That Heraclitus guy had it right when he said, “The only thing that is constant is change.” For previously furloughed employees now coming back to the workplace, that’s doubly so.

This post features good practices for internal communicators to support Leadership teams, HR, Health & Safety, Customer Services and other colleagues; helping furloughed employees in their return to work.

employee at work wearing PPE

Keeping all employees informed

It makes sense to communicate to everyone that employees are being brought back from furlough before they rock up. This can be a really positive internal news piece, and a good opportunity for leaders to lead and shine, thanking employees who’ve been working throughout, and welcoming returning employees back.

It’s important not to underestimate saying “thank you”: the impact of furlough goes beyond those employees who’ve experienced it directly and employees who haven’t been furloughed may feel they’ve had it rough – especially if they’ve been covering furloughed employees’ jobs. Do what you can to avoid “them and us” scenarios.

Getting returning furloughed employees up to speed with what they’ve missed

Returning employees need to know what’s changed – from both a company and personal perspective. Let’s start here with the company side of things, which of course is just as relevant for employees who haven’t been furloughed. For the personal perspective, see the Managers’ section.

New ways of working in a COVID-secure environment

Health and Safety (H&S) and HR teams up and down the country will be under pressure right now to adapt work environments to be COVID-secure. It’s likely to result in new ways of working, and alterations in how the working environment is used: from meeting rooms to factory floors, canteens to site entrances; as well as potential home working and flexible working policy changes.

There’ll be a key role for internal communicators in supporting H&S and HR teams in communicating what’s changed, and also in making sure colleagues know how, where and to whom they can provide feedback and input (ideally early, to help shape decision-making).

Remind employees about available support

The long-lasting mental health impact of a global pandemic should not be underestimated. Employees may have lost loved ones. Others will have experienced anxiety, depression and loneliness as a result of self-isolation.

Mental health care can be hard and time-consuming to access. Organisations can remind employees about health and wellbeing support available: Employee Assistance Programmes, Mental Health First Aiders, Occupational Health and the like; plus external resources such as Mind, the Samaritans, Andy’s Man Club, the NHS, etc.

Keep customers up to speed

If employees returning from furlough means the business is scaling up towards pre-COVID levels, comms pros may also find themselves helping to get the message out there that you’re open for (more) business. Depending on the Comms remit, this could include aligning (or leading on) customer messaging and campaigns with the external communications / media / marketing / customer services teams. Life in comms is never dull …

Continue to review/evolve your communications channels

The channels that worked well for communicating with furloughed employees could change depending on whether colleagues are returning to work at home, to an office, or to production/other roles that don’t involve being in front of a computer.

Keep the two-way dialogue going! It’ll help inform which types of communications employees really value; and feedback can also help sense-check if messages have been understood and are being acted upon.

Getting feedback through (short) surveys and Pulse Surveys can help get under the skin of issues such as:

  • If employees feel informed about new ways of working – what works well/what doesn’t
  • Barriers to following / not following those new ways of working, eg are leaders leading by example (hmmmmm, topical!)
  • Which communications channels work, which don’t, and why – this could be segmented for furloughed employees/employees working at home/in an office/in a non-computer-based role

Of course, you may be able to see first-hand if new ways of working are being adhered to. And people are often more than happy to tell you what they think 🙂 There are insights to be gleaned too from evaluating the usual stats like email open rates, time spent on intranet news pages, video views and the like to help paint a picture of which communications channels are working best.

image of a video call on a computer screen showing an employee working at home

Some employees may be returning to work from home

Supporting the important role of Managers

Managers have a personal role to play in supporting furloughed employees back to work. The person behind the return-to-work letter may have spent weeks home alone with just their thoughts for company, they may have lost a loved one, they could’ve been (or still be!) in the thick of home schooling, or caring for a vulnerable relative. They may even have been shielding themselves and actually not yet be in a position to return to a workplace outside the home.

Many employees will no doubt be eager to return to work, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be struggles or adjustments involved. Managers will need tools and skills at their disposal to sensitively address issues such as:

  • Flexible working
  • Financial issues – generally, but also any that may impact employees’ short-term ability to get to the workplace
  • Childcare and other caring responsibilities
  • Physical and mental health and wellbeing
  • Resources needed to work from home
  • Employees’ furlough experience

I find this article really helpful for Managers: it’s about how to coach your team through the “Change Curve”, aka the five stages of grief.

Managers will also have their hands full making sure returning employees are up to speed with new ways of working, who’s working in the employees’ team / who’s still on furlough, any changes to responsibilities or shift patterns, Manager changes (eg if an employees’ Manager is still furloughed); and more.

For communicators, keeping a finger on the pulse of common feedback topics and areas of concern can help guide future communications. In some of my contract roles I’ve worked with HR to provide crib-sheets and FAQs for Managers to enable them to answer likely employee questions and help keep responses consistent.

Buddies

 Companies could also consider a buddy up system so employees have someone to turn to other than their Manager. More often used in mergers and acquisitions or for new starters, it could be adapted for these COVID times.

Summary

Summarising this article feels like a bit of a cop-out. Mostly because, “it depends”. It depends on whether your organisation has furloughed two people or two thousand. It depends on where those people are and if they all do the same type of role or not. It depends if you have comms-savvy organisational leadership. And it depends if you’re a full all-singing-all-dancing Comms team, or are trying to help with Comms as an aside from your main job role or responsibilities. There are no doubt a lot of other things “it depends” on – feel free to leave yours in the comments below.

In a bid to create a more meaningful summary, here’s what comms pros may typically lead or support in when it comes to employees returning from furlough:

  • Creating leadership communications
  • Providing communications support and feedback mechanisms relating to a COVID-secure workplace
  • Evolving internal communication channels in line with working practices and feedback
  • Aligning customer messaging and campaigns with external communications / marketing / customer services
  • Communications to support Managers in their employee interactions
  • Signposting useful resources to employees

Is your organisation returning employees from furlough? What top tips would you share for employee communications at this time? Let us know in the comments below 🙂