Julie Cameron, Managing Director of DRIVE Engagement, considers how employers can ensure that furloughed employees remain engaged

A great deal of time has been dedicated recently to the topic of ensuring your employees remain engaged during these “unprecedented times”. However, a topic that hasn’t been given quite so much airtime is that of engaging those employees who are currently on furlough.

Not only is there an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue here when it comes to furloughed employees, the legalities of furlough can appear complex and can make even the most highly skilled leaders feel a little unnerved about what they should and shouldn’t do. So much so, that many have been left scratching their heads about acceptable levels of contact with furloughed employees and some have even gone so far as to cut ties completely for fear of making a mistake that later comes back to bite them legally.

Here are our four tips to engage furloughed employees:

  1. Avoid the belief that when people are placed on furlough that time is simply frozen or that your team will return to the business exactly how they were when they left. In reality, it’s inevitable that employees will feel different as a result of their time away from the business. And let’s be frank, everything is changing on a weekly and even daily basis and will probably continue to do so for some time to come. Behaviours will be different, perceptions will be altered, what drives and motivates people will likely be very different too. Likewise, an employee’s family situation, whether they care for others, whether they have been or are still dealing with home schooling and childcare or indeed if they have sadly lost loved ones, will all have a dramatic impact on their life and how they show up to work. Take note of this, discuss these changes, agree on what the challenges are likely to be and reassure team members. Then keep this in mind as you move forward, coming back to earlier discussions to clarify and reassure colleagues. Understanding people’s motivations and adapting to this is ever so important as a leader and can really make the difference between an engaged and a discontented team member long term. Bring them on this journey with you, rather than making them feel as if they are merely an onlooker.
  2. Employers can, and indeed should, maintain contact with employees during furlough to keep them notified on any official business updates regarding how the business is operating, but should avoid any work-related content. We advocate going one step further by encouraging team leaders to contact furloughed team members regularly for a general health and wellbeing check too. As a reminder, furloughed employees must not use their work mobile number or email address during their period of furlough. Whilst no work-related information should be shared, if you wish to provide wellbeing guidance, training opportunities and keep furloughed employees updated with official business updates then asking them to opt-in with their personal contact details to receive information from your organisation is a good idea. Ultimately, you will need to respect the situation if a furloughed employee chooses not to opt in. It’s always best to check with your HR or legal team first. Whilst it is difficult to predict with certainty the future business and employment landscape, you can still use this time to reassure team members that they have not been forgotten about and that they are still very much valued by the business. We recommend connecting in every few weeks over a phone call and then for team leaders to send a ‘check in’ text message weekly too. We would suggest avoiding any contact over social media, as this can sometimes blur the lines between work life and personal life. 
  3. A furloughed employee can undertake training, for example to maintain their skill set or upskill themselves whilst furloughed, as long as the purpose of this is to improve the employee’s effectiveness in their employer’s business or the performance of their employer’s business. It must also be noted that in undertaking the training the employee should not provide services to, or generate revenue for, or on behalf of their organisation. Offering training at this time not only gives a furloughed employee something to do during this time, but it also keeps their mind focused, ensuring they can pick back up when they do return to the business. Most importantly though, it reminds the employee that you care for their development. Little things like this go a long way to give team members that extra layer of confidence and reassurance. Likewise, businesses who are able to supply their furloughed team with little goodwill gestures or resources to keep them engaged will really help those employees feel valued.
  4. Employers must not underestimate the significance of being furloughed and the huge impact that this is likely to have had on those who have been affected. Stepping away from working life and all that it entails for several months is a major adjustment. In many ways, the situation can be likened to that of those returning from a period of parental leave, only with added concerns around the long-term security of your company, heightened anxiety around safety and uncertainly around everything the ‘new normal’ has in store. Team leaders will need to keep in mind that the working environment will have dramatically changed too (whether that be a shop floor, factory floor or office environment) and they will need to help those who have been furloughed get up to speed with the new ways of working, as well as safety and operations procedures. In fact, this will be the first thing that you will need do upon their return. As well as a fundamental responsibility, it is important to reassure employees and provide a strong level of certainty that they will be working in a safe environment.