Rethinking the employer/employee relationship post-furlough

Welcome back, strangers. Much has been made of the risk to employees from the ending of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). But in addition to potential redundancies, the end of furlough also creates challenges for HR and line managers; risks as well as opportunities when it comes to re-making the employer-employee relationship.

Many businesses have changed, as may have those employees returning from long periods away from work.

The workplace post-furlough: 

Long-term furlough will take its toll on employees

Back to life, back to (a new) reality: the workplace after furlough

How can HR reintegrate staff post-furlough?

Given the severity of the pandemic, what was intended to be a short-term emergency measure became something more integral to the UK’s workplace landscape. Everyone now knows what furlough means.

Much has changed within organisations and the lives of staff meaning the full consequences of the end of the scheme may not be seen for quite some months.

HR leaders have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use this period to make use of what’s been learnt from the furlough experience on both sides and try out different working models, particularly around part-time roles.

Where people were on so-called full-time furlough is perhaps where the most risk lies. Without a doubt, there will be instances where it has delayed a redundancy process, but equally it may have given employees the time, space and relative financial security to think about their priorities in life and whether they want to continue working for their employer, or at least working in the way that they were pre-pandemic.

Some people may want to reduce their hours or alter the time they work. Others may have started doing self-employed work and have plans to continue this alongside their employment before deciding whether to pursue it full time and so it may take a while for the overall picture to emerge.  

Likewise, employers may decide to see how things go for the next few months if business is looking good. But into the New Year there are likely to be those who want to refashion their business.

What surveys tell us now about intended actions around recruitment and retention may not represent a true picture of the situation once both sides have evaluated their post-furlough experiences.

This is an extraordinary time for both sides in the employment relationship. There is a lot to think about, and employers and employees will need to work together to navigate what is to come.

In this time of readjustment and reorientation, when the furlough ‘strangers’ are coming back on board, it will be more important than ever that lines of communication remain open, and that a variety of options about future ways of working are openly explored.

At this point some employees may feel quite divorced from their organisations, anxious about returning to work, or to the commute. There may be practical changes in the workplace and to how their work is performed which will need to be learned.

Much of the advice around managing a return to the office or the beginning of a hybrid working arrangement will remain relevant in these situations.

The flexible furlough scheme has essentially meant a national experiment in part-time working. In the past employers have often perceived part-time working as costly and inconvenient, and have struggled to create quality part-time jobs.

One could argue, though, that those that have been on part-time furlough are less vulnerable in this current situation, as they have remained connected to their organisation during the pandemic, and likewise their employers will have more insight into what is going on in their individual lives.

Post-furlough, research is now underway at Cranfield (with a Steering group involving the CBI, TUC, CMI and CIPD), into the impact of the flexible element of the furlough scheme on employer attitudes and whether a new basis for part-time offerings emerges.

Early conversations with employers suggest the majority have drawn positives from the experience, but will this experience be converted into tangible change?

Building back better has become a cliché. As more employees come back to workplaces, or have to start looking for other opportunities in the job market, it’s important that HR doesn’t assume there can be ‘business as usual’.

The world’s moved on. And, in particular, it’s time for taking a proactive approach to reshaping employee relationships.


Clare Kelliher is professor of work and organisation at Cranfield School of Management.