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Leadership considerations for furloughed employees

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To keep the economy moving and safeguard employment in the UK, the government introduced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme as part of a package of measures to alleviate the impact of Covid-19 on organisations.

It aims to help employers to avoid redundancies and alleviate the economic impact, as well as ensuring organisations have the workforce they require once the situation improves. 

In our other article we already discussed the people management implications of the coronavirus situation, but with regards to the novel Job Retention Scheme, what are the crucial leadership considerations?  

We’ve addressed this question in two articles. This article tackles the question, what do leaders need to consider with regards to employees who are going on furlough? You can read our guidance for leading employees who remain in the organisation.

Communicating with employees on furlough

Clear communication is a critical leadership skill, even more so in times of change and ambiguity. Our earlier article on the People management implications of coronavirus shared insights on the importance of communication in these unprecedented times. However, furlough brings new challenges which require further considerations around communication. Unlike the communications around Covid-19 and the ambiguity surrounding business implications as the situation develops, the concept of furlough provides some very clear and likely unpopular decisions to communicate. If individuals who are put on furlough do not understand the reason behind the decision or the consequences it will have for them, they may feel a sense of betrayal and show resentment towards the organisation [1]. However, if individuals feel that the decision has been reached through a fair process and the implications for them as individuals are sensitively communicated, they are more likely to accept the undesirable outcome [2,3]. Handling a conversation around furlough should follow the same steps as other difficult conversations in the workplace:

Handling a conversation around furlough should follow the same steps as other difficult conversations in the workplace:

  1. Imagine - the conversation - how do you anticipate the individual may react to the news of being furloughed, what questions may they have?
  2. Prepare - preparation for the conversation is key - be clear on why you have reached the decision you have reached and be ready to answer any questions the individual is likely to have (this is why the imagine stage is so important). 
  3. Talk and Listen - while it is important you share a clear message about the individual being furloughed, be prepared to listen to their reactions, so that you can respond to any concerns and also to help you understand how to best support the individual through the furlough period.
  4. Review - check the individual has understood the message and that you are both aligned in terms of next steps e.g. when their furlough period will begin, how (if) they stay in touch over the period of furlough and other support they may need.

While it is not mandatory for individuals to stay in touch with their organisations during a period of furlough (and they must not be contributing to business continuity efforts), communication has been found to have a positive impact on engagement [4], so think about setting up a plan for how you will communicate with your furloughed employees in a way that is helpful and appropriate. 

Engaging with employees on furlough

Maintaining engagement of employees while on furlough is vital for future business success when they return to the organisation. Higher levels of engagement contribute to organisation success[5], so it’s vital that employee engagement is maintained as much as possible to facilitate a successful onboarding when the individual returns.

Some examples of activities leaders can implement to maintain engagement of furloughed employees include: 

  • Encouraging employees to join social interactions - co-worker relationships are a predictor of engagement. 
  • Provide resources for ongoing personal development. 44% of people report that if they had more time they would invest it in personal development [7], so encourage employees to identify development activities 
    • Gathering feedback from colleagues who may also have been furloughed
    • Sharing knowledge on their area of expertise among furloughed employees
    • Completing online courses
    • Reading/watching Ted talks related to their role or behavioural development
    • Reflecting on their career to-date; highs and lows, the most valuable lessons learned
    • Clarifying future career goals and objectives
  • Encourage volunteering - there are constant calls for volunteers to help in this time and encouraging CSR practices in organisations has been found to help increase employee engagement and motivation [8] - and encourage people to share their experiences.

Re-boarding after furlough     

Re-boarding employees back into the workplace is not a new challenge, and there is plenty that can be learnt from research and best practice in returning from parental leave or sabbaticals. It’s important to be clear with employees about the role/responsibilities they’re coming back to (if different) and what’s expected of them. Individuals who perceive the work or tasks they return to as a demotion are likely to experience a psychological contract violation, impacting their engagement and performance and in the worst case, prompting them to leave the business [9]. To encourage successful re-boarding back into the business, leaders are encouraged to: 

To encourage successful re-boarding back into the business, leaders are encouraged to: 

  • Make a specific plan for handovers at the start and end of furlough, so that furloughed employees are comfortable their responsibilities are being taken care of, but also are clear about what they will be doing on their return. 
  • Establish a clear short-term goal for their return - what do you expect from them in the first week, first fortnight and first month? Clarity on goals that are achievable will enable individuals to experience the positive reinforcement of achieving these goals, increase their engagement and ease their transition back into the workplace.  
  • Create a buddy system - this will provide individuals returning with a key point of contact to answer any questions about changes in the business since they were furloughed. As discussed earlier, co-worker relationships are an important predictor of employee engagement.

Implementing a furlough plan for your people may trigger challenging conversations and the period of furlough and return will continue to present situations that challenge you as a leader. Being mindful upfront about how you communicate and handle the situation for your furloughed employees as well as those remaining can help increase your chances of success through this difficult period.

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