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Lifting Covid Restriction – Coming back from long term furlough

In the second of our series of updates looking at the issues for employers to manage as we emerge from the restrictions, we look at employees returning to work after a period of long term furlough.

As mentioned in our article last week on getting back to the office, you probably have a mix of those who are clamouring to get back, with those who have very much enjoyed their furlough experience at home!  In many cases there will be nervousness about returning, with most being out of practice in the world of work and the changes that have happened whilst they’ve been away.

We start with a real-life personal insight from a close friend of the People Solutions team:

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“I’m finally returning to work this month after nearly 14 months on furlough.  My employer was instantly affected by Covid and we won’t fully recover until people start travelling again.  I found myself at home from last April and I literally wasn’t needed at all.  Having worked full time for the last 20 years in busy customer service environments, this has been a strange and unwelcome experience.  I’m not used to being in the house all day – I like to be busy.  I also like the variety and people contact of working and really missed it.

It’s easy to say that furlough is the easy option, but actually, it was frustrating and worrying.  Home schooling was a challenge and balancing with my partner working from home created arguments in the family – I would rather have been working!  Money is always a worry and 80% pay wasn’t easy.

My biggest fear was not having a job to go back to at all.  I know other people in the business have been made redundant.  I feel lucky to have kept my job and also sad that colleagues have gone and we’ll have to cope with fewer people when we go back.

Now I realise how much I’ve forgotten while I’ve been away.  I can’t remember my passwords or how to log on to our system.  I used Zoom for the first time this week, with no idea how frustrating it is getting used to being on screen and dealing with this new way of meeting up.  Of course, everyone else is used to it by now so it feels awkward to keep asking for help.

My first day back at the office is on Monday – I can’t wait, but I also feel like the new person again.  We’ve all worked two days a week over the last month to get ready and that’s included 1-1 meetings with our manager, planning a return to work training plan and taking part in a team meeting and re-induction workshop for the afternoon.  This has all helped me feel part of the business again and we have great plans for the future.

I know I need to get back into a work routine – up early, on the train, focus all day and keep my concentration, deal with pressure and stress again.  It is daunting and I know I need coaching and support. I’m pleased to be getting back to normal again and feel really lucky.”

So how might it feel coming back from furlough?

  • Starting with the basics, your employees may just not be used to the daily routine of work, including the early starts and the commute.  They may find this tiring and frustrating to start with and it could take a while to get back some of their energy and enthusiasm.
  • Home commitments, everything from running the children to school to being at home with the dogs.  Families are having to adjust to everyone going out again every day and this is naturally going to cause disruption.
  • Being out of touch; so much has happened in the last year that your employees will feel distant from your business and from their team.  They may not know how your business has coped or the things that have changed and will need reassurance and information.
  • Mixed feelings about reconnecting with team members; excited to see them again, maybe meeting new ones, but also getting used to the fact that some will have moved on.
  • Feeling like the new person again! It’s not an understatement to say that for some people returning from furlough, it might feel like their first day in your business again and they will be just as nervous and in need of training and support.

How can you help?

  • Reminders and retraining, depending on how long people have been away.  Simple things like passwords, IT systems and basic processes might be distant memories and some re-familiarisation will be needed. 
  • If your business has been operational throughout, you will have changed the way you do things.  It might be worth considering this a “re-induction” process for those returning to get everyone operating in the same way.
  • Needing to catch up on the technology – for those who’ve worked throughout, Zoom, Teams and working from home has become second nature and we’ve adapted.  Those returning from furlough will feel the need to catch up with the technology and get to grips with on-line conferencing and new ways of communicating.
  • Health concerns may still be a consideration, particularly for those who were shielding.  They will need confidence that you have a Covid safe environment.  Take the time to appreciate any concerns and provide the reassurance they need.

Bringing furloughed and non-furloughed employees back together

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There will undoubtably be challenges if you are managing this situation.  On the one hand there are those who’ve worked throughout and coped with everything the last year has thrown at them.  They have been essential and enabled you to stay in business. 

On the other hand, your furloughed employees had to stay away, they’ve have lost touch with the working environment, earned less money and worried about the future.  Now they need to face up to coming back, while their colleagues may treat them like they’ve been on a long holiday!

Acknowledging the potential for conflict, bad feeling and a lack of teamwork will allow you to put plans in place to overcome this situation.  The reality is that it might be difficult and will take some time to create the team atmosphere you had in the past.

What you can do?

  • Communicate effectively with those returning by taking a personal approach.  Take the time to talk to them about their return and any concerns.  Accommodate (as much as possible) any requirements to phase back in, understand their home commitments and overcome any fears.
  • Communicate effectively with those who’ve worked throughout – with praise and thanks!  Explain your return from furlough plan for those returning and the support you need from them.  Be aware of any potential resentment and discuss it. 
  • Take account of any retraining or familiarisation required and plan this in.  You don’t want your returning employees to feel left behind or create a burden for other staff to bring them up to speed.
  • Consider a buddy system, if you can pair up those who’ve been working with those returning to help with reintegration and familiarisation, particularly if processes, clients, teams and job roles have changed over the last year.
  • Recreate your team environment with activities to bring people back together.  A company business update, a plan for the year ahead with targets for the future and social activities will all bring back the enthusiasm.
  • Monitor long term furlough returners carefully, just as you would during probation.  Talk to them regularly and put in place a personal training plan if they need extra support.  Make sure they quickly get back to their previous performance standards.
  • Consider holidays – prioritise those who’ve worked throughout and be clear on when and how everyone can use up carried over entitlements.

Look out for our next update, but in the meantime please do get in touch if you have any questions:  HRConsulting@Menzies.co.uk  or 01784 497220

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