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Maintaining morale after furlough ends

Steve Arnold, CEO - e-days

Improving employee morale is a difficult task at the best of times. If individuals or entire teams feel disengaged, then their attitude and outlook is likely to be worse than those who feel satisfied and motivated by their working environment. Identifying who feels this way, why they do, and what can be done to support them is crucial for any business.

Now, COVID-19 has created a working world of extremes, not least the dichotomy between furloughed and non-furloughed workers. HR teams, already overwhelmed by new issues presented from the fallout of the pandemic, will have to deal with the challenges of somehow getting back to normal.

Managing staff returning from furlough, HR needs to consider the potential conflict with those staff who have ‘carried on as normal’. Also, there will be conflicting expectations around the working environment and remote working. Obviously, there is an ongoing employee anxiety around their health and catching COVID-19.

These will mean challenging times for leaders attempting to maintain morale amongst the workforce. However, preparing the business to handle them, appropriately and quickly, will go a long way to ensuring the longevity of good employee morale in the organisation.

Fed up with furlough or sour about staying on?

A significant proportion of UK businesses utilised the Governments furlough scheme to support their organisation during the height of the pandemic. Now that the scheme looks to end in October, the process of ‘unfurloughing’ employees has begun. Aside from the immediate threat of job redundancy, this could cause rifts between colleagues who begin to work together again after a long pause.

Tensions between these two teams of people may arise. Imagine a furloughed staff member returns from furlough only to book a holiday from their allowance. Ultimately the mental fatigue, worry, and boredom likely felt by many that were furloughed may well clash with colleagues who saw their workloads double, and now feel burnt-out and stressed. Organisations need to be aware of both sides of the coin, set sensible policies and offer support duly.

Those that were furloughed will require some form of ‘re-training’ as many will have been out of their roles for nearly 5 months, and in some cases will have returned to different teams facilitating the business in different ways then they may be used to. Employees that have stayed working will need guidance and support to ensure they are now able to take time off and recuperate now that their workloads can be divided among more people. Businesses need visibility of where these issues might be occurring within teams so managers are aware of individuals who need the most support, whether that be signposting them to online wellbeing materials, or warning them of those likely to burnout. Such systems need not be high in cost but can go a long way to help leadership teams manage challenges that come out of the furlough scheme.

Reluctant returners versus racing back

The debate over flexible working is another area that will need be managed swiftly. For many organisations, a traditional way of working in an office around colleagues has been deemed the most effective way to get teams working productively. However, remote working for many has become the norm, and the positive impact of work life balance noted.

It is possible that many will feel passionately on this topic. Businesses that recognise this and look to transform their working style are more likely to please their workforce. Simple questionnaires to understand preference, along with 121s will give decision makers a clearer picture of what is wanted and expected in their teams. Now there are strict rules in place, which will stop companies from returning everyone to the office five days a week, so for at least the foreseeable future there will be a degree of flexible working.

When it comes to communicating effectively with staff, the pandemic should not have changed anything. Employees expect clear communication. Without it, room is left for individuals to come to their own conclusions and this is a problem for organisations looking to bring teams together, because if anything it pulls them apart. Understanding preference, using this to adapt workplace routines, and communicating these plans are all simple steps that will prevent further division. Integrating software that signals whether staff are in or out of the office is a way to manage expectations associated with flexible working and stay up to date with Government guidelines.

COVID-casual or COVID-concerned

While our own research found that most considered the impact to their health a lesser worry than the impact to their work-life balance, there were still a quarter of people who sighted health worries as their main concern. The anxiety felt by employees can of course be detrimental to the overall morale of the business. If employees don’t feel safe coming into work, their motivation and productivity levels are likely to decline.

Again, a big part of handling these concerns is by listening to worries and why people have them, and then communicating plans that will tackle these problems head on. Worries could vary from employee to employee and it is important that this is observed. Providing staff with tools and resources that they can access easily is another way to improve the situation. These could be documents highlighting government guidance for safe offices, and how the business has reflected these within their own plans, to systems that allow employees to signal whether they will be in the office, and if they are absent whether this is due to experiencing COVID-like symptoms.

If anxious employees feel like their concerns have been heard and met with appropriate measures, then not only will the impact to their mental health be better but their outlook on their working environment will improve. Health implications are a real worry for some, and they will certainly cause conflict in the workplace if not dealt with.

Division in your workforce is the last thing needed when attempting to return employees to a regular working routine. Stress, worry and anxiety will all impact employee morale. But prioritising these issues immediately will put business leaders a step ahead and allow them to combat and address concerns directly. Systems that allow organisations to easily signpost employees to wellbeing materials, while ensuring employees are properly rested, and noting when individuals in teams fall sick and for what reasons, are becoming vital in ensuring a safe return to work, and in helping businesses re-build post-COVID. Without these, companies’ risk being left in the dark and employees in conflict during times when they should be uniting to deliver the best business outcomes.

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