Inclusion after furlough: Creating a sense of belonging
By Jo Faragher on 27 October 2021
It was a scheme that was only ever supposed to last for three months, to support those forced out of work due to the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020. Little did we know at the time that the Coronavirus Job Support Scheme, or furlough, would be in place for almost 18 months. When it closed at the end of September, around 1.6 million people were still claiming it, and at its height it was claimed by almost 9 million people.
While the closure of furlough arguably shows optimism that businesses will no longer face pandemic restrictions or be forced to close, for some organisations it may mark the start of an even more difficult phase. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, some of the trends that emerged during the height of the pandemic may continue to play out as we enter this new, in-between phase. The think tank has found that workers over the age of 60 could be more likely to drop out of the workforce altogether if they are made unemployed in the coming months; likewise young people who left full-time education during the pandemic could still struggle to find work in 2022 and beyond.
It’s crucial that now, more than ever, employers apply an inclusive lens to any difficult decisions they need to make about their workforce, argues Steve Butler, CEO of Punter Southall Aspire and author of Inclusive Culture. “As the furlough scheme ends and businesses move into the next phase, there is a risk that businesses will adopt uninspired, transactional management practices in an effort to survive, such as compulsory redundancies, simplification of contracts or office closures,” he explains. “However, there is an opportunity to use this new environment to address long-standing issues around age, gender, and race.”
One approach could be to consider closing offices in favour of creating regional hubs, he believes. “The new blended approach to working locations requires employers to consider the implications for all groups of employees and how they support them in this changing environment,” adds Butler. “We often make assumptions that one partner takes primary responsibility for the childcare, despite both partners’ roles being full-time. To manage this issue, employers need to encourage staff to agree a daily agenda with their partners that allows childcare shifts to be agreed around work. Times of the day need to be identified with their manager where an employee is not available, with managers focussing on productivity rather than number of hours worked. Similarly, older workers may have caring responsibilities and require a similar flexible approach to their work patterns and management.”
Another thing to bear in mind is that employees returning to work full time after furlough may be anxious. Aliya Vigor-Robertson, co-founder of consultancy Journey JR, says: “After such a long period away, these people will need some time to prepare themselves for their ‘official’ return. Arranging catch-ups with managers and colleagues, providing an overview of any activity they’ve missed, and giving them an insight into what’s coming up will all be very helpful. This way, employees will have the chance to flag any potential challenges, and employers can show their support during this transition. It’s also a chance to remind employees that they can still do the job and their return is much anticipated. Socials and informal catch ups with managers and colleagues should also be encouraged as a way of helping employees to reconnect with their peers and cement their sense of belonging.”
If the organisation does need to reduce headcount, it is vital the process is clear, fair and professional, she adds. “This means communicating the process with everyone at the right time in a well thought out way, as well as clearly laying out the reasonings for these decisions. It’s also essential that businesses use an unbiased process for redundancies, as certain groups of employees have historically been the most impacted by cuts.” Vigor-Robertson points to statistics over the past year showing that women were more likely to be furloughed or made redundant, and that Black and ethnic minority workers lost their jobs 26 times more often than white workers during 2020 due to Covid-related reasons. “Organisations must therefore work to create an unbiased pool for redundancies and look at these decisions objectively, in line with the business’s unique challenges and based on solid evidence,” she explains. “And in cases where subjective evidence is needed to reach a decision, it’s crucial that this is not being taken from just one source, and that these points are discussed with at least two managers.”
Helen Jamieson, founder of Jaluch HR, agrees that organisations need to find mechanisms to really listen to employees. “There is no easy solution because people have different preferences, fears and challenges,” she says. “But you need to ask questions of all staff and listen to them, rather than the views of a few key people with vested interests.” Employee surveys can be quick and low-cost, and organisations should also gather views from employee networks or representatives, she adds. It should not mean that everything employees ask for is automatically granted, either, particularly if they default to wanting to work only from home. “I think we’ll see a time in three or four years where people will say this was the moment when they disconnected from the workforce. It’s important to remind people that while something might be practical and easy for them, it could have consequences in terms of social isolation.”
A further impact over the coming months could be “survivor’s guilt” and a drop in morale, argues Vigor-Robertson. “Some employees are likely to feel guilt, sadness, and anger, which will affect their motivation and productivity. A study found that 74% of employees who kept their job amidst layoffs said their productivity declined,” she adds. If redundancies are necessary, once complete, managers should reach out to their remaining employees and let them know that extra support is available if they need it. She advises: “Showing empathy and understanding in the wake of redundancies can make a huge difference to the team, especially when you need your employees to pull together and help the business get back on track.”
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