Communicating with furloughed workers during the coronavirus crisis


 — April 14th, 2020

Communicating with furloughed workers during the coronavirus crisis

Who even knew what furloughed meant a few weeks ago, unless you were from the United States?

A term familiar and used in the US is now a word frequently used in conversation around the globe.

As non-Americans Googled it’s meaning to make sense of it, the topic has quickly moved on to how it impacts the people and businesses affected and how best to handle it.

According to the UK Government, you cannot undertake work for your employer while on furlough. Naturally, this throws up many questions, especially regarding how employers can engage and communicate with their staff during an already unsettling time and when they need it most.

Workforce planning, remote-working, and employee privacy during COVID-19

The Chartered Institute for Public Relations (CIPR) has produced a great little guide with practical advice for employers which you can find here: Communicating with furloughed employees.

Two key points worth noting include not being able to communicate anything work-related to furloughed staff and seeking legal advice before communicating with them.

While the furlough scheme and the rules surrounding it highlight a number of grey areas, here are some suggestions to consider (after you’ve gained your own legal and HR advice) to keep furloughed employees feeling informed, supported and valued through the uncertainty.

Gain consent to communicate

Normal lines of communication should stop once an employee has agreed to be furloughed including the use of company email addresses because of the risk of them getting drawn into work which they’re not allowed to do.

Instead, gain permission to obtain and use personal email addresses, home addresses, and mobile phone numbers during the furlough period to open up communication lines.

Over-communicate in the first instance

If you have recently or are about to furlough some employees, this will likely be unchartered territory for all parties involved.

I agree with CMI’s Chief Executive, Ann Francke’s advice at the outset of a crisis: “When in doubt, over-communicate” to engender trust through transparency.

Past personal experience shows that when there’s a void in communication, it gets filled (and not with the information or tone you want!), so make sure as an employer you are the one taking the lead on communications; even if it’s to say that you don’t know, but will find out and share as soon as you do.

In time you can find your communication rhythm and share relevant content in a more co-ordinated way.

Provide tailored content

Furloughed employees immediately become a distinct audience and thus will have different communication needs to those employees able to continue working.

When work-related content can’t be shared, it’s worth reaching out to find out what they want and, need to hear about from their employer.

Here are some key content topics that will be useful and appreciated for starters:

  • What furloughing means now and in the longer term for them
  • Where they can get support and advice, eg. Employee Assistance Program, relevant Government websites, key company contacts
  • News and updates about the company, especially on how the business plans to adapt and cope during the crisis
  • Wellbeing advice

Share non-working opportunities

Employers can continue to make employees feel valued and supported even if they are not able to do their usual job.

With consent to participate and the understanding that the opportunities are not mandatory, training and time to volunteer could be offered to furloughed staff.

Many people have already signed up for the National Care Force. Without work to do this could be a great time for upskilling them, continuing their professional development or helping them to feel valued and make a difference to others.

Support line managers

Whether line managers are furloughed or not themselves, they will be affected if their team is furloughed.

Line managers are employee’s most trusted source of information so it is imperative that they are supported and well informed by the company throughout the crisis and furlough period in order to support their staff.

Check-in on their wellbeing

It’s not explicitly clear whether line managers are allowed to communicate directly with their team members during the furlough period. However, with consent and non-work-related topics covered, employees will appreciate the connection and concern for their wellbeing, as well as a chance to raise any questions during this time.

Furloughing can cause feelings of guilt, worry, loneliness and even relief so it will surely be welcomed to talk these through with someone they know and trust. For further wellbeing advice, Mental Health UK has some helpful advice for furloughed employees.

If nothing else, among the uncertainty during times like these, Maya Angelou’s wise words should be the core principle behind why and how we communicate with furloughed staff.

Remember this, ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’.
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