“I feel bewildered and adrift with the structure gone. I miss being good at something every day. I’d felt part of the team before, I don’t feel important now.”
“It’s the not knowing that is frightening and scary, I don’t know if I’m going back to work. I always believed I did a good job, but that all feels forgotten.”
“I feel disillusioned with my employer. It’s made me wonder if they really care for their staff.”
These are comments from three different people in managerial or director roles in different industries who talked anonymously to our team about being furloughed. We’ve called them Sarah, James and Nick.
They told us their fears, their frustrations, their worries about being made redundant and what it will be like to return to work. All hope to return to their jobs, even though they know their roles and their working environment will feel different. None of them feel particularly comfortable about this.
All three were disheartened and disappointed about the lack of communication from their employers, something that also exacerbated their anxieties about their roles, financial security and future. Yet they also understood their pressure their employers’ businesses are under and the rationale behind them being furloughed.
So what can employers and people managers learn from these snapshots of life in furlough?
Communication is allowed and encouraged under the furlough scheme
James told us: “My employer seems to think that they are not allowed to engage with me about the business. I can understand that there’s been a lot of controversy about fraud and furlough, but I feel really detached and then anxiety spirals, not helped with a disproportionate level of time on my hands”.
Although employees cannot work during the furlough period, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Coronavirus (COVID-19): furlough guide spells out how and why employers can communicate with furloughed staff.
“An employer’s duty of care for employees continues during furlough so employers must maintain non work-related contact with furloughed staff to discuss any personal matters, including their health and well-being, and to allow employees to ask any questions or raise concerns.”
In our roles at Renovo, where we support employers and employees through redundancy, we see too many examples of poor communication leaving employees feeling that their individual needs are not being met.
But from an employer’s perspective, getting the balance right is vital. Employers need to remain impartial so that they do not get accused of favouritism or bias, especially if redundancies are being considered. This is not an easy balance to strike when every individual and organisation has been finding their feet, but seeking guidance about any elements that aren’t clear can significantly support both relationships and the business.
Furloughed employees can feel lost
Sarah said: “I feel bewildered and adrift with structure gone. I miss being good at something every day. I was brought up thinking if I work really hard, I’ll get on, but it’s not the case now”.
Employers may want to offer more support, but conversely may feel the strain of furlough terms and conditions or trying to remain at a distance in order to maintain impartiality.
It’s possible, however, to give employees consistent communication, whether in the form of a company update, or a more pastoral ‘catch up’, to help them feel less anxious and more involved.
Furloughed employees may feel disengaged
James’ view: “I feel quite disillusioned. I’m not sure about whether my employer’s view of how they perceive me is accurate, if they really valued me based on my ethics. It makes me feel undervalued. It’s raised a lot of questions about how much they really care for staff”.
Some individuals know they’ll be going back to work and that their financial future is fairly secure. Others don’t know what the future holds or what the business will look like if they do go back.
While remaining impartial, employers can still guide their people towards practical support, or provide written advice on themes such as mental health and motivation. They can also take pulse surveys to understand emotions and then respond accordingly, or offer online learning for new skills or resilience programmes.
Line managers and HR may need to redress some issues
Nick’s view: “If I went back, it would change things. I’m frustrated with the company and my boss, but the boss is the face of the company to me. After I heard about being furloughed, my boss said he’d do a video conference at 9 the next morning. He didn’t show up for it - or apologise.”
As the CIPD’s furlough guide explains, “contact helps maintain furloughed employees’ loyalty and engagement so that they can return to work smoothly after the lockdown. Contact should be arranged ahead of time, so it’s expected”.
Employers should also support line managers to maintain contact with furloughed staff and ensure that they are clear about what they can and can’t do.
Returning to work may feel uncomfortable both for furloughed employees and for those who have remained.
James explained: “When I go back, I’ll feel like a newbie. I’m so out of the loop on how the business has been innovating and changing. The guys in the team who are involved in shaping the new way of working are going to be in a different space from the rest of us. I know they’re shattered and desperate for time off. They think we’ve been having cushy life, but I’d trade places with them tomorrow”.
Employees’ different perspectives are likely to be at odds. Furloughed employees may feel anxious and like they’ve re-entered a working world that may have substantially changed, while the people who have remained may feel overstretched and frustrated that they haven’t had ‘time off’.
It’ll be a hurdle that needs planning for, so employers help relieve tensions and reunite teams.
Accept that redundancies will be inevitable in some businesses
All three of the furloughed employees we spoke to were aware of the pressure on the business and that being made redundant was a possibility.
Equally, most employers, especially those with a strong HR function, are familiar with the redundancy process. But in the current unique circumstances, HR needs support. If redundancies are inevitable, management needs to be able to justify their choices and demonstrate that decisions were made based on an objective set of values.
It would help too, to bear in mind that the impact of redundancy on the individuals concerned can be similar to the grieving process. Employers who understand the basics of the Kubler-Ross change curve model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) can support employees’ wellbeing so they come to accept the situation and move on with their lives.
These are incredibly difficult times for employers and employees to navigate, but understanding these perspectives will help organisations support their employees and move ahead as effectively as possible.