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Employers preparing for the easing of lockdown and the potential return of furloughed workers should ensure employee engagement and clear communications are top of their list, says Lucie Mitchell.
With the furlough scheme coming to an end in September, employers need to start preparing now to ensure the transition back to the workplace is as smooth as possible for all involved. So how can they prepare to bring staff back after furlough?
A recent survey by Cignpost Express Test revealed that only half of businesses had devised a plan to return employees to the office, while just 27% understood how to ensure a safe return to the office after lockdown.
Yet after several months on furlough, the return to work could be causing much anxiety and apprehension for employees; plus, there are many things to consider before welcoming staff back to the office.
It’s therefore essential that employers manage the process effectively and promote clear and open communication from the beginning. There are a number of key areas for employers to focus on now to help ensure the transition is a success.
“To start with, it will be useful for employers to review how a job role may have changed during the furlough period and what the ways of working may look like when an employee returns,” advises Emma Swan, head of commercial employment law at Forbes Solicitors.
Ruth Cornish, co-founder and director of HRi, adds that all workforces will obviously need to be fully Covid-19 secure, with new health and safety protocols clearly communicated to staff.
“If a company is welcoming back highly anxious team members from furlough, they will also need to provide an extra layer of reassurance during this time, which is of paramount importance as getting this right now will ensure longer term employee loyalty down the line.”
The pandemic has obviously impacted many businesses, which may lead some employers to consider using flexible furlough to ease staff back in and reduce wage bills until the business builds back up. Yet it is essential to handle this correctly, with honest communication being key.
“It’s important to be as open as possible about your current commercial situation and plans to address it as this provides context to help returning employees understand your actions,” remarks Lynne Hardman, CEO of Working Transitions. “In addition, being clear what their part is in supporting the organisations to achieve these goals creates the sense of purpose that is vital for engagement and motivation.”
Employers could consider Keep in Touch (KIT) days, suggests Cornish. “This will enable employees to build up their hours slowly and make the process of getting back to work less full on.”
There will also be a variety of individual needs and issues to consider when employees return to the workplace. “There may be people who have suffered bereavement of a close family member during furlough or employees who have been shielding or are suffering from long Covid,” comments Hardman.
Employers may therefore want to conduct a mental health and stress survey to identify what collective needs those furloughed workers have and how to help them, adds Cornish. “Prior to furloughed workers returning to the workplace, employers should consider arranging a one-to-one wellbeing check-in, ideally via video call or virtual team catch-ups,” she advises.
“They must also keep employees informed of any company developments and ensure a line manager is available to discuss any work-related concerns an employee may have about the current situation and the future.”
Older workers have been particularly impacted by furlough. According to the Centre for Ageing Better, by the end of September last year, 20% of everyone furloughed was over 55 years old; plus, furloughed workers aged 55-64 were the least likely to be fully back at work by September 2020, following the previous lockdown.
Many staff who have been on furlough for some time, including older workers, may therefore be worried about job security and possible redundancy after the scheme ends.
Indeed, recent research by Red Flag Alert found that the end of the furlough scheme may trigger almost 275,000 job losses.
Kim Chaplain, associate director for work at the Centre for Ageing Better, warns that while the extension of the furlough scheme has cushioned job losses, it may be masking a real crisis that will be fully realised once it comes to an end.
“Many employees may be concerned about returning to work and their job security,” she remarks. “Employers must do all they can to help people back to work and make sure their staff are comfortable, especially if returning to a physical workplace. They should give as much notice as possible of a return-to-work date, as well as offer flexible working patterns and any refresher training that may be needed. Employers must also ensure that, at every stage of the return-to-work process, age-bias does not factor.”
Promoting clear communication and focusing on employee engagement is key, concludes Swan. “By engaging employees, companies can better understand their concerns and aim to address any issues quickly and effectively. This should help promote better morale and employee wellbeing, and reduce the risk of stress, anxiety, frustration and anger compromising return to work plans and productivity.”