Since the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the UK’s furlough scheme – or the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, as it’s officially called – in March, more than a million businesses have placed staff on furlough, with a total of 8.4 million jobs having been protected under the scheme1. But it began a phase of winding down at the start of this month, which will end on 31 October.
As the scheme winds down, it gives businesses and employees the flexibility to return to work part-time, or for previously furloughed staff to work remotely, for any amount of time and any shift pattern. While this offers valuable time to prepare for returning to work, it’s essential that employers begin to plan early for the resumption of normal or near-normal business activity.
Chloe Carey, a Business Growth Advisor for Elephants Child who supports business owners to achieve their strategic objectives with a particular focus on human resources, emphasises that many companies made the initial decision to furlough staff against a background of considerable uncertainty.
“Decisions around furlough were made on the basis of reduced amounts of business coming in, the risk to people’s health of coming to work, and the viability of working from home,” she says. “There was a great deal of uncertainty around how long this period would last, and people were waiting for three-week chunks of time to find out what would happen next. The government’s messaging is still changing daily, but the mood now is that if people are not able to work from home, they should be returning to the workplace if possible.”
In its guidance on returning to the workplace, the Chartered Institute for Professional Development urges businesses to meet three key tests before bringing their people back into the workplace: is it essential, is it sufficiently safe, and is it mutually agreed? In order to meet those tests, meticulous planning is needed.
“Businesses need to consider what they need in terms of resources to deliver against their order book, pipeline and new business,” Chloe says. “They should create an organisation structure to support that and forecast the cashflow incorporating the flexible furlough scheme, sanity-checking that the business can sustain these levels of staffing.”
The sector in which your business operates will have an enormous impact on the measures you need to take to ensure safely, as well as on the long-term viability of the business, says Chloe. “It’s a minefield to navigate the wider implications of social distancing and safety, but there are useful sector-specific guidelines and it’s essential that you stay on top of these.”
Whatever new structure your business arrives at, it’s essential to ensure that if possible staff are able to work from home, whilst doing as much as possible to rebuild team unity and collaboration.
“Communicate with staff as much as possible, talk through ideas, concerns, good news and bad news, and share plans as early as possible,” Chloe advises. “Implement informal discussions such as daily catch-ups or Friday drinks, and be as inclusive as possible to avoid divides between furloughed and non furloughed workers. Be mindful of practical concerns people may have, such as reluctance to use public transport, vulnerable or shielding relatives, childcare and other challenging domestic situations.”
More than feelings
It’s essential to consider the impact that furlough may have had on the morale of your workforce. Staff who have been furloughed may feel disconnected from their colleagues and the business, and anxious about having a job to return to at all; those who have been working throughout the crisis may feel resentful of their furloughed colleagues.
“Be ready for negative feelings and behaviours as a result of disparity from the impact of the pandemic,” Chloe cautions. “Ensure managers are skilled enough to recognise conflict and nip it in the bud, and make use of employee assistance programmes and occupational heath if you can.”
Depending on the size and nature of the business, there are various options available when bringing staff back to work. You may choose to reduce hours under the flexible furlough scheme, bring back some staff while others remain furloughed, or push ahead with redundancies if a reduction in headcount is unavoidable. In any event, communication is key. If working hours are to be adjusted, confirm the arrangement in writing. Give people reasonable notice if they’re required to return to work. And if redundancies are necessary, use robust selection criteria and follow correct legal processes.
“Commercial considerations are just part of the picture,” Chloe says. “This has been a challenging time for all of us, and some people may have experienced the loss of a loved one. Safeguarding the wellbeing of your staff is paramount.”
1 www.gov.uk, 29 May 2020.
The opinions expressed by third parties are their own are not necessarily shared by St. James’s Place Wealth Management.