How to Avoid Year-End Time-Wasting

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CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- It's become a seasonal tradition: employees celebrating their post-Thanksgiving return to work by logging on and ordering holiday presents on "Cyber Monday."

Expecting your workers to be productive over the next couple of weeks is a tall order. Unless you're in retail, December tends to be a slow month, with workers counting down the days till vacation. As offices empty out, even owners find themselves browsing Amazon (Stock Quote: AMZN) wish lists rather than year-end paperwork.

But the last few weeks of the year don't have to be a total loss. Here are five suggestions for making the most of the quiet time:

1. Reward Great Workers

Most likely, you won't be handing out year-end bonuses to all your employees. But you know there are certain people who made a big difference during tough times: the ones who smiled their way through encounters with difficult clients, or suggested new procedures that saved money.

Now is the time to reward the employees that you want to keep around. Extra cash is great, but even gift cards send the message that they're valued, especially if that card was chosen especially for them (a dinner at a family restaurant for a single mom; a card to an electronics store for your in-house tech whiz).

2. Build Team Spirit

Lavish holiday parties may be a relic of the past (along with the morning-after stories about drunken co-workers). Jokes aside, those gatherings served an important purpose: They brought everyone at a company together in a relaxed setting and gave them a chance to talk about subjects other than work. That's why you should consider throwing your own holiday party, even on a limited budget.

You don't need an open bar or multi-course dinner. It can be a simple lunch at a local restaurant or an afternoon dessert buffet at the office. Inviting spouses is a nice touch, but not necessary. The important thing is to show your workers that you want them to relax and have fun while on the clock.

3. Send Holiday Greetings

Holiday cards are the perfect way to do low-key, year-end marketing. It's an easy way to get in touch with contacts and potential new business, reminding them who you are and what you do. And if the cards include a personal note, all the better. If getting them mailed by Christmas is too much of a scramble, send "Happy New Year" cards instead. The upside to procrastinating: your greeting will stand out because it won't be buried under other Christmas cards.

4. Clear Your Desk

Year-end statements will soon be filtering in, and tax-season accounting meetings loom in your future. Get a head start on the paperwork by combing through all the documents littering your desk. That includes electronic correspondence. December is a great month to schedule a sweep of your e-mail inbox. You get the satisfaction of being productive while doing something that isn't mentally taxing.

5. Get a Jump Start on January

In offices throughout America, early January rivals late December as the least productive time of the year. Everyone's in a post-vacation mindset, yawning as they try to adjust back to their work schedule. Asking everyone to get cracking on ambitious new projects may be too much to ask, but by taking a few steps now, you can start the New Year off on a positive note. Schedule a state-of-the-business meeting during the first week back, where you can go over highlights (and lowlights) of the previous year and map out where you see the company going in 2011.

Use the slow days of December to assess how you've been doing and where you want to be going next year. If you want to motivate your workers, you've got to come in motivated yourself.

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