Life after furlough: managing the return-to-work

The Government Job Retention Scheme, or furlough as we more widely know it, continues to wind down – finishing officially on 30th September 2021. 

Launched in March 2020, the scheme was designed to support employers in retaining and paying their workers as the Covid-19 pandemic took its toll on businesses and the economy over the last 18 months. With 11.6m people’s jobs furloughed at some point during the scheme, the job retention plan has undoubtedly provided much-needed financial relief for employers and hope for workers.

As of June 2021, however, 1.9m workers from 540,000 employers were still on furlough**. With the end to the scheme firmly in sight now, businesses need to make firm decisions over the futures of their still-furloughed staff – and whether they’re financially able to welcome them back to the workplace.

For those businesses that are in a position to do so, employees will be looking for not only job stability but also a smooth transition back into the workplace. The support that these individuals need must not be underestimated, and there are several ways companies can help with this transition:

Provide Covid-secure premises for a comfortable return

Returning to work can be a daunting prospect for people, especially if they have been away from work – both physically and in the literal sense – for a considerable amount of time. For some people, they may not have worked for almost 18 months.

While restrictions imposed in the early stages of the pandemic have lifted, concerns and anxiety over Covid-19 safety, especially back in the workplace, will likely remain, especially for those who haven’t visited the workplace over the last 18 months.

Having Covid-secure premises is essential for hygiene but will also help returners feel comfortable coming back. Employers have several ways to do this, first and foremost by carrying out a Covid Secure Risk Assessment*. Practical measures include stringent cleaning programmes, route planning around premises, and updating desks and seating – helping to keep a collaborative approach with cleanliness and safety at its core.

But making premises Covid-secure will vary hugely between sectors, and businesses must factor in a tailored approach when implementing measures in their workplace.

Re-onboard employees back into the workplace

Just as a business would do for a new employee, employers should consider re-onboarding anyone returning from furlough – in the same way a business would welcome back individuals after parental leave, long-term sick leave, and so on.

A lot has changed in the last 18 months, and companies may have changed their infrastructure, core offerings, and more. Tailored onboarding based on an individual’s seniority and experience level within the company ensures that people are appropriately and informatively welcomed back with open arms. As a result, employees will feel ready to hit the ground running rather than getting the upshot from the water cooler.

There are many ways that businesses can do this, fitting around their current working practices. For example, businesses can conduct virtual or face-to-face induction meetings and include welcome packs with new pens, water bottles, stationary – whatever fits the brand and the employee for an effortless and appreciative way of bringing them back into the fold.

Support wellness at work

Wellness is more than face packs and a spot of fresh air (though both are always welcome). Physical and mental wellness and self-care have come under a greater spotlight over the last 18-months. Research shows workers are far more open to life-work balance rather than the work-first sentiment of pre-2020, with 40% of employees questioned stating the pandemic has made them review how they spent their time before lockdown***. Businesses will therefore have a far greater positive response from workers returning from furlough if they can demonstrate their commitment, as an employer, to people’s physical and mental wellbeing. There are several ways that businesses of all sizes can do this but, ultimately, it comes down to allowing employees to be open and honest at work and providing them access to meaningful support. Doing this will help previously furloughed workers to thrive when they’re back in the workplace.

Be prepared for anything

Of the many lessons we have learned from the pandemic, being prepared for anything is undoubtedly one of them. Businesses must expect sudden changes in productivity and outputs which may be outside of employees’ control due to circumstances like Covid-19 illness, increased childcare needs and disruption from school closures, and the potential for further government-imposed restrictions.

Having experienced the worst-case scenario with no comparisons to draw on to help inform critical decisions – now is the time for businesses to evaluate and make good use of the valuable lessons learned throughout the pandemic and implement comprehensive and fluid contingency plans. Doing this not only ensures that businesses are protecting themselves but also means they can keep employees up to date and comfortable with procedures and policies.

But – is there enough work for employees to return?

With only 2% of employees on furlough, larger businesses (250+ employees) will be able to absorb employees back into the workforce easier than micro-companies (2-4 employees), where 22% of employees were still on furlough at the end of June**.

If businesses foresee that there isn’t enough work to bring back certain workers, no matter their size, they must do as much as possible to support these individuals into alternative employment options. These can be secondments, part-time contracts, referrals to other businesses or support in helping them transition into new work entirely – with as much notice as possible.

However, businesses may, of course, have to lean on redundancy measures as a last resort. Handled correctly and effectively with HR professionals, employers can make this least favourable outcome more palatable for affected employees and provide additional support where possible.

The return to work is a huge milestone for previously furloughed employees as we come towards the latter stages of 2021. Providing adequate and ongoing support to these individuals will be crucial in creating a positive experience for workers and, consequently, a productive impact on the business.

Get it right now, and the rewards for everyone will speak for themselves in the months ahead.