During this global pandemic approximately 7.5 million employees have been furloughed (more than 1 in 5 of the UK’s workforce) and, for many, this has been for a significant period of time. You may have even furloughed some of your own employees. For employees that have been furloughed, the challenges of returning to work go beyond struggling to remember passwords, trawling through hundreds of emails to identify the three that are of importance and taking a couple of days to get back into ‘work mode’. It’s not the same as if they have been on holiday for 2 weeks!

For many employees, there will be apprehension around returning to the workplace, a potential loss of confidence in their capabilities, feeling ‘out of the loop’ and adapting back to ‘working life’ as well as possible concerns around working from home or returning to the
workplace with child care commitments. In addition to this, some employees may be feeling resentful at being furloughed whilst others may be experiencing guilt that colleagues worked whilst they did not. Many will also be fearful of the risk of redundancy.

For businesses to successfully survive this current crisis, great care should be taken when reintroducing furloughed employees back into the workplace, whether remotely or physically coming back to their place of work. Taking an approach similar to that taken when employees return from a long absence e.g. maternity/paternity leave, long term illness or sabbatical.  Key areas to consider are:

  • Giving sufficient time for the individual to settle in
  • Equip your managers with the tools to support their teams
  • Giving reassurance that their safety and wellbeing are a top priority
  • Creating a new sense of belonging
  • Considering changes to working hours and/or practices

Giving sufficient time for the individual to settle in

It takes on average 3 months for a new joiner to start to feel settled within their new role and whilst it is unlikely to take this long for returning furloughed employees, businesses (and managers) should be prepared for individuals to take a number of weeks to become fully productive and comfortable in their role.  To ease the transition ensure your managers:

  • Regularly check in with the individual, giving the individual the opportunity to discuss their wellbeing and ask questions
  • Set realistic, short term objectives/tasks and singular where possible to give both focus and a sense of accomplishment
  • Ask employees what you can do as an employer and/or manager to make the transition easier
  • Make available training (refresher or new) and where possible, it is in a format that can be easily accessed e.g. eLearning, guides, webinars
  • Consider using annual leave to enable a phased return

Equip your managers with the tools to support their teams

Managers will be key to successfully reintroducing furloughed employees at all levels of your business. Ensuring managers have access to the right information (from Employee Assistance Programmes to business/department objectives), the right technology to manage teams remotely as well as ensuring they understand flexible working options and have access to HR advice when needed is vital in both supporting their needs and helping them support the needs of their teams.

Giving reassurance that their safety and wellbeing are a top priority

A high number of employees will be apprehensive about returning to the workplace and will need reassurance that their safety and wellbeing is your top priority. The same applies to individuals working from home. Ensure you have in place:

  • Suitable levels of PPE supplies (from sanitising gel to high vis vests)
  • Risk Assessments from managing interaction in communal areas to returning to use specialist equipment
  • Health & Safety refresher training (where possible, in formats easily accessible remotely)
  • Information Security refresher training (where possible, in formats easily accessible remotely)
  • Guidance on setting up a suitable working environment at home.  This could be a DSE checklist to more detailed guidance or training
  • Easy access to support services such mental health first aiders, employee assistance programmes and HR teams. Social distancing and safety measures are clearly communicated to both employees and customers

Creating a new sense of belonging

Re-engaging employees with the business vision, strategy and values as well as helping them re-establish working relationships help create a feeling of belonging that in turn positively impacts commitment and performance. Careful consideration of internal communication channels to ensure accessibility as well as content that encourages a sense of belonging is just as important as managers enabling employees to re-establish working relationships with colleagues not only within their
immediate team but also across the business. Providing opportunities to feedback to business leaders on how employees are feeling as
well as ensuring those identified as high potentials/future leaders in decision making all create a sense of belonging.

Considering changes to working hours and/or practices

Many employees who have been furloughed have established new routines that may not reflect traditional working hours and businesses may need to adapt to stay successful. From changing working hours, work locations as well as moving from a time based/presentism
mindset to an outcome based approach are all becoming a reality that businesses face. Things businesses could consider include:

  • Introducing core working hours (e.g. 10:00 – 14:00) and enabling individuals to flex their hours around this
  •  Consider rotating furloughed workers in similar roles where returning all employees is not an option
  •  Consideration of working from home options, even for roles that are operational (perhaps a day a month to catch up on admin or project work?)
  • Short term working to reintroduce employees to the workplace whilst reducing salary costs
  • Subject to government guidance (still to be issued), part furloughing staff so they return in a limited capacity

The effort placed in ensuring furloughed staff return to an environment that gives them time to re-adjust, provides adequate support, keeps them safe and creates a sense of belonging will impact a business bottom line and both business leaders and managers are essential in ensuring success.