From furlough to firm: how HR professionals have managed furloughed employees

HR professionals share their different experiences of the furlough scheme through the lens of their respective industry sectors. Despite some differing challenges, they list the key priorities as they and other businesses move forward.

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“Furlough was a term which didn’t really exist in my vocabulary prior to March,” revealed Reed Specialist Recruitment HR Director Karen Jackson in the latest REED webinar.

Karen was joined by with Danni Cripps, Head of HR at Holmes Care Group, and Claire Wojciuk, Head of HR for the UK, France and Belgium at McArthurGlen designer outlets. The trio discussed the challenges presented by the furlough scheme and how to overcome them, as well as the importance of maintaining employees’ wellbeing and how to re-induct them into an organisation.

Each panellist shared their different experiences of the scheme through the lens of their respective industry sectors. Despite some differing challenges, there was a consensus that re-induction and engagement were the top priorities when employees are furloughed.

The challenges of the furlough scheme

The panellists agreed that the daily changes to government guidance created a major responsibility for them. These changes had a knock-on effect for their own guidance, which often needed updating every 24 hours.

Karen identified the four key areas she needed to oversee when the scheme was first implemented:

  • Process – deciding on the simplest way to manage the scheme
  • Systems – setting up a payroll element that did not previously exist
  • Time – 600 REED employees were on furlough, and managing that became a full-time job
  • Engagement – “the most important element: we need to ensure that they’re kept engaged with their line managers and…with us as a business.”

For Claire, the biggest challenge was having all but two of the company’s UK staff on furlough, and how to manage that. However, the international nature of her role allowed her to compare the actions taken in countries whose COVID-19 wave was ahead of the UK, giving her understanding of what might happen next in the UK.

Danni’s key challenge was understanding how Holmes Care Group would use the scheme, given that initially the company thought that they would not be able to furlough staff due to their importance as a sector.

Ironically, it was actually a lack of staff which presented the greatest challenge to Danni’s team, as she explained: "We needed all the staff we could get. We had lots of nurses and carers who also worked for the NHS; they were unable to work in dual locations due to the risk of them bringing that back to our vulnerable residents.”

Danni also had many staff who were classified as vulnerable to the virus – they were furloughed to help protect them.

Re-inducting furloughed employees

All three panellists outlined how their businesses had gone about re-inducting staff they were bringing back from furlough.

Claire about the work McArthurGlen has done to help those returning, including establishing a community hub for all its employees.

“Wellbeing, be that mental wellbeing or financial wellbeing…we’ve got top tips on there…we’ve got people to share ideas and things that they were experiencing that might help other people,” she said.

Danni outlined that returning carers have had to be completely re-inducted as measures on infection control, PPE, and resident’s needs hve changed. As well as training on new risk assessments and processes, the group has implemented a buddy system for returners’ first few shifts to rebuild their confidence.

Reed Specialist Recruitment underwent a technical revolution during the lockdown, Karen revealed. This meant that the company employees were returning to was different to the one they were in prior to being furloughed. To help employees adjust not only to being back at work but also their new way of working, the company ran extensive training sessions to help returning employees to hit the ground running. The firm also runs daily internal webinars for all employees to both upskill themselves and learn more about changes and developments in the business.

Supporting employees’ mental wellbeing

The pandemic has challenged the mental wellbeing of both furloughed and non-furloughed staff. All three panellists were keen to emphasise that, while their businesses had put in place company-wide plans to help employee wellbeing, the most effective way of addressing this challenge varies depending on the circumstances of each employee.

Danni said that people were struggling across Holmes Care Group, but that it was vital to consider each person’s perspective because “everyone was struggling for different reasons.” Due to the group only furloughing a small number of employees, she was able to have one-to-one conversations with everyone on furlough and address any issues they had.

As well as implementing a business-wide wellbeing programme, Karen noted that Reed Specialist Recruitment wanted to keep furloughed employees feeling engaged. To do this, at the start of the scheme the business promised that line managers would speak to their furloughed team members once every two weeks at a minimum, helping to check-in, keep them updated and ensure they still felt part of the company.

McArthurGlen has looked to widen its employee assistance programme during this pandemic, Claire said. While this already existed in the UK, it has now been rolled out to the business’s other regions, with Claire noting that sometimes it’s easier to speak to someone a bit more distant from the situation.

To hear more great insights and tips from our panellists, you can watch the full webinar here.

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