How to keep furloughed employees engaged

Furlough? Not something many* of us had heard of before March 2020.

*All of us… Who am I kidding? Preparing for a pandemic is not something that’s covered in any HR course.

But in the UK, as the lockdown was getting tighter, businesses were hastily getting up to speed on furlough policies and guidelines, sussing out how to use this scheme to save the summer. Understandably, much of this focus was on economic impact and ensuring business’ longevity. Looking for ways to keep furloughed employees engaged wasn’t at the forefront of priority lists… yet. 

However, as the scheme now rolls onto its fourth month, and with some set to be furloughed until the end of October, businesses are faced with a new challenge: how to keep furloughed employees engaged. Stepping away from a role for an extended period is a major adjustment and can result in unease around job security, loss of control, and a lack of motivation to return. The organization has a responsibility to fully support employees and confront the reality of ‘furlough fear’. 

Having personally experienced the highs and fur-lows, here are my top tips for keeping furloughed employees engaged as a recently ‘unfurloughed’ HR Manager: 

1. Be mindful: Furloughed employee experiences will differ. 

For some, furlough is a chance to embrace an extended holiday and pick up hundreds of new hobbies they never knew their life was missing. For others, it’s a time filled with boredom, uncertainty, and anxiety. Feelings toward the situation will inevitably fluctuate; so ensure the amount of contact and support given to your employees coincides with these waves. 

To keep furloughed employees engaged, continue to check in regularly and provide individualized support. For those adapting to a new role of homeschool teacher, for example, make time to understand if frequent check-ins are a welcome break or an added stress. 

Also, consider the type of support they’re after and who’s the best fit for the job. Is there someone they may feel more comfortable talking to? Would friendly catch-ups with other team members be more beneficial, or would they prefer to discuss concerns with management or HR? Take the time to tailor support to the individual and don’t assume their opinions on furlough will remain consistent.

2. Ensure furloughed employees feel valued.

Maintaining a sense of appreciation is crucial when ensuring that furloughed employees remain engaged. Furlough can be read as a stepping stone to redundancy and, despite COVID-19 being way beyond everyone’s control, don’t be surprised if some employees take things a little personally. To help calm the nerves, share the logic behind decision-making, and make it clear that furlough and personal performance do not correlate. 

As furlough guidelines adapt and a ‘part-time’ option is introduced, clearly define the reasonings behind any upcoming decisions, and provide a space for concerns to be raised. It’s easy for employees to conclude that their role is no longer required, so be sure to provide this reassurance. 

At a time of such uncertainty, providing justifications will help instill trust and avoid negative assumptions being formed. Plus, despite not being there for the 9-5, continuing to celebrate their successes and highlight the projects lined up for them in the future will help to reassure furloughed employees.

3. Keep furloughed employees in the loop.

Furloughed employees are still employees so, where possible, maintain this connection with the business. This could be through continuing to include all employees in company-wide announcements or by recording updates to share directly. Make sure suitable adjustments have been considered, by making announcements mobile-friendly, for example, so they’re just as accessible with or without a work laptop. For furloughed employees, remaining up-to-date on key changes and company news can reduce the anxiety of returning to the ‘unknown’. 

Plus, this doesn’t have to just be limited to just business updates. Keeping furloughed employees involved in any social events such as virtual team quizzes, and maintaining access to perks and benefits, are key to ensuring everyone continues to feel part of the team. If you normally provide a birthday gift, be sure not to let this slip. You can also facilitate an additional level of support by encouraging communication between furloughed employees. Something as simple as a Slack channel to share updates ensures furloughed employees are not alone. 

4. Finally, ask furloughed employees for feedback. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and the amount of support required on furlough will depend on personal circumstances. Show people you value their opinion by asking for it and learn from this feedback. Yes, a global pandemic is thankfully more than a little rare. But, think about how your employees tend to feel when returning from parental leave. Take what you’ve learned from those more common scenarios and apply your learnings to these more rare circumstances. 

Keeping furloughed employees engaged is difficult to get right and it may seem the easy option to just step back and let them crack on as they master Spanish, Rubix Cubes, and banana bread. But, by ensuring employees feel valued, informed, and included you can do your bit to make certain employees return happy and with a renewed sense of motivation. Remember, once we have reached a ‘new normal’, employees will not look back at the stress or productivity of furlough, but rather how you, and your company, made them feel.