Communicating with furloughed employees   

Furlough. Most of us had never used the word before the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was announced. Now it’s on everyone’s lips as thousands of employers place some of their people on temporary leave.

Many of these employees will return to their old jobs once the pandemic has passed, so it’s essential that employers maintain a good relationship with their teams during this uncertain period. After the recent announcement that the Government’s scheme has been extended to the end of October, you need to know how to communicate with your furloughed employees.

Here are our top 10 tips for communicating with furloughed employees:

  1. Explain what furlough leave is and isn’t. Just as employers are getting to grips with what the term means and how it works, employees, too, are confused. Explain what the term means (think of it as a paused employee – being on hold) and how much they will be paid. Explain how their holiday, benefits or pension payments may be affected. Explain what happens if they get sick while they’re furloughed. Lastly, don’t make promises you can’t keep about life beyond furlough. Make it clear what they are allowed to do, and not allowed to do as furloughed employees. Consider a Do’s and Don’ts guide so there’s no ambiguity.
  2. Don’t use people’s work emails. That’s essentially asking them to log on to work equipment which is against the furlough rules. Explain that you are keen to communicate with them about non-work matters during their furlough and ask for their personal email address to do so. But recognise that they’re under no obligation to give it to you and you must give them the option of opting out at any time.
  3. Keep them updated about what’s happening in the organisation. A weekly in-touch newsletter, aimed at furloughed employees, is a great way to keep in touch. Many will have been furloughed very quickly at a time when the organisation was in panic mode. By explaining what’s happening (both good and bad) during this constantly-evolving situation, the employee will be reassured that they know the full picture.
  4. It’s good to talk. Suggest managers call up their furloughed direct reports informally just to catch up on how they’re feeling. A call from HR or a director might feel uncomfortable or overly formal. Encourage furlough ‘buddies’ so people can keep in touch and talk about their experiences. Maintain a social bond between teams. Some part of a team may be furloughed while others are still working which can create tension. Bringing teams together for regular social activities is a good way to maintain morale and make everyone feel part of the same team.
  1. They can’t work for you, but they don’t have to do nothing. Suggest things that your team members could do during this time that will help their career in the longer-term and keep them occupied. This could include:
  • Training – explain if there’s a budget
  • Volunteering within the community or NHS
  • Reading business/ sector-specific books – suggest some titles
  • Listening to a relevant podcast – perhaps the team could make some suggestions
  • Working elsewhere – employees can work elsewhere even during the hours that they would have worked for you
  1. Advice and support during lockdown. Just as you’re supporting your working teams during this unusual period, consider doing the same with your furloughed employees. Advice around sticking to a routine and homeschooling will be just as welcome for furloughed team members as those working remotely. Providing a self-care guide is a nice way to demonstrate that you care. It could include exercise ideas that people can do at home, advice on good nutrition and avoiding snacks and tips for a good night’s sleep.
  2. Understand that everyone is different. People will have differing reactions to being furloughed. Parents with young children might be relieved that they no longer have to juggle working with homeschooling. Those living alone might feel anxious that their social contact will be reduced. Introverts may need less contact that extroverts, who may find lockdown more difficult. Everyone will be concerned about their employment, their finances and the future. Make sure you understand that people react differently under these circumstances and tailor your communication accordingly.
  3. Create a safe psychological environment. This is a challenging period for everyone – those working and those furloughed. The future is uncertain for us all. The lack of face-to-face interaction can cause mistrust and misunderstanding. Encourage everyone to input into group discussions about their feelings and experiences, respect people’s differences and opinions and watch out for signs that people are withholding and not contributing.
  4. Be human. Only last month, the furloughed people were sitting opposite you and working normally. Don’t treat them differently now.
  5. Keep people updated. This is a fast-moving situation. Your organisation’s position may change just as Government advice is changing. Keep people informed of any change to company policy but acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers, nobody does.

Jo Sutherland is managing director of Magenta Associates, the communications agency for the built environment