Many of the workers set to return from furlough next week will be feeling anxious, disconnected and possibly resentful. Lynne Hardman outlines how organisations can help them readjust to working life and alleviate any concerns.
As outdoor hospitality and retail reopen on 12 April, thousands of furloughed workers will be returning to work, after perhaps a lengthy period of time at home. As many industry bodies are predicting a return to the workplace around June, the same will soon apply for other staff for whom working from home has not been possible.
Furlough and reopening workplaces
It’s important for employers to ensure the transition for these furloughed workers is managed successfully.
For many, the thought of returning to work may feel daunting, creating anxiety that has an impact on emotional wellbeing. They may feel less valued, disengaged with their employer, lacking in social connection with colleagues and loss of confidence. The importance of managing the psychological impact of the transition back to work should not be underestimated.
Ideally there should have been regular contact while the employee had been furloughed, to keep them in the loop regarding progress. However, should that not have been the case, it’s even more important to manage the reintegration. Once a decision has been made to request that people return, then the timetable for this should be circulated as soon as possible, even if it is provisional, to allow people to start preparing and provide an opportunity to raise any queries.
The majority of businesses will be arranging an “opening” aligned to their commercial situation. Furloughed workers will hugely benefit from understanding the criteria for this. For example, what level of orders/projects/revenue would create enough capacity for full return for all furloughed employees?
In addition, workers need to be clear what their part is in supporting the organisation to achieve these goals, as this will create a sense of purpose that is vital for engagement and motivation. Providing some aspect of choice if there are working days/hours options will be beneficial for all parties.
Clear and frequent communication as much in advance as possible is the key, especially around reassuring employees about health and safety including any changes to working practices or company policies. Ideally this should be done face to face, ensuring appropriate social distancing measures. Virtual meetings are fine as long as there is an opportunity to have some interaction and ask questions.
As well as their personal feelings, you need to factor in the length of furlough, number of people involved, whether you are proposing they return to a workplace or to work from home, changes in their personal or family circumstances and health”
The most common concerns will be related to health and safety, childcare and job security. Furlough has been required because the workload has reduced or disappeared so people will naturally be concerned about possible redundancy. A return to work may make people anxious that redundancy decisions delayed by furlough are now more imminent. Where possible leaders should try and address these concerns through open communication and where redundancy might be a possibility, explain clearly the circumstances that would trigger this. People may still be concerned, but at least they will be informed and can plan and adjust accordingly.
Creating FAQ sheets and using company intranets and apps is also helpful as often people need time to absorb information. Brevity and clarity is critical but tone is equally important. At times of change and possible stress, people always seek an answer to the question “what does this mean for me?” so as much as you can, aim to answer this question in your communications.
When an employee actually returns to work, the transition needs to be highly personalised to the individual. As well as their personal feelings, you need to factor in the length of furlough, number of people involved, whether you are proposing they return to a workplace or to work from home, changes in their personal or family circumstances and health. In addition, there may be changes to their role and your expectations of them at work as a result of the pandemic.
Many people will have missed the social connection with colleagues, so creating a buddy system with colleagues who have remained at work or setting up a forum for returners where they can share information and mutual support can help to reconnect people.
It’s important also to consider what updated or new skills a furloughed line manager might require when they return. For example, it’s likely that managers will face an increase in team members suffering with mental health issues. They may also have more regular sensitive or challenging conversations or may have to deal with resentments between furloughed and non-furloughed staff. With that in mind, any training that enables them to develop skills to be effective in these situations is beneficial.
Well validated research confirms that during periods of change and transition, a feeling of loss of control is one of the main drivers of anxiety. The spectre of possible redundancy will also loom large for some. Providing returners with access to confidential coaching, counselling or mentoring support – dependent on identified needs – can help people take control, make any necessary adjustments and develop the resilient mindset required to move forward with confidence.