When the coronavirus pandemic began wreaking havoc on global economies, many countries enacted furlough schemes that allowed companies to retain their employees and protect jobs, even as they experienced business losses.
As of October, the UK government’s job retention scheme has impacted 9.6 million jobs from 1.2 million different employers. In Canada, Spain and elsewhere, millions of jobs were also similarly protected with their own furlough and wage subsidy programs. More than six months into the pandemic, many of these schemes are ending, prompting extensions and reforms. Many employers must soon apply to these programs anew or bring back their furloughed employees.
Whether your HR leaders are wondering how to stay in touch with furloughed employees or preparing to recall them, this guide will provide some best practices for a smooth transition.
Even though your staff cannot work full time while furloughed, you still have an obligation to provide a certain level of care. By doing so, you’ll ensure that your employees don’t disengage and will be ready to hit the ground running when they return to work. Below are some tips that can help create a supportive environment.
1. Communicate and check in frequently.
The most important thing is to communicate often. Your furloughed employees may understandably feel stressed and anxious about their employment status. Encourage managers to touch base with their furloughed team members at least once or twice a week, although managers should gauge how often this is preferred. Be consistent, transparent and empathetic, so your furloughed employees continue to feel valued and included.
2. Set up a dedicated hub for furlough support.
Consider creating a special page on your intranet that offers furloughed employees company updates and focused content. You can also use this to store any HR documents that provide need-to-know information on furlough policies and employee resources. This intranet could include discussion forums where furloughed employees can reach out to each other for support and advice. Content such as blog posts and recordings of town halls will help keep furloughed employees in the loop. If access to the company intranet has been revoked, host the content on an external site. Make sure you provide contact information for key HR leaders in case furloughed employees have questions.
3. Remind employees of supportive services like EAPs.
The ongoing uncertainty of a furlough can have a considerable impact on mental health. According to a study of more than 2,000 employees in Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US, furloughed workers were 37% more likely than laid-off workers to experience declining mental health. To help combat this, educate your employees on any mental health benefits in their health insurance plans. Inform them of resources such as employee assistance programs that provide counseling services. Consider purchasing subscriptions to digital mental health platforms like Calm, Ginger or Happify Health to show furloughed employees that you’re prioritizing their well-being.
4. Organize fun activities employees can participate in remotely.
There are many activities that can still be performed virtually to engage furloughed employees, such as book clubs, happy hours, workout classes and more. Encourage other staff to attend as well. If teams have regular, informal catchups, include furloughed coworkers. Just ensure all activities are not related to work projects.
5. Direct employees to professional development resources.
While on furlough, employees are still allowed to engage in continuing education and skills development programs. Whether you provide company-sponsored courses or simply encourage employees to take advantage of free online resources, there is opportunity for employees to keep their skills sharp. One note of caution: if an employee performs training that provides services and generates revenue for the company, the furlough will be noncompliant, and you will have to pay wages for those hours. Furloughed employees are also permitted to perform volunteer work, so another idea is to put together a list of volunteer opportunities in your community.
HR leaders must adequately prepare when they are ready to bring furloughed employees back to work. Although they are not new to your company, you’ll still have to provide some level of onboarding for these staff members so that they don’t feel overwhelmed and are ready to return. The steps below will help you create compliant and thorough recall policies.
1. Carefully consider which employees will be recalled.
First, you need to put together an action plan for how you will determine who to bring back to work. For example, it’s common to recall employees by seniority. Employers should document the selection criteria and outline any skill set or operational needs that influence these criteria. If you base your decision on prior job performance, make sure you have hard copies of past performance reviews, as you don’t want this choice to appear subjective. You’ll also want to check that your recall policies don’t disproportionately impact protected classes, or you run the risk of discrimination claims. Of course, there will be employees you decide to terminate, for valid reasons. Check out this remote termination and offboarding checklist before you do so.
2. Inform employees in writing of any changes to their roles.
Provide a recall letter that outlines the terms of employment, whether they have been modified or not. This is essentially an offer letter, as you don’t know if the employee has been looking for alternative employment or is interested in returning. Here are some items to include:
Make it clear that this letter supersedes previous terms, and explicitly describe what has changed and what has not to avoid any confusion.
3. Provide guidance on new workplace safety procedures.
In this recall letter, also detail any new safety measures you’ve implemented, such as increased disinfection of surfaces, enforced social distancing, reduced office capacity or staggered shifts. Review remote work policies with recalled employees if they are allowed to work from home. Address your other coronavirus-related protocols, such as how employees should report if they are exposed or begin exhibiting symptoms. Many governments have enacted workplace reporting requirements, so make sure your employees have the information they need to maintain compliance.
4. Encourage managers to be flexible as employees return to work.
Company leaders should keep in mind that there will be an adjustment period. Just think of how hard it can be to get going again after a long vacation, and you’ll begin to understand the anxiety your furloughed employees are experiencing after being out of work for months. Managers should be flexible and provide ample support as their direct reports reacclimate to the workplace.
These tips will help you create furlough policies that are compliant and fair. Failure to be sympathetic to the needs and concerns of your employees, both as they remain on furlough and return to work, can breed mistrust and erode your company culture. Do everything you can to ensure that doesn’t happen. Contact us here to explore how we can help you compliantly manage your employees at every stage of their employment.
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Written by Annalisa Rodriguez