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Furlough Leave – An ‘Us and Them’ Culture?

When Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the introduction of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (known to most as furlough leave) on 20th March 2020, it came as a significant relief to many anxious employers and employees who may otherwise have faced a redundancy situation at that time.

In many businesses, particularly those that remained open but facing a dramatic drop in revenue, quick decisions had to be taken about who would go on furlough leave, and who would continue working.  Some business decisions about who should be furloughed were driven by employees with caring responsibilities or were based on health-related issues.  Some employers were able to alternate staff, subject to the minimum three-week furlough leave periods (removed 1st July 2020), but in other cases, it was simply down to those employees with “business-essential skills and knowledge” that were required to continue working throughout.

According to recent reports, divisions within the workplace have begun to emerge as a result, with employees who have taken on extra work during lockdown resenting their counterparts who have been on furlough leave.  Conversely, employees on furlough leave may have struggled with feeling anxious about whether or not they will have a job to return to and may have been missing the purpose and routine of work.  Divisions may also have arisen between employees who need to attend the workplace to do their work, and those who have been able to work from home.

So how can employers manage their teams to prevent or heal any divisions? 

Communication is Key

If you have employees on furlough leave, it is important to continue to communicate with them regularly (or start doing this, if you aren’t already), so they know what has been happening whilst they have been away.  Updating employees about their employment is fine under the rules, as long as you are not asking anybody to actually do any work.  It is also good to stay in touch from a wellbeing perspective.

Employees who are currently working will also want to know when it is likely their furloughed colleagues will be coming back.  With both groups, it can be helpful to be open about why decisions have been taken, and how these link to the realities faced by the business.  This can reduce the chance of employees feeling that decisions are personal.

Facilitating communication between employees can also help – most of us have participated in a Zoom quiz over lockdown, but you could also consider other options such as a simple online exercise class or virtual coffee.  Encouraging employees to discuss things that they have found challenging in small groups may help to build empathy, rather than the assumption “It’s alright for you…”.

Planning Priorities

Regular check-ins with employees who have continued to work to discuss their workload and wellbeing are important, especially if people are working at home and there are not the usual opportunities for communication that can occur naturally in the workplace.  Some employees may be under a lot of pressure working on non-critical tasks or projects that were part of their role before lockdown, with activities that are currently critical on top of that.  Could something be put on the backburner until colleagues are back from furlough leave?  Setting out key priorities for a reduced workforce can significantly alleviate pressure and make things feel fairer for employees who have assumed extra responsibilities.

Support Return to Work

If an employee has been on furlough leave for the duration of the scheme and returns to work on 1st November 2020, they will have been away from work for eight months (furlough pay could be backdated to 1st March 2020).  This is a long time!  As such, developing a return to work plan, as you would for somebody who has been on maternity leave or off sick for a long time, may be helpful.

A lot is likely to have happened, and so updating them on the business will be a key part of the plan.  In particular, telling employees about safety measures that you have introduced and listening to any concerns they have may help them to feel reassured about the prospect of returning to work, and will also help to ensure they follow the new procedures.

Check the Grievance Procedure

Hopefully this will not be required, but an up-to-date grievance procedure can also be helpful if a situation escalates.  Your grievance procedure should also include options for informal resolution where appropriate, such as mediation.

The View HR team are here to support employers who are experiencing challenges with divisions within the workplace, and so if difficulties have started to arise, or you would like support to implement these measures, please contact us for an initial discussion.