous years, it will be no less meaningful. 

A group of 25 Highlanders gathered on a Zoom, with everyone wearing their Highland branded t-shirts, waving at the camera.