Transitioning from furlough to a return to work

In the UK there has been a formal “furlough” programme, supported by the government, to pay 80% of the wages of staff that have been stood down from their jobs during this crisis. In other countries, whilst government financial support might not be in place, many organisations have had to ask staff to stay away from their jobs. This article looks at the challenges of bringing these staff back to work effectively, as lockdown restrictions are eased.

The biggest challenge is the disparity in experience between furloughed staff and those retained to keep services running:

  1. Staff who continued to work originated changes to help cope with the crisis. They fully understand these changes, as they designed them, and they will feel ownership over them. Any challenge to these will be met with resistance.
  2. Staff who are returning are not coming back to how things were but will have to assimilate and learn these new working arrangements.

These circumstances have led to a perfect storm of a “them and us” culture. Those furloughed staff may feel psychologically bruised by the experience:

  • Why wasn’t I good enough to be kept on when others were?
  • I don’t feel I belong to the new social order that has developed in my absence.
  • I am worried about learning these new ways of working.

Effectively we will need to “on-board” these furloughed staff to the “new normal”. This sounds sensible but has psychological impacts for furloughed staff, as it is another way to make them feel different and less able than their retained colleagues. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. There are similarities between furlough and maternity leave, as the person returning does not know what has changed because they haven’t been away, and those that remained, don’t notice how much has changed because incremental changes have built up during the furlough period. To address these disparities in experience, ask those staff who remained to try and identify all the changes that have taken place, and if possible, to explain why these changes were made. Use this as the basis of pre-return materials so returners can come up to speed at their own pace.
  2. Give staff a chance to form new social relationships. Over the last few months different groups and relationships have formed out of changed responsibilities. Returners will not be a part of this, so it is as important to allow them to catch up on these and to find their own position in the team as it is to learn new ways of working. As a part of this, encourage those retained and those returning to share their experiences, and how they have spent their time.
  3. Returners will need time to assimilate all that has changed, so don’t expect full performance from day 1. There is a danger of falling into the “familiarity assumption” that all staff know exactly how things are now working. Systems will have changed, processes and reporting lines will be different.
  4. Learning new ways of working takes a lot of concentration, so ask returners to join mid-way through the week, as the pressure of a full 5 days will be hard to take in the first week.
  5. Make sure you have allocated a lot of time to spend with them, not just in the first few hours, but with regular check-in times throughout the first week to 10 days. A good question to ask in these check-in sessions is whether the returner has noticed anything missing, in terms of process, people, transactions, reports so you can discuss whether these were abandoned during furlough but has not been captured, or whether these missing activities are a genuine oversight. This enables the returner to make a contribution, acting as an objective pair of eyes across the new ways of working.
  6. Prepare materials to help on-board these staff but identifying not just what has changed, but some of the history of the changes. For example, there will have been things that you tried that did not work. Share the reasons for this so that those returning do not try to contribute ideas that have already been tried.
  7. Encourage returners to leave their Out of Office on their emails for the first few days as they work through the backlog of old emails.
  8. If returning staff were in a position of authority, there may be friction as they try to take back the reins of control from those who have not had to report their actions for the last few months.
  9. Encourage returners to ask how staff are managing their work and what their new routines are, rather than trying to return to old “norms” e.g. team meeting at 9am every Monday.
  10. Encourage returners to leave those arrangements that are working well, and to concentrate their efforts in areas of work that have not become the responsibility of others in their absence.
  11. Don’t ignore the “credibility gap” that may have built up, with the perception that returners have less authority and less relevant knowledge to share as they have not been part of the seismic shift in the organisation. Encourage the returner to ask their staff questions about the challenges they have faced and the things that worry them, so that the leader can clearly identify where they can add value.

This is an evolving solution, so please share your ideas for how we manage this change to our organisations.