How To Do A Secret Santa Gift Exchange That's Actually Fun This Year

Make your office gift swap actually fun this holiday season.
Secret Santa exchanges at work can be awkward. Here's how to make them better.
Rimma_Bondarenko via Getty Images
Secret Santa exchanges at work can be awkward. Here's how to make them better.

As the holidays approach, so do office gift exchanges. Some of us are back to gathering in-person around a conference table or in the break room, but even if your company is in a remote or hybrid work situation, it can still be fun to do virtually!

Here’s how to make your office gift exchange a good time.

1. Make your exchange opt-in.

Secret Santa or White Elephant swaps should always be optional, so there’s no peer or managerial pressure to participate if someone doesn’t want to. That’s especially true in these especially hard last few years ― you don’t want the gift exchange to be one more stressful thing an overburdened colleague has to deal with.

Beyond that, be conscious of cost and set the price limit low so that it’s not a hardship for anyone to participate.

2. Use exclusion lists so there are no awkward pairings.

In a traditional Secret Santa, givers and gift recipients are randomly assigned. Elfster and Draw Names are two popular websites you can use to virtually and confidentially draw names. Both websites give organizers the option to set exclusion lists for who should not draw whom.

Organizers should be particularly aware of power dynamics and try to ensure no one is obliged to buy their own direct boss a gift. If you’re new to management, check if other leaders typically participate before you join a staff gift exchange. Ideally, multiple managers join the pool so that people can avoid worrying about being paired with their boss.

You might also use an exclusion list for colleagues who don’t get along, or to ensure newer hires are paired with people they’ve actually met before.

3. Actually use the hints features.

What happens if you don’t know your recipient that well? Elfster and Draw Names also give each participant the option to create their own wish list and anonymously nudge others to ask for hints of what they would enjoy receiving. You can even make the search for a thoughtful gift a team effort through Conspiracy Santa, an app that the company Zapier initially created for its remote staff and has since made available for all. Through the app, a whole team can conspire to select a gift for just one person.

4. When in doubt, go with something cash-equivalent.

A 2020 HuffPost/YouGov survey showed that three-quarters of employees would feel very enthusiastic about receiving cash as a company holiday gift, and 37% of people would be very enthusiastic about a gift card to a store or restaurant. Although Secret Santa presents are often more personal than company-wide gifts, it’s true that in an inflation-affected economy, you probably can’t go wrong with something equivalent to money.

5. Form your own gift exchange with people you choose.

Gift exchanges don’t necessarily have to include the people with whom you work directly; they could also involve colleagues you share a hobby with, like knitting, baking or reading, and be based on that shared interest. I participated in a remote book swap with friends from a writing workshop. What made the exchange fun was that each of us already knew what genres and authors the others are into.

6. Set a seasonal theme for the gifts you’re exchanging.

Seasonal gift-giving themes that can easily go virtual include ornament exchanges and holiday cookie or recipe swaps. Gifts could also be shared holiday experiences you can enjoy or craft together during the swap, such as cocktail kits or gingerbread house decorating supplies.

7. Ensure mailing and receiving gifts is a smooth experience.

Before setting a deadline for gifts to arrive by mail, look up holiday shipping deadlines for USPS, FedEx and UPS and make sure there is plenty of lead time, especially with possible supply chain delays on top of heavy holiday delivery volume.

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