Engaging employees through furlough; six simple tips

Article by Julie Cameron, Managing Director of DRIVE Engagement

Laptop on desk, working from homeA great deal of time has been dedicated recently to the topic of ensuring your employees remain engaged during these “unprecedented times”.

Certainly, whilst this is a worthy activity and something that needs to be front of all our minds, a topic that hasn’t been given quite so much airtime is that of engaging those employees who are currently on furlough.

Here are our six top tips on how to engage your furloughed employees, simply and legally: 

1. It’s the journey, not the destination; bring them along too

Avoid the belief that when people are placed on furlough that time is simply frozen or that your team will return to the business exactly how they were when they left. In reality, it’s inevitable that employees will feel different as a result of their time away from the business.

And let’s be frank, everything is changing on a weekly and even daily basis and will probably continue to do so for some time to come. Behaviours will be different, perceptions will be altered, what drives and motivates people will likely be very different too.

Take note of this, discuss these changes, agree on what the challenges are likely to be and reassure team members. Then keep this in mind as you move forward, coming back to earlier discussions to clarify and reassure colleagues.

2. Communication is key

Employers can, and indeed should, maintain contact with employees during furlough to keep them notified on any official business updates regarding how the business is operating, but should avoid any work-related content. We advocate going one step further by encouraging team leaders to contact furloughed team members regularly for a general health and wellbeing check too.

As a reminder, furloughed employees must not use their work mobile number or email address during their period of furlough. Whilst no work-related information should be shared, if you wish to provide wellbeing guidance, training opportunities and keep furloughed employees updated with official business updates then asking them to opt-in with their personal contact details to receive information from your organisation is a good idea.

Whilst it is difficult to predict with certainty the future business and employment landscape, you can still use this time to reassure team members that they have not been forgotten about and that they are still very much valued by the business. We recommend connecting in every few weeks over a phone call and then for team leaders to send a ‘check in’ text message weekly too.

3. Make them feel valued

For the furloughed employee who has returned to work, knowing that the business has continued to run during their absence can lead to insecurities around their importance and value to the company.

Reassuring them about the value they bring to the business and what future plans you have in place increases certainty and reduces anxiety.

 4. Offer training

A furloughed employee can undertake training, for example to maintain their skill set or upskill themselves whilst furloughed, as long as the purpose of this is to improve the employee’s effectiveness in their employer’s business or the performance of their employer’s business.

Offering training at this time not only gives a furloughed employee something to do during this time, but it also keeps their mind focused, ensuring they can pick back up when they do return to the business. Most importantly though, it reminds the employee that you care for their development. Little things like this go a long way to give team members that extra layer of confidence and reassurance.

5. Human connections

Those who have been in work during the pandemic have experienced a very different working pattern and they are also likely to have seen their colleagues in a new light. Whilst it is important to embrace this new way of working and not to be apologetic for it, the key here is that those in furlough will not yet have experienced this. It is therefore the team leader’s responsibility to share these little anecdotes with furloughed team members and indeed to prepare them for what they may experience when they return.

Likewise, they will need to work hard on bringing the team back together once everyone returns, ensuring that there are no divides between those who remained at work and those who were furloughed. And remember, whilst it’s important for team leaders to stay in touch with employees, there’s no harm in having everyone keep in touch across the team too to keep those bonds strong, again only with the individual’s permission.

6. Ease them in

Employers must not underestimate the significance of being furloughed and the huge impact that this is likely to have had on those who have been affected. Stepping away from working life and all that it entails for several months is a major adjustment. In many ways, the situation can be likened to that of those returning from a period of parental leave, only with added concerns around the long-term security of your company, heightened anxiety around safety and uncertainly around everything the ‘new normal’ has in store.

Team leaders will need to keep in mind that the working environment will have dramatically changed too (whether that be a shop floor, factory floor or office environment) and they will need to help those who have been furloughed get up to speed with the new ways of working, as well as safety and operations procedures. In fact, this will be the first thing that you will need do upon their return. As well as a fundamental responsibility, it is important to reassure employees and provide a strong level of certainty that they will be working in a safe environment.

It’s important for employers and team leaders to recognise that integration and engagement of furloughed staff will not happen overnight. Instead, the process will be gradual and no doubt, many will learn as they go along given the enormity of the situation and how quickly it is developing.

However, with ongoing conversations, open and honest communication and a lot of support along the way, those who are furloughed will be able to come back into the business engaged and ready to commit long term to their organisations as we move into this ‘new normal’, however that might look.

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