Smart gift ideas for busy professionals

Man with tattoo sitting at work and wrapping gift box for New Year
Man with tattoo sitting at work and wrapping gift box for New Year
Image: Getty/Mixeto
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Is there something joyless about creating a gift guide themed around life at work, as opposed to leisure?

We may be biased, but we don’t think so. After all, work is not only about the labor, it’s also a mindset, and a place where we spend most of our time. It’s where we form friendships, and figure out how we can contribute something to the world, if we’re lucky.

As the late author and broadcaster Studs Terkel once wrote,“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

This guide is our present to readers who also believe that to be true.

Still, because compiling a gift guide for “people who work” would be rather broad, like creating a menu for people who eat, we’ve organized our ideas using the eight “obsessions” through which Quartz at Work covers this dimension of our lives. Have a friend juggling fatherhood and a career? See “The Lives of Working Parents” section. Know someone who just became a manager? They’re sure to appreciate our gift ideas for people who manage other people. Looking for a gift for a rising executive, a creative type, a productivity hound, or someone who spends too much time at the office? Read on.


Career advancement comes in all forms. Whether you know someone who is just starting out or looking for something new, here are some gift ideas to help them along the way.

The perfect headshot: We often think about what how to dress for an interview, but often the first place professional contacts are looking at you is online, perhaps on your LinkedIn profile. Consider purchasing a portrait session with a professional photographer for someone who is looking to revamp their portfolio (or maybe splurge on it for yourself). The typical cost in the US for professional headshots ranges from $65 to $215.

A networking pass: For the aspiring entrepreneur in your life, consider gifting a membership to a place like Brunchwork, which connects millennial professionals from a range of fields to industry leaders, business classes, and socials. Brunchwork hosts more than 100 events a year, in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and has partnered with companies including Bumble and Sony. Come for the coffee and mimosa-filled brunches, and leave with the vital connections.

Conversation starter.
Conversation starter.
Image: Anne Quito/Quartz

A bold accessory: Consider the gift of a statement piece to wear to the next job interview or networking sesh—and make Gere Kavanaugh proud. The legendary Los Angeles-based designer likes to attend industry events carrying a $25 rubber chicken purse. She says the funny-looking, hen-shaped handbag has proven to be a conversation starter. Even if an item like this may cramp your recipient’s style, the idea behind it still stands: Being bold will allow you to command any room.

Productivity & creativity

Productivity and creativity. Two sides of the same coin? Or opposite ends of a wide spectrum? So many of us are on a constant quest to get more done that we can miss the discursive, restful, or fun activities that allow creativity to emerge. A thoughtful gift giver will choose items that encourage both.

Give the gift of GTD. If your recipient is at the start of their productivity journey, a classic read is Getting Things Done by David Allen, which offers a process of listing and reviewing tasks that can help sort out classic problems like being overwhelmed by daily admin or email.

A tomato timer: For those who already have a method, a classic tomato-shaped timer will enhance use of the Pomodoro Method, which involves setting a timer for short bursts of focus.

Hey, big spender: For devoted productivity fans, the OmniFocus app is expensive but, according to devoted users, it’s very effective.

Active inspiration: Walking outdoors, changing one’s routine, encountering art—doing almost anything outside of your routine can help kickstart the creative process. That means the best creativity gifts aren’t things, they’re experiences. Take your friend, relative, or cherished co-worker to an exhibition, a piece of modern dance, a walk in the park, or out for pastries. Being together will ensure that, even if the art or the weather is bad, you’ll still get lots out of it.

An inspiring book: If you live too far away to meet up with the person on your list for a creativity-sparking activity, we suggest sending them the lovely creative journey that is Creative Quest by The Roots musician Questlove.

The lives of working parents

The one thing working parents are shortest on is time. Time to read. Time to daydream. Time to sit with their partner and have a leisurely meal, without reminding themselves that they’re paying (in babysitter wages, or undone chores) for the privilege. Time alone. If they have really young kids, time to sleep.

Babysitting duty: How do you give parents the gift of time? Offer to look after their kids. That can mean taking an infant for an hour-long walk so exhausted parents can nap. It can mean coming over one night and simply watching TV with the kids while the parents go out for a drink. It can mean coming over with ingredients and cooking dinner while mom or dad handles the toddlers’ bedtime routine. Suggest a date, and be prepared for some chaos. It’s only a few hours. You can handle this.

A personal chef: According the US Department of Agriculture, the average American spends 37 minutes a day on food prep and cleanup. For households with children, the average rises to 44 minutes. Hook up your loved ones with a personal chef, and they’ll love you all the more. Prices vary by region; TheStreet says to figure on spending anywhere from $100 to $400 for 12 servings of food, plus the cost of groceries.

Simple solutions: Small items that make life easier are always a winner. How about a coffee cup holder that attaches to a stroller, or cable-free headphones for listening to podcasts and music without the risk of tiny fingers knotting up the wires?

The office

The office doesn’t have to be drab. Outfit your loved one’s work environment with personalized touches that will make them happy to be there.

A killer keyboard: For the techie, the productivity-driven worker, or someone who just wants to break up the uniformity of the office desk, consider gifting a personalized keyboard, like a mechanical one where you can customize the colors of the keys and create shortcuts to get tasks done faster.

Your type.
Your type.
Image: Quartz/Dave Gershgorn

Pantry presents: You don’t need a high-tech gift to impress. This is an office. A good, satisfying snack can easily do the trick. Consider gifting a serious snacker something they probably haven’t tried before. Savory popped water-lily seeds, collagen-infused candy, energy-boosting gum, and protein bars made of pulverized crickets are just a few of the unusual items we found on hand at a conference this year hosted by TED, which takes its snacks seriously. For the remote worker in your life, how about getting them a snack subscription service?

A Swedish setup: Fika is a Swedish tradition where employees, twice daily, take a short break from work and gather to have some coffee and pastries. For the person who is perhaps starting a new job or just looking to have more meaningful conversations with co-workers, suggest the idea of organizing Fika and purchase them these stylish Swedish cups, a gift certificate to a local bakery, or a few pounds of their favorite coffee to share with colleagues.


If you have a friend who manages a team, you’ve probably lived vicariously through more than a few office dramas. “How’s work?” you might ask over coffee, hoping for another detailed, hilarious update about the impossibly entitled new hire, the sibling-like conflict between two members of the team, or the latest snafu with the video conferencing system.

Managers’ must-reads: New managers routinely turn to how-to books, a solid option for holiday presents, to deal with such daily quagmires and develop their personal leadership style. Some of our favorites from this year: Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan (Portfolio, 2019), the revised and updated edition of Kim Scott’s Radical Candor (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo (Portfolio, 2019).

Say it with snail mail: Quartz’s design reporter, Anne Quito, recently wrote about the timeless appeal of personalized stationery as an antidote to dry and dreaded email. You could order a stack of custom notecards with a simple monogram, dictum, or even a mantra befitting the recipient. (Design legend Milton Glaser quoted Lao Tzu on his stationery, for instance.) Sincere notes in themselves can also become cherished gifts—or managerial tools, when thoughtfully crafted.

Image: Maurele

The purpose of companies

At the end of the work day, some people mentally clock out and stop thinking about their jobs entirely. Then there are those who think deeply not only about their own jobs, but about the concept of work, the nature of companies, and our reliance on capitalism in general. Where is it all going? Can it ever become truly sustainable? How can more people benefit from these massive moneymakers we’ve constructed?

A riveting read: For the serious thinkers, we suggest Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas (Penguin Random House, 2018). Chapter by thought-provoking chapter, Giridharadas skewers the language and promises of corporations and billionaires who use philanthropy to create a halo of do-gooding and social justice around their brands, while lobbying to protect  systems—and tax laws—that enrich the elites at the expense of everyone else.

Study the game.
Study the game.

Hot ticket: Philosophical types—and theater lovers—might appreciate tickets to The Lehman Trilogy, the critically acclaimed play from London’s National Theatre, about the making of the now defunct Lehman Brothers investment bank. The original script for the show, which opens on Broadway this spring, was written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini, who in 2008 began looking for answers about the global financial crisis. That quest did not bring him to SEC regulations or to the mortgage-lending customs at Lehman Brothers, whose bankruptcy came to symbolize the global financial crisis. Instead, he looked at the decisions made by three immigrant brothers to the United States, the Lehmans, beginning in 1850, and the choices that followed through three generations, as the family’s dry goods store became a trading company and later one of the world’s most influential financial firms.

Sustainable cycling: Earlier this year, Nespresso, maker of the tiny aluminum coffee pods that millions use daily and (hopefully) recycle, teamed up with Sweden’s eco-minded startup Vélosophy to create charming, limited edition bicycles from those returned pods, starting at  €1,290 ($1,172.) Will they save the planet? No. Will they make you a gift-giving hero? Absolutely.

Identity & inclusion

It can feel impossible to talk about diversity in the workplace without using empty-sounding phrases, like “diversity in the workplace.” Fortunately, in hunting for gifts to support those striving to level the corporate playing field, we’ve found several rich, buzzword-free options.

Essential reading: One of the year’s top-reviewed books, She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, is an eye-opening investigation into the strength and sophistication of the machinations that protect male predators in the workplace, and silence women, even for those who thought they understood the complexities of the institutionalized sexism and patriarchal power. The authors are the New York Times reporters whose coverage of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in 2017 catalyzed the #MeToo movement.

A multimedia feast for the eyes, ears, and soul: Though it may not be focused on the modern workplace, the 1619 Project—created by another Times journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times Magazine—belongs on this list for the serious lifting it does connecting the history of slavery to the history of US capitalism and the myriad ways oppressive systems have blocked opportunities for black Americans in the past 400 years. The Times store is sold out of print copies of its Aug. 14, 2019, special issue, but you can find a few on eBay while waiting for the promised book series. Or keep this gift simple and free by recommending the digital version, along with its companion podcast.

Treat the team: Finally, if you’re looking for something inclusive-themed to do, rather than read, we suggest stealing this empathy-building tactic from Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the United Nations: Take your team to a live performance or film whose story puts the audience in a foreign-to-them context, where they can live in someone else’s shoes for a bit and reflect on the privileges of those who have power, and the suffering of those who don’t. The best works of art have a way of making the remote or removed feel real.

Leaders & leadership

Succession, an extraordinary exploration of leadership and family created for HBO by British writer Jesse Armstrong, contains some rich details about giving gifts to the wealthy and powerful. In the first episode, Logan Roy, the patriarch at the center of the series, is given a watch from Tom, his aspirant son-in-law and business acolyte. It’s expensive, carefully chosen, and—as Tom is at pains to point out—designer. Logan takes one look at it and closes the box; later, he gives it away. The lesson is layered, but the basic message is: Throwing money at the task of buying a leader a present isn’t going to work.

So what do you give to the successful person who already seems to have everything?

Access in the Alps: No matter how important you are, there’s always someone even more important than you at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, held every January in Davos, Switzerland. The snow-bound meeting of the world’s rich and powerful comes with its own hierarchy of participant badges, VIP lounges (link is to a Quartz membership exclusive), and exclusive parties. Get the leader in your life on the list to a Davos gathering they otherwise may not have been invited to, and you’ll make their whole year.

Davos calling.
Davos calling.
Image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann

A Patagonia fleece vest: Whether they’re going to Davos or not, they’ll appreciate the warm, comfy layer—especially if their company is now barred from buying it for them.

Quartz, of course: With the gift of membership to their favorite news provider, current and future business leaders will be connected to a community and kept up to date on the most interesting and important developments in the global economy.

The gift of grounding: For leaders whose challenge is not connecting and keeping up but disconnecting and slowing down, a session with a mindfulness coach on being compassionate to oneself could help them master one of the trickiest skills for powerful people. (Quartz at Work successfully tested out tips from Mindful Workshop, based in Barcelona.) At the simplest end of the spectrum, a slim introduction to zen practices, which many leaders already use to stay grounded, could help them find peace in the maelstrom of the holiday season and beyond.