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Creating a smooth employee transition from furlough

by Jackson B
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By Sally Earnshaw, MD, Culture Change at Gallagher 

There’s no doubting that 2020 has been an extraordinary year. The UK workforce has been disrupted, uprooted and facing into heightened uncertainty. There are a number of positive learnings to draw on, however. Whether it’s renewed leadership vigour, increased comfort with change in a period of ambiguity, or a shift in mindset to meet the opportunities and challenges ahead, the reality is that the way we connect and do business may have changed for ever (and potentially in a good way)

For those of us who have experienced furlough through to supporting employees and colleagues who are returning to the workplace, it’s a timely reminder of the importance to not underestimate the psychological impact that being furloughed may have had on the employee. Questions and concerns may come up, “why me?”, “wasn’t I/my job needed?”, “is my role now under threat?”

Here’s the thing…. People want to feel different about work. 

And, communication is the key to a great return to workplace ‘experience’

This may seem like a no brainer, however, you would be surprised at how many organisations overlook the critical importance of communication. Not blast out, broadcast type messaging – this is more about getting to the heart of how to bring people in closer and experiencing the value of teamwork, collaboration, and having a real connection to your organisational purpose. In the case of employees returning from a period of furlough, communication is at the centre of the way we experience work. It is how we create value, share the stories that shape the highs and lows of our contributions, and most importantly it provides the signposts to guide us on our journey and ensure we’re all reading off the same page and clear on the direction of travel. 

Ben Reynolds, MD of Gallagher’s Communication consulting arm expands further, “employees want to be connected, engaged and inspired by the direction the organisation is taking. Storytelling and having a realistic view of what’s shaping the workplace and the market, along with an understanding of the commercial pressures facing the business is a hallmark quality of an organisation that creates an experience employees can lean in to.”

“Furloughed employees often feel disconnected and mindful that things have moved on while they were out of the business. Wrapping a layer of regular of structured communications around your workforce informs the way they experience change and is the heartbeat of the employee:employer contract. It’s as much about an emotional connection as it is about an objective outlook of what the business is looking to achieve. Get it right, and you provide a smooth path back into the organisation and laser focused on what needs to be done.”

What’s more, communication is integral to productivity, retaining key talent, and empowering our people to step in to new opportunities. Having a regular flow of messaging that touches the team on multiple levels – from access to tools, resources and benefit & support packages, through to team talk, business updates and a message from the CEO – rounds out the experience further, acknowledging that employees are three-dimensional entities with a diverse range of needs and aspirations.

Mindset over matter – deepening connection through clarity backed by purpose

2021 is likely to be shaped by one thing – change. Employees returning from furlough will have experienced unexpected change first hand, which presents a mix of responses – from anxiety and a sense of separation from team mates, through to the ability to adapt and evolve to challenges as they arise. Whatever way we frame this up, motivating employee mindset is integral to a successful transition back in to the workplace.

Sally Earnshaw, MD Culture Change Consulting at Gallagher, explains further. “There’s definitely opportunity with un-furloughing people back into the workplace to really think about how the organisation supports mindset.” 

“Lots of companies are landing a significant amount of change. This presents a massive opportunity to equip employees to readily adapt to change. Mindsets like an ability to think in a more agile way, an ability to be more imaginative about different ways of working, a willingness to want to lean into change and be part of the change journey and have a sense of accountability for being able to contribute to the organisation.”

On-boarding furloughed employees is a ‘re-induction’ opportunity
It’s easy to take for granted that employees returning to the workplace after a period of furlough will instantly transition back in to the rhythm of the workplace with minimum of fuss. This brings us back to the concept of change. Irrespective of whether an employee returns to remote working or a physical return to the office, things will have changed and adapted. Social distancing has reconfigured working spaces, collaboration is at arm’s length, and teamwork is now a rule of six. 

There are some practical things that can make a difference here. Providing a workplace guide, access to information on how to work safely and securely and providing forums to connect and re-immerse them back into projects and other business-led initiatives. Having a clearly laid out plan to structure the return to work will be viewed as a positive value-add by employees, and if nothing else it shows your organisation cares about the experience and the wellbeing of the team. This can include guidance on how to commute safely, a copy of the COVID-safe working guidelines, and any additional information tailored to an employee’s role that helps them move forward with increased confidence.

Decision making in a period of anxiety and uncertainty

For the majority of us, job security and stability is a priority and a motivator. Furlough pulled the rug out from underneath roughly 9.5 million UK employees – equating to roughly 30% of the workforce. 

AHC Pensions expert, Karen Bolan shares one perspective on the impact of furlough. “The heightened uncertainty that furlough has presented, has motivated some employees to cash in investments, change pension arrangements out of necessity or as a knee-jerk response in the expectation of tougher times ahead. In some cases this is a harsh reality, however, for others it raises of the question of how to make prudent decisions when your sense of employment stability changes.”

“Seeking advice and considering the longer term view versus short term pressures can be a surprising positive in the current environment. It’s as much about perspective as it is about equipping yourself with the right information to make the best available decisions. Connecting returning employees with information on workplace pensions and the broader benefits offering is one move organisations and employers can make at this time to help their people to adapt to changing circumstances.” 

Employers and organisations investing time to communicate benefits packages to employees returning from furlough can be helpful in motivating more informed choices about the things that provide security and financial wellbeing longer term. 

Face time and social time has changed 

The concept of being social is arguably not what it was pre-pandemic. And for employees returning to the workplace after week or months away from the team, it can be a pretty confronting experience. What’s more, navigating video meetings and virtual contact with customers is not the first choice for everyone, and it takes time to get used to. 

Seeking advice and perspectives from non-furloughed employees on what could help returning colleagues successfully transition back into the business is an inclusive approach that will resonate on a number of fronts. Whether it involves an informal buddying system or scheduling a regular 1:1 catching up, striking the right social balance is about reducing the perceived distance and bringing furloughed employees closer.

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