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

As workers return from furlough and businesses begin to awake from enforced hibernation, HR will need to overcome some tricky challenges.

If in 2019 we’d had a window into the world as it is now, shopping, travel, meeting friends – almost everything about our everyday lives would seem unrecognisable. Yet more alien still would perhaps be the power shift between organisations and their people.

Instead of mandating the rules from the top down, organisations have relied on asking employees what it is they want and need in order to keep the wheels turning.

As the conduit for these conversations, HR has been catapulted to the top of an organisation’s agenda. And it has been said many times throughout this crisis: going forward employers will rightly be judged by the action they take now, so people teams hold a deal of power in securing the futures of their businesses.

In the months ahead, one of the great challenges will be uniting contrasting elements of the workforce. The past few months have been a mixed experience for everyone: many have enjoyed having more time in the day, but many have struggled to stay motivated and juggle more tasks.

Some have been furloughed for months, whereas others have been working throughout lockdown. Some may have thrived when working from home, whereas others are eager to return to the office and regain some sense of normality.

One of the most important aspects to consider in the face of these varied experiences will be how employers retain and rebuild the trust of their employees – whether they in or outside of the workplace.

Critical to this will be how they communicate with their staff, especially as harder times, with the redundancy of some staff, are likely to lie ahead. Recognition is also going to be high on the agenda if people are to remain loyal and engaged.

Empathy is key

As of August, the UK government’s furlough scheme has protected more than 9.6 million peoples’ jobs in 1.2 million businesses across the country.

Although relatively commonplace across the rest of the Europe, the furlough scheme was a new concept for the UK, and as such when it was rushed in back in April it brought with it a host of teething problems which some businesses are still grappling with today.

For employees, it has meant just as much, if not more, confusion and led to many taking a step back to ask themselves whether their current job is something they want after all or whether they would be happier doing something completely different.

Furlough was not a choice for employees and though many have used this time as a form of sabbatical or an opportunity to retrain, their futures have remained unclear and unstable, creating new anxieties and leading to, in some cases, disintegrating trust in their employers.

Elva Ainsworth, managing director at performance management provider Talent Innovations, says: “The furloughing scheme has been a rather brutal and painful experience for some who have not been allowed to show their commitment, or participate in the ongoing decisions regarding their future.”

Talent Innovations made the decision to furlough approximately 30% of its staff during the pandemic and, when permitted, brought some of these employees back part-time. But throughout this period, Ainsworthsays it has been a challenge to maintain the morale of furloughed employees.

She adds: “They were staff less essential to deliver the core business, but they started to see themselves as less valuable and less connected. It has been really hard ensuring they were informed and included – almost a fulltime job managing them.”

Reintegration could be difficult as she says it’s become an “us and them” situation between “those who have had time to do up their houses but feel fed up and undervalued and those who have been working really hard in horrid circumstances for only slightly more pay.”

The company is going to need to realign and reengage all employees but, Ainsworth adds: “I’m not sure how realistic it is to recover the loyalty from everyone as it was. Our furlough decisions cannot be undone.”

Even if employees aren’t returning from furlough, going back to the office for the first time could bring in tensions that have been building up over the past several months.

David Liddle, CEO at mediation and resolution consultancy TCM Group, is concerned about the risk posed by what his firm terms ‘zombie conflict.’

He says: “We are seeing a trend towards what we have dubbed ‘zombie conflict’ – heat that has been bubbling beneath the surface for some time, a bit like the zombie fires that have recently erupted in the Arctic.”

Since the start of the pandemic he says his company has seen double the number of clients looking for help with conflict, a figure which spiked in early September as employees started to re-join teams in the office.

He says: “Workplace conflict didn’t stop on 23 March. What’s happened is that many of the underlying tensions and disputes have just been dormant while people were furloughed and had time and space away from their colleagues. As the workplace starts to re-normalise, the flames of conflict have been reignited, and the old problems are starting to come back to the surface. Zombie conflicts are coming back to life.”

At its peak between 11 and 14 June, ONS figures estimated almost half (49%) of people in employment in the UK were working from home at least some of the time.

By working more in isolation, and the time this has allowed for some people to ruminate, Simon Kerr-Davis, employment counsel at Linklaters, says that on the return to work he expects to see an increase in discrimination claims. He also believes the prevalence of the Black Lives Matter movement could impact claims.

“People have had a chance to think about how they’ve been treated in the past. […] I do also think we’re going to see an increase in discrimination claims, particularly racial discrimination as people think of things like micro-aggressions they’ve experienced, the same way as after the MeToo movement we saw women starting to think about treatment that they had suffered in the past that they kind of lived with, but actually shouldn’t have done.”

But, he admits, there is also the potential for conflict to go in the opposite direction as people fear losing their jobs. “If the workforce tightens further as the COVID crisis develops and restrictions on work cause further job reductions, then things could go completely the opposite way and employees may place more value on retaining the job they have and be more reticent to raise concerns.”

With a hybrid workforce, where employees are split between the office and remote locations, there are also new challenges in how managers lead teams and retain a sense of unity.

Emma Yearwood, HR director at employee benefits provider Sodexo Engage, predicts it will be a mixed bag of emotions for employees. She says: “Some will be relieved to go

back to work and see the end of the uncertainty they may have been feeling. However, many may also feel anxious about the return, especially if they are returning virtually.

“This could heighten feelings of isolation and disconnect from colleagues after what may have already been a long period of separation.”

The role of management will be vital to making sure any potential conflict or grievances are kept at bay. Liddle advises that leaders make sure they take the time to allow employees to voice their concerns and get to the root of their problems.

Paul Smith, HRD of Le Creuset, agrees and says communication ought to be “relentless” to help people through this time.

He says: “I would say the way to avoid that conflict as much as possible is to take people out of their workspace and get them together – I mean virtually, not necessarily physically – so that they can see each other and communicate with each other outside of their own little cell.

“Because that’s probably what is exacerbating some of that frustration, and when frustration boils over into conflict it’s because people are feeling quite isolated, and they can’t see the bigger picture.”

Rick Kershaw, chief people officer at employee engagement software provider Peakon, adds that empathy will play an important role over the coming months. And, while it may be difficult to teach, there are processes that HR can follow to ensure leadership are doing the best they can for their people.

“You’ve got to be genuine […] But I think you can at least give some guidance around where you should be checking in, the signs you should be looking for, what you should be sharing back […] even to those thatdon’t naturally go into [empathy] as a skill or behaviour that they’re comfortable with. But I would expect a degree of that with all managers. You should be seeing some style flex of managers over this time,” he says.

The team at Peakon also addressed potential employee disconnect through additional leadership training on how to appropriately manage people when they’re not in the same location.

“When we shifted to fully remote working, a priority for us was supporting our managers – some of whom had never managed fully remote teams before. We ensured they had all the necessary training and support they needed – around things like communication styles – so that the transition for the whole company was as smooth as possible,” says Kershaw.

Another problem, Smith describes will be making sure that leaders and employees are still given the opportunity to meet face to face when possible so the emotional connection between colleagues and the sense of company culture is not lost altogether.

He says: “I think there is going to be this hybrid mix between working remotely on a go-forward basis, but also still having to find those opportunistic touch points where people can still feel that tangibility of the organisation, and particularly leadership in the organisation.”

Having started his EMEA role during lockdown, Smith has yet to meet many of his colleagues in person.

He adds: “I think there is a desire for that [connection]. And the longer that is not met, I think it’ll be interesting to see how disconnected people become over time.”

Reducing the switch-off Despite having had 80% of staff on furlough at its peak, the British Heart Foundation (BHF), according to director of people and organisational development Kerry Smith, has managed to maintain a sense of community throughout the pandemic.

Essential to maintaining engagement and team spirit, she says, was how the charity communicated with itsemployees: “Because furloughing was all so alien at the beginning, we put a lot of thought into how we’re going to make sure that people don’t see this as them being forgotten about. So, [we thought] how can we make sure that people are fully part of the organisation and still feel connected?”

Through an internal comms channel named Curious and Connected, BHF provided employees with a stream of information they could tap into on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. “We said if you do nothing else when you’re furloughed then login to Curious and Connected on a Wednesday, and it will have all the information for you, and you’ll find out what’s going on in the rest of the organisation too.”

The organisation’s messaging also focused on reassuring furloughed workers that they were still doing their bit at this critical time.

She adds: “Because we were anxious about how people might perceive it [furlough] […] and I didn’t want people to think that they’ve been laid off and they’re not as valuable to us as anybody else, we did a really big piece on affirming that you are so valuable that you’re helping and supporting the BHF at this time of crisis.”

The BHF had also, until the recent change in government legislation, been able to top up the pay of furloughed employees from 80% to the full 100% to give them further security throughout the period.

At British food manufacturer Premier Foods, coronavirus restrictions made the people and communications teams rethink the ways in which they were communicating with staff. HRD David Wilkinson is grateful for the opportunity this created, as now the company has found a new way of working.

He says: “I think communication has significantly improved in COVID. We use a number of different ways to communicate – so you cast the net wider – and we’ve introduced a broader range of people into the communication loop. [For example] if you’re in a factory it’s not just the factory manager now who talks to you, you might also get a message from the CEO.

“It helps if you happen to mix up the medium that you use; it’s that phrase about being a bit disruptive, isn’t it? Let’s do something different – that gets people’s attention.”

Yet striking the right balance between too much and not enough communication is becoming more complex as the novelty of video conferencing wears off and, having spent more time at their screens, people are tech fatigued.

Kershaw says: “It’s tough because I think if you over-index at the front end and think I’ve done that bit and I’ll move on – actually I don’t think it works. I think it’s all continuous and it has to be iterative in how you go about it.

"People are fed up of big Zoom engagement pieces, but they still want you talk to them. I think it’s about recognising which phase you’re in, and the next phase then is going to be how employers recognise their hardworking employees.”

Saying thank you

Mark Price is the CEO and founder of engagement consultancy company Engaging Business, which created online platform Workl for career advice and business consultancy. In its research, Workl found that people who have worked throughout the pandemic and taken on more tasks are harbouring some resentment, although this feeling is directed towards the employer rather than other employees.

The question now, says Price, is how businesses are going to act in response: “Our research for the organisations we work with – those are the conversations that they’re having internally about how do you recognise people that probably took on an increased workload through a very difficult period.”

Public thank-yous, celebrations, bonuses and extra holidays are some of the options he says firms are considering, but there will be the need for long-term recognition that will also go much deeper than that.

Based on his experience as former managing director of Waitrose, and deputy chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, Price developed the Happy at Work test as part of Workl to help businesses discover the key to engaging employees and maximising their productivity.

Aspects that factor into the test include fair pay; recognition for good performance; people having the right information to do their job; and people feeling trusted and empowered to fulfil their roles.

Price says: “Those are the absolute fundamentals to high levels of engagement and happiness at work in the sense that they don’t change, but the way you might choose to execute them may be different.”

He predicts there will be an increased emphasis on the sociability of the workplace and using work hours for training and development as a result of the pandemic.

US background screening company HireRight has for example introduced a peer-to-peer recognition scheme as part of its pandemic response. Since launching in May the programme has seen 14% engagement overall, and 57% engagement from people leaders.

Chelsea Pyrzenski, chief human resources officer at the company, comments: “These public expressions of appreciation and recognition of effort, particularly on the part of our leadership, have rapidly become an important way that we connect with each other, even when not in a shared workspace.”

The company, like many others, has also doubled down its efforts to promote the positive mental and physical wellbeing of employees. Yet Price argues that HR in general still has a long way to go to improve employee engagement.

He says: “Getting organisations to understand if you have a highly engaged workforce you’re going to be more productive, have better profits, lower wastage, lower sick absence and lower levels of staff turnover, that’s going to become critical. Really looking after the people that you’ve got and getting the most from them is going to become more important, particularly if you have fewer people.”

Surviving a crisis through trust

In their analysis of the British Workplace Employment Relations Survey before and after the 2008 financial crisis, researchers Hossam Zeitoun and Paolo Pamini uncovered the core aspects of a business that made companies more likely to survive the recession.

Employers which upheld implicit agreements with employees, and therefore had comprehensive human resource management (HRM) practices in place, were more likely to survive the market crash than those that didn’t.

The trust and implicit agreement discovered by Zeitoun and Pamini extended across each of the five HRM domains: participation (such as meeting time and consultation), teamworking, employee development, selection (skills and personality tests) and incentives (such as merit pay and profit sharing), similar to the fundamentals described by Price.

Due to the way each of these practices complement one another, Zeitoun says that organisations wanting to retain and build trust as well as employee engagement postpandemic must provide adequate support across each one of them.

Though some aspects of HRM may have taken a backseat in this time, he also argues that it is not too late to invest more in them now to gain a stronger position in later stage of the recession.

He says: “The important thing is that you protect employees’ interests, because in a crisis like this one you want them to come up with ideas to improve efficiency – but they will never give you ideas if you’re going to use them against them.”

As an example, he described a situation in which an employee comes up with a process that means an existing task takes five fewer people to complete. If the employer implements this solution and takes that as an opportunity to fire five employees then it’s counterintuitive.

For some companies, redundancy will unfortunately be an inevitability in the coming months. BHF, for example, has already made the announcement that it will be making up to 300 members of staff redundant as it attempts to recover its losses which, at the peak of lockdown, was £10 million per month.

The latest research from law firm Littler also suggests that more than half (59%) of employers in Europe will be making job cuts when government support comes to an end.

Although the staffing cuts that will have to be made over the coming months are a lose-lose for all parties involved, the people teams at the core of this crisis have in their hands the real potential to determine what redundancy, return to work and remote working means for the future of their organisations.

The full piece of the above appears in the September/October 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.