Our Knowledge

How to communicate to furloughed employees

Keeping your furloughed workforce focused with intelligent communications will again be high on the agenda in the current climate.

We looked into it in a lot of detail in 2020 as we were coming to terms with Lockdown One, and we recorded a podcast on the topic. And as we looked ahead to a year of change in 2021, who could have predicted that a mere four days later we’d be back into lockdown? The coronavirus crisis has provided the harshest of reminders that nothing in this life can ever be taken for granted.

Amongst those experiencing that reminder most keenly, are the business leaders across the country who have had to take actions of the most unprecedented nature to protect everything they have worked so hard to create, maintain and grow. Again a significant proportion of workforces look likely to be furloughed. Meanwhile, many of the remaining workforce, will be working from home to continue with their duties.

Furloughing employees and having others work from home presents a number of challenges, not least how to ensure that, should they hopefully return to work, their skills remain sharp and their motivation to succeed continues to be high.

In this piece, we look at how best to manage lines of communication with the two groups of employees no longer onsite; the home-workers and those on furlough leave, even those who may find they do not have a job to come back to.

The home-workers

It goes without saying that those working from home will require more regular and comprehensive management to ensure their productivity isn’t diminished by their new, albeit temporary working arrangements. Central to this management is communications.

How and when communications happen with home-workers will often be determined by the evolving government response to the pandemic and subsequent shifts in market behaviour. Both require constant analyses of the strategic and business impact on your organisation, the conclusions of which should be shared with these workers on either a weekly basis, or ad hoc where developments are significant.

Though it may seem unusual to share sensitive information with such frequency, it is critical to use every tool at your disposal to engage employees who are physically removed from the business. Keeping them updated with the organisation’s real-time position is a powerful method of ensuring optimal engagement. How this information is shared will depend on the nature of your business and what has proved successful so far, but video conferences and written correspondence have both been found to be effective.

As critical as such correspondence is to keeping home-workers engaged and informed, it must also be remembered that these new working arrangements won’t be welcomed by every employee. With stringent government restrictions placed on movements outside the home, some home-workers will begin to feel trapped, especially those also managing young families and/or with no access to private outdoor space.

It is accordingly important to provide positive messaging on a daily basis. How this looks should vary day-to-day but can include celebrations of personal successes, inspirational quotes, even humorous internet memes depicting the challenges of life in quarantine, presented via e-shots.

Supplementing this positive messaging should also be general soft messaging promoting healthy lifestyle choices during lockdown. These can include recipes, physical exercise programs, meditation and relaxation exercises, and even recommended books, online articles and films. Rather than being too regimental about when such messaging is sent and risking it becoming spammy, only share such resources and advice when you find something really worthwhile.

On the topic of spam, getting the messaging balance right can be helped by targeting divisional home-workers appropriately so that they are not inundated with organisational correspondence that is irrelevant to their role. Divisional messaging should be communicated by MDs several times a week.

The current situation we find ourselves in is far from ideal, but if you can implement the above messaging strategies with sufficient order and rhythm, there’s no reason your home-workers should become disengaged.

Furloughed workers

Your furloughed staff represent a different proposition altogether. Though still employees of the company, they will be doing no work during their leave, instead simply being asked to play their part in the national effort by staying indoors. However, accepting these workers as being out of commission until central government advises otherwise and so ‘leaving them to it’, would be unwise.

There is a real danger that furloughed employees, who become too distanced from the company during their leave, will find the transition back into work difficult and become deskilled in the meantime. Therefore, business critical updates should be shared with them on a weekly basis. These can either be shared in writing, or employees can be invited to participate in conference calls. For many, as well as keeping them engaged in business performance, the distraction from life in quarantine will be welcome.

In terms of changes to their furloughed status, these should be communicated as and when HMRC update their guidance.

Beyond these formal communications, there is little else an employer can do that is work-related. In fact, the government retains the right to audit the furlough scheme at any time, and if they find signs of deliberate abuse, can claw back any payments reimbursed to the employer. As such, employers also need to be careful about organising training modules for furloughed staff as evidence that any training carried out by employees on furlough is making money for or providing services to their employer, also risks a claw back of reimbursements. That said, there is nothing to stop an employer providing furloughed employees with resources to keep their mind active and their skills sharp.

In terms of less formal communications, it is highly advisable that employers maintain weekly check-ins with furloughed staff to provide general updates and check on their overall wellbeing. These can be accompanied by ad hoc communications offering advice on ways of coping and getting the most out of life in quarantine.

An unfortunate reality for furloughed employees is that not all of them will have jobs to go back to. This should make no difference to the quality, type and regularity of the communications you have with them, the only difference being that these employees will need to be told when their roles, post-coronavirus, are to be made redundant. Once this information has been shared, employers continue to have an ethical and moral obligation to these employees and support them to the ultimate termination of their contracts.

Final thought

Though social distancing will be the norm for the foreseeable, it is crucial that this distancing only remain physical. Human beings are inherently social creatures, and communication is vital to all aspects of personal wellbeing.

Those companies which implement and maintain meaningful, differentiated, and empathetic communications with their at-home workforce will be the ones that find the transition into normal operations the easiest.

Communications are a critical pillar supporting every business at the best of times. During an event in history such as this, they are the most important. Efforts into getting them right should reflect this.

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