Companies will face multiple challenges when the UK government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough) ends in September, as laid out in the Budget.
Of the 4.7 million furloughed workers, many will be returning to their place of work after more than a year away. Their experiences may have altered their expectations, or their circumstances may have changed because of illness, bereavement, or a family member’s loss of employment. As a result, it is likely that many employees will want a greater degree of flexibility around hours of work and where they work. A 2020 survey found that more than two-fifths of respondents planned to ask for flexible working once the pandemic lockdown is lifted.
HR departments in manufacturing, hospitality, retail, transport, and other sectors where furlough has been heavily used will face particularly stiff challenges. Large numbers of their employees will be unfamiliar with the routines of work and may have to be redeployed to new teams or work from new locations. The potential for a sense of dislocation among these workforces is high and will only increase if the return to the workplace has been poorly planned. Many employees, wherever they work, will require re-onboarding so they can resume efficient work practices as quickly as possible, causing the least possible disruption to the business.
The effect of job losses will also require special handling as workers return. Given the consequence of the pandemic on the economy, many companies will reduce headcount, which will generate unease and make readjusting to life after lockdown all the harder for employees who are retained.
The sheer scale of the task facing companies can seem overwhelming. Before employees return to any workplace, there must be assessments for effective social distancing, movement flows and hygiene. Despite the mass vaccination that should have been completed, plans need to be in place should local outbreaks of a Coronavirus variant occur, or an employee becomes ill with symptoms that match it. HR departments need to ensure they have effective health and wellbeing monitoring mechanisms in place that are far more than the tick-box exercises so common before the pandemic. Employees need to have rapid access to revised information about health and safety, how the workplace will function, their new team, location of work, the rules about meetings and use of rooms and shared equipment, kitchens, toilets and reception areas among other things.
Preparation, engagement and snappy content are essential
The twin priorities should be preparation and effective communication that engages the workforce. Employees should have access to relevant information in a digestible format before they return, preferably via an online platform they can access from home whenever it suits them. The materials available should be clear, concise and targeted.
Communication should be a two-way process because it is important organisations know about changed employee requirements or circumstances as soon as possible. Finding out on the day employees return to work will cause major readjustments at a fraught time.
Given the potential for disruption, many organisations would be well-advised to use a phased return process for furloughed workers over a period of days or weeks to avoid HR and support services, such as IT, being overwhelmed. It also ensures managers can give returning workers the attention they require and allows employees a period of readjustment as they get back into the routine and brush up on rusty skills or renew their knowledge of equipment, software or specialist tools.
HR and business leaders must actively rebuild company culture
Once the workforce has returned, HR and business leaders will have the job of reinvigorating company culture. Organisations with a shared ethos and set of goals are far more productive than those that start from scratch. Yet when many workers have been away for more than a year, are in different teams or are working from home part of the week, HR and business leaders will have to seed company culture so it grows back. They should use training materials and lively internal communications, but also arrange social events, including virtual quizzes or murder mysteries so that everyone is included wherever they may be working.
The importance of such communication and regular contact with a dispersed workforce places a high priority on more effective HR technology. Organisations that have HR platforms with integrated social media functionality, for example, can use the technology as an open channel with all employees. It can also be much more than that. HR can use the platform to disseminate training materials that update employee knowledge using video content and easy-to-read guides. Employees will quickly understand new responsibilities or changes in work patterns, personnel, customers or suppliers. They will get the overall picture and find out all the details that are relevant to their own job and how it may have changed.
This approach re-establishes internal connections and rebuilds a culture that boosts teamwork and individual motivation.
Organisations should monitor longer-term well-being and employee progress
Beyond the immediate period of return, organisations need to monitor the wellbeing of employees. The return to work may cause domestic or psychological difficulties for some employees that were not immediately apparent. Early disclosure of problems offers a greater likelihood of effective therapeutic intervention or adjustment of hours or type of work.
Regular check-ins between individuals and their managers also ensure professional development and productivity are maintained. Team leaders and managers should have the technology at their fingertips to co-ordinate tasks, monitor performance and obtain a real understanding of individual employees’ requirements, training needs and goals.
HR technology with self-service access will also relieve managers of the burden of resolving common queries about procedures or personal matters such as payroll details or holiday and illness entitlements.
The end of furlough will throw some very demanding challenges at organisations as their employees return from months of inactivity. Yet almost all can be overcome if organisations plan thoroughly, realise that re-onboarding will be necessary, and are ready to adopt HR technology to engage individual employees and rebuild culture. The alternative is to be left scrabbling about for solutions, wasting precious time while competitors move forward from a position of much greater efficiency.
Andy Davies, Head of Global Enablement, MHR