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What does furlough mean to your business and your employees?

The word “furlough” must count amongst the most highly searched for terms of 2020. Its announcement on March 20th provided hope for businesses and individuals alike in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The future may remain uncertain for many companies, but having the option to furlough staff has meant they have lived to fight another day.

The furlough scheme hasn’t been without its challenges, however, and businesses now have to turn their attention to sensitively managing their different pools of employees: those who are still furloughed, those who are not furloughed and those who are returning to work.

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The challenges of furloughing employees

The government furlough scheme has brought challenges for many managers and business owners. If you have had employees furloughed for some time, these challenges may feel familiar, but let’s revisit what has happened over the past five months. It will help as we come to discuss how to manage the furlough scheme in the present day.

Firstly, there has been the business side of things; weighing up the financial relief of a substantial contribution to an employee’s wage, against effectively suspending the input of a valuable team member. This picture is an evolving one, with government contributions set to diminish as we approach the final quarter of the year.

There has also been the challenge of deciding if and who to furlough. Should people be rotated on and off furlough, using the threshold of a minimum of three weeks? Are some people better suited to staying on the job? How do you manage the pain points on both sides of the furlough fence?

Throughout all of this, remember that your own needs as an employer or manager are also important. Whilst your team, furloughed or not, will be looking to you for guidance and reassurance, your own confidence and resilience will likely have been challenged. Your decisions must be sound for the business, yet you also need to keep as many star players in work, whose commitment you can rely on.

With furlough comes a choice for an employer: which members of the team should be put on furlough and which members of the team should remain working? The decisions made here stretch far beyond the balance sheet: there is a real cultural impact to having some of your team effectively “off duty” whilst others hold the fort. Neither side will feel like they have the better deal, so sensitive team management is essential to keeping everyone on board.

How to manage employees who are furloughed

For those in your team who have been furloughed, there is the uncertainty of when – and, in many cases, if – they will return to work. The working environment, pace and outlook will have changed so much upon their return, so not being in the thick of things in the meantime can produce its own anxiety. From the outside, furlough may seem like a fairly well-paid holiday, yet for those who have been on furlough for more than a few weeks it can be a hugely isolating experience. Coupled with ever diminishing confidence in employment prospects, it is easy to see how being off work and returning to work can both become daunting prospects.

A solid internal communications plan can help to alleviate many of these furlough worries and keeping in touch with employees is recommended. Whilst furloughed employees cannot carry out duties for the business, they can certainly undertake training, such as an online course to improve their skills, and be part of company updates.

Now, more than ever, is the time to invest in a decent bulletin, newsletter, or internal comms website, if budget permits. The benefit to employers lies in the return to work: team members who have felt part of the team whilst furloughed will come back to work feeling more confident, more engaged and far more prepared to get stuck right back in.

Remember that bringing an employee back from furlough should be more than an administrative task. There will be an element of re-engagement, to bring them up to speed with changes in team structures, working patterns and – potentially – your business proposition. If communication with your furloughed employees has been hit and miss, a well thought out “return to work” process could do a lot of good.

How to manage employees who are not furloughed

COVID-19 has meant that your remaining team players are living through a prolonged period of professional and personal challenge. Many have picked up increased workloads from their furloughed teammates, yet it has not been uncommon for hours and salaries to be reduced, adding a financial worry to the mix.

Initially, government guidance made working from home the norm. This has meant each employee has had to dig deep to make the effort to be mindfully in touch with disparate team members; using conference calls, instant messaging services and intranets to maintain some camaraderie with colleagues beyond “talking work.”

A “thank you” always goes a long way: this is particularly true when looked at in the context of remaining team members who have perhaps had to work much harder to deliver their work, balanced against family pressures of working from home and – potentially – a lower income.

One of the most valuable things business owners and managers can do is to take the time to give thanks and acknowledgement, not just overall, but for specific efforts made by each team member. Being visible is so important and this works both ways: having visibility for your hard work as part of a team is gratifying, whilst being visible as a compassionate and gracious leader inspires confidence and a good work ethic in others.

How to manage employees returning to the office

These needs are still very much at the forefront of your team’s wellbeing requirements as many people return to their place of work, either full-time or on a more flexible basis. Having teams in the office split into groups to maintain a safe distance is a sensible approach, but one that in-creases a further divide between “shift families,” which means that certain team members will and won’t see each other day-to-day. This, added to the very different look, feel and shape of the office environment, means that your team will likely need reassurance of your plans for continuity, recovery and hope.

Both sides of the fence are united in their need for clear, regular communication. It is fine to cascade information through a hierarchy if required but do make an extra effort to share good news, small wins, and praise.

As working through the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, with some form of returning to the office becoming the norm, the effectiveness of “keeping in touch” with all employees will remain just as important as it has been. If possible, making a mental wellbeing service available to your employees will demonstrate your commitment to their happiness, whilst allowing them the security of talking to an impartial third party. Our Healthcare for Business includes 24/7 access to a mental health helpline, providing employees with access to a counsellor when they need it and when it’s convenient to them.

Benenden Health has produced a coronavirus hub, with more tips and information about how to stay healthy as a business and individuals during the COVID-19 outbreak. It also outlines any changes or enhancements to our services in response to the global pandemic.

Visit the COVID-19 hub for more information.

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