Reintegrating furloughed staff

The Job Retention Scheme is now expected to come to an end next month when lockdown is eased, and many furloughed employees will be heading back to work for the first time since March

The Job Retention Scheme, which has seen the government paying for 80% of furloughed workers’ salaries for months, has now been extended until the beginning of December. Its replacement, the somewhat less generous Job Support Scheme, will then take its place.

Through the new scheme the government aims to protect viable jobs – those where employees are working at least 20% of their normal hours. The cost of hours not worked will be split between the employer (5%), the government (62%) and the employee, through wage reduction. There are slightly more generous arrangements for businesses forced to close because of local restrictions.

Chloe Carey, who last year sold the human resources consultancy she founded in 2003, now works for us helping SMEs tackle the HR challenges of the pandemic. She says that those who have been on furlough may have to be reintegrated into a business that is very different, having pivoted rapidly and developed new products and services during the Covid-19 crisis.

At the same time, she adds, there is evidence of increased mental health concerns among those who have been furloughed for long periods. And Chloe warns that there is the potential for resentment among staff who have been forced to work through the crisis, often with increased workloads and responsibilities, while their colleagues have effectively been on paid leave.

Hold appraisals

While many SMEs don’t have a formal appraisal process, planning in a one-to-one discussion with all employees can be a good first step towards reintegrating staff. This provides a useful opportunity to focus on training, align the goals and responsibilities of returning staff to the new business priorities, and even to encourage them to volunteer during the hours that they aren’t working to improve their mental health.

Chloe explains: “I think it would be a good time for such a discussion even though people aren’t at work for their full working hours because it’s a great opportunity to focus on their learning and development. Create a plan which they could begin during this period of reduced hours. The priority really is to ensure the staff feel supported and valued whichever camp they are in and that their health and safety, and wellbeing, is the priority of the company.

“You can find out so much about someone’s aspirations, fears and anxieties from having a discussion like that. But you should make it a more formal, structured process rather than just a bit of a catch-up about Covid or furlough. They will still have a number of issues going on around them while they are trying to hold down a job where they feel disconnected and they are not really sure what is going to happen next.

“You might take the opportunity to reset objectives because the actual focus of the business may have changed and the product set may have changed. The businesses that are doing well are pivoting quickly and making changes to their direction and that’s a really good opportunity to make sure all your employees are on the same journey and to tweak what your requirements of them are.”

Individual plans

A formal discussion is also a good opportunity to find out more about each individual. Some may be fearful of infection, or social isolation, while others may also be struggling to juggle childcare if schools close. Those who have been on reduced salaries may have financial worries, while some may have underlying health issues that make them vulnerable or may have suffered a bereavement during the pandemic. Chloe explains that understanding these issues can help employers put together a plan which is specific to the individual.

One thing that all companies are doing at the moment is planning and forecasting and ensuring they can see the affordability of staff. However, Chloe points out that many staff are reconsidering their priorities during the pandemic and may be open to more flexible or part-time working that would both meet their aspirations and the company’s cash flow needs. The discussion would also provide an opportunity to gently investigate such options.

“The discussion could be couched in such a way that it’s not just about what the business goals and objectives are and where the company’s focus is,” says Chloe. “It’s also about what the employee’s objectives are, their personal objectives, their aspirations, and their career plans. How can you marry those two things together to make sure it works for you and your employee?”