Maintaining employee engagement can be tough this time of year even pre-pandemic. Here are some tips and considerations from a local expert. Photo via Getty Images

When you combine standard holiday distractions with a year of prolonged and intensified stress, it can result in an exhausted team and real employee engagement (and productivity) problems for your business.

So, what can you do to minimize the impact of this year's holiday slump? It starts with understanding why employees tend to disengage during the holidays.

Reasons your employees are less engaged around the holidays

While employee engagement is something to be focused on throughout the year, the holiday season can be a particularly challenging time. Pre-pandemic, common distractions included holiday parties, upcoming travel plans, and the pressure to find the perfect gift.

This year, travel and large holiday gatherings will likely take a back seat to burnout, pressure to keep family safe, and a different kind of shopping stress (like factoring in delivery times), which could pull employees away from work commitments.

Plus, the business gets busier. While not every business is seasonal, the end of the year tends to be a busier time for many companies, especially for those whose fiscal year matches the calendar. For these companies, the arrival of the holiday season can be an abrupt reminder that they only have a few days left to accomplish the year's goals, meet their annual quotas, or close out requests they've been meaning to get to throughout the year.

We also have the arrival of flu season. When you combine cold and flu season with a very contagious coronavirus, you can be looking at sidelining even the most dedicated employee for days or even weeks. And, unlike vacations, employers have a much harder time planning for illness.

There's also the end of the school session. Working parents are looking forward to spending quality time with their family, and prior to time off from work, they may still need to make childcare arrangements during the workday, the cost of which can be burdensome at the holidays.

Ideas for boosting employee engagement around the holidays

Even though the holidays can compound workplace stress, there are effective strategies you can put in place to minimize the impact of any holiday-related slumps:

Planahead. The single most important thing employers can do to prepare for the holiday season is to plan ahead. If you haven't already, make sure you have all PTO requests in. Forecasting for a lighter staff or arranging additional coverage and adjusting timelines for projects during the holidays can help you meet year-end objectives without intensifying the strain on your already stressed team.

Be flexible and understanding. It's important to try to be as accommodating as you can (within reason). Between potential illnesses, family responsibilities, and added financial burdens, employees will appreciate a little more flexibility and understanding during the holidays. Allowing employees to adjust their schedules or even work overtime to complete projects can build morale and have a positive impact on your bottom line. If you can't accommodate employees' requests, communicate early, and keep an open dialogue to help them understand why. Loyal employees want the company to succeed as much as you do.

Encourage employees to stay healthy. We've all come to understand that more than ever this year. Keeping any wellness programs in place (online or otherwise) can make a big difference. To help keep your staff healthy, happy, and productive during the holidays, you can:

  • Host a flu-shot clinic or encourage employees to get one from their healthcare provider
  • Provide general tips and education about the importance of getting enough rest
  • Make sure common areas are cleaned thoroughly for those present in workplace facilities

Embrace the holiday spirit. While it may not be appropriate for every employer to focus on a specific holiday tradition, ignoring the holiday season isn't going to improve engagement. In fact, a little holiday cheer is exactly what most of us need this year. Even if your team is fully remote you can host intentional, inclusive activities to help employees decompress and encourage camaraderie and collaboration.

Show appreciation for your employees. A little extra employee appreciation or recognition is always needed and welcomed. Your team has worked through some very difficult times in 2020. Celebrate their successes with (if possible) an end-of-year bonus, a complimentary meal, a meaningful gift, or simply a kind email or handwritten note. The holiday season is a great opportunity to show your appreciation for all of your team's hard work. It can be a much-needed reset for what we all hope is a much-improved 2021.

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Susan Crowder, senior HR adviser at Houston-based G&A Partners.

GotSpot's Holiday SOS tool will help you plan a seamless holiday event for your company. Getty Images

Houston startup launches 1-stop shop for corporate holiday event planning

holiday hero

A Houston startup that specializes in finding short-term real estate space for various purposes is putting its coordination skills to good work this holiday season.

GotSpot's Holiday SOS aims to be companies' one-stop shop for planning corporate holiday celebrations, from luncheons to happy hours and no matter the size of the event.

"I worked at a law firm for over a decade, and I remember the giant hassle it was at the last minute to figure out who was responsible for the holiday party," says Reda Hicks founder and CEO of GotSpot Inc.

The opportunity allows for the burden to be taken off that person within the company — who has a real, non party-planning job — while also allowing for new avenues of daytime business for party service providers.

"The idea is that I'm pairing spots with local service providers to make it really easy for somebody to have a corporate holiday luncheon or happy hour," Hicks says.

And, on the GotSpot end, Hicks is able to make connections with venues and service providers, while also testing GotSpot's business plan.

"It's a little bit of a pilot for us," Hicks says.

Down the road, GotSpot will have the technology for the process to be completely automated, but for now it's manual. Interested companies can head to GotSpot's website to view options for various venues and service providers, including menus, available bartenders, etc. Within a day, Hicks will get in touch to confirm details and explain next steps.

Hicks says she's gotten several requests already — including one for an event in San Antonio, which is interesting to Hicks since that's a market she has her eye on for launching GotSpot. In fact, when GotSpot launches its booking technology in the second quarter, a few "spots" of hers will be in central Texas.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.