WT…Furlough? You’ve sorted the legal stuff, now what?

8 minute read

If anyone is planning to create a list of Top Business Words for 2020 you can bet ‘furlough’ will take the top spot. As employees across the world are on unpaid, or government-subsidised, leave, Hayley Connor looks at how to engage three types of furloughed workers

Hayley Connor

Furlough under coronavirus

Your coffee is in a relay race with your wine. Your daily TV schedule is BBC news, the highlight being ‘Boris Hour’ at 5pm. You have backache from poor laptop posture, dehydration from lack of water, total brain smush (yes I just made that up) from lack of daylight, your mind is preoccupied by the F word (oh stop it ;-) and you’ve been a little too obsessed (not in a good way) with Martin Lewis, the money saving expert.

Folks, yes, these are official symptoms of the coronavirus job retention scheme. Be warned, those in HR are particularly vulnerable and should aim to shield from all work-related activity for at least 12 weeks.

You guessed it. I’m in HR (hospitality specifically), and like others in the field, have spent the past few weeks figuring out ‘WT…Furlough’ is going on while banding the word ‘unprecedented’ around like it’s going out of fashion.

All of this is about saving lives by enabling people to stay home.

While I jest, in all seriousness these are unprecedented times, with that word being used so often because it perfectly fits the situation. COVID-19 is a shitty virus. Many people have already lost loved ones, and many more will do so in the coming weeks and months.

While much of my COVID-19 experience has been sitting at home, self-isolating like a good citizen and working furiously on protecting my workforce through the furlough scheme, for others they have had to experience the very stark reality of what this virus means for human life. I think it is important as you read this article, and as I write it, that we remember this and appreciate the bigger picture.

It is fair to say that generally speaking, hospitality, leisure and tourism and other service focused industries have been the first to be hit economically by COVID-19. On 16 March the UK’s prime minister publicly declared pubs, restaurants and cafes as a no-go zone, immediately shutting off the cashflow that keeps our businesses turning. I have no issues with this decision, it was about saving lives and I am 100% aligned with that, but it did mean we had to react quickly with zero information as furlough hadn’t yet been born.

The hospitality industry is potentially ahead when it comes to the new world of furlough, and over the past few weeks we’ve learnt a hell of a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to both process and engagement. I therefore want to use this article to give my HR peers a few pointers on what to consider along the way.

Furlough Methodology

The way you furlough your team is critical in both protecting the culture of your business and making your team know they still belong, despite them not being required for work. It would be irresponsible for me to comment on the employment law detail here, as this is not one size fits all. In fact, it’s greyer than a cold January day.

Furlough is new in the UK. There are no experts; many people think they are but really, they can’t be! Furlough is a baby, only a few weeks old, and the legislation is still working itself out, so I would be wary of any self-proclaimed furlough geniuses out there who are providing speculative information beyond what’s written in black and white on the HMRC web page.

What’s really important when designing your furlough process is that you pick your sources of information carefully, stick to employment law principles, do what’s in the best interest of your people and the business, and remember what this is actually about. Saving lives!

It doesn’t matter if you are a small or large company, conducting a full consultation process or simply seeking agreement. How you communicate and even your tone is critical in ensuring this all lands without a bump. Communication must be the following:

Regular: Your team is in the know. They themselves are reading up on all things coronavirus and are becoming well versed in the economic challenges that lie ahead. They are tuning into a well-known TV show who have pivoted to segments on magical furlough myths and if you don’t act quickly these will become gospel. Provide daily updates to your team; consult with them to understand their worries and concerns, communicate your roadmap, even if you’re not sure where you are going yet.

Without commenting politically, our government’s daily updates have bought us clarity in a time of uncertainty. Even when it has not been relevant to us personally, we know we are as up to date as we can be. We can learn from this.

Transparent: The thing is, the majority of your team will understand, providing you’re as honest and transparent as you can be. It is paramount that your team know you are working to safeguard their future, even if that does mean winding down elements of your business for now. You don’t need to disclose your entire cashflow picture, but don’t be scared to let them know cash isn’t infinite.

Every business has a different financial situation. It is too easy to compare yourselves to others and see what they are offering their teams. My advice is don’t. Only look internally at what you can offer. Do the best you can within your means and let your teams know exactly what you can offer them and why. If this means bad news, like shifting a pay date slightly in order to furlough 90% of your team instead of 50%, then do it, but explain your reasoning: why it benefits them, offer an interim support package (subs, hardship funds etc.) and obtain their endorsement. Your team will agree more readily, allowing you to react and move quicker, saving your business money if you keep them in the know.

If you’re furloughing some and not others, then ensure you are being fair and consider how this could impact diversity and inclusion. In this scenario, I would propose a similar process to selecting for redundancy.

Furlough engagement

Your team (you included) may think sitting in your pants all day eating cookies and watching Homeland is a good idea, but it really isn’t (speaking from experience here). As an employer we have a duty of care to be checking in with our people, but it also makes business sense to keep our workforce engaged and active whilst they are off.

To be clear, you cannot allow for any work whatsoever to be completed that is deemed to provide a service or contribute to revenue whilst your team are on furlough. This does not stop you interacting with your team or training them, providing you’re not breaching NMW.

Despite not being someone that likes to put people in boxes, for simplicity I have identified three key categories of furloughed employees. Your engagement strategy should be built around engaging all three.

1. The passion hustlers

They just agreed to furlough leave and BOOM! 80% pay and they can’t wait to start work on a passion project that they just haven’t had time for while working for you. I know what you’re thinking… S**T! How do I stop them from pursuing their dreams and doing something they love? The truth is you can’t, and you shouldn’t. Having employees who are creative and ambitious enough to pursue their venture is a good thing. Actually, a lot of evidence now points to our workforce wanting flexibility in their work contracts so they can fulfil personal desires outside of their 9–5.

My advice is to embrace this part of your team, connect people digitally, whether that’s on Facebook or your own internal platform, and allow them to share what they are working on, business-related or not. Could they run a masterclass or engagement event for you? Take an interest in what they are doing, support them, promote them and you will most likely find they will stay. Also promote volunteering opportunities for key worker sectors, the NHS or the care sector.

You may lose some workers to passion jobs, if you are keeping comms open with these people you will know who they are and be able to succession plan.

I would also think about the post-COVID world. What could you do to give people more flexibility in pursuing more personal projects? This could put you above the competition in attracting talent in the future.

2. The out of officers

Their out of office was on before that furlough agreement hit their inbox. You haven’t heard from them in over a week, they are silent on your social chats.

There could be many reasons for a person’s silence. Isolation isn’t easy and everyone has different circumstances. These people could be parents who are just busy with home- schooling the kids, or someone caring for a relative. Don’t assume this is your disengaged team. Pick up the phone and see how they are for starters. Remember home is not always someone’s safe place.

This part of your workforce may not be interested in activity associated with training and development but would be more than happy to engage on a more social level. Run movie nights on Netflix Party (you can all watch a movie at the same time), have open coffee sessions on Teams or Zoom where anyone can sign in, organise some kids’ entertainment (lots of drama teachers out there are offering virtual kids’ classes) to give your parents a little break, or run some live music sessions online.

Importantly, have an EAP in place and make sure there is always someone for your team to talk to. If you don’t have one, there are lots of charity numbers out there offering exemplary support.

3. The above and beyonders

They totally got the whole furlough thing, they probably offered to cut their salary before furlough, they are in it for the good of the business, so it doesn’t surprise you that they are sneaking on email to pursue a few leads, or work off grid, potentially risking that all important furlough claim.

These are the team that will continue to require regular business updates and engagement while on furlough.

Ensure training and development is available for this team. However, make sure everyone is on an even playing field by ensuring training is accessible to all your employees (parents, carers who may not have the time). Utilise this group to engage others. They may be closer to the team than you, so use them to rally and support the troops.

Ensure they fully understand their responsibilities to not provide a service to your company. This is an area that HMRC will retrospectively audit, and no one fancies reimbursing those furlough claims.

There is a lot you can do as a business to engage your team. Key is to have a digital platform where you can keep your team in the loop. If you don’t have one already, a Facebook group is a great way of capturing a more passive team base, as many use the platform regardless. Don’t forget to have something for everyone, whether it is a weekly newsletter on emails or group texts. Cover all bases. Check in your team during furlough, run an anonymous survey to see who truly is still on the bus.

Here are some of the best bits I’ve seen out there so far when it comes to furlough team engagement, mostly hosted on Zoom, Facebook Live or internal systems

- Virtual pub drinks (Zoom even has pub backgrounds you can use)

- Exercise classes (scheduled so people can plan their week)

- Cooking masterclasses (run by employees)

- Leadership talks (business swapping CEOs to upskill teams)

- Virtual pub quizzes (Kahoot is good for this)

- DJ sets (Twitch is fantastic for this, check out Brewhouse and Kitchens DJ sets)

- Team TikTok and video challenges (The Coaching Inn Group toilet roll challenge)

- Timetables of events enabling routine (Honest Burgers)

- Check out what your industry is offering. In hospitality we have Hospo Live which is a free Facebook page run by industry experts aimed at upskilling and inspiring hospitality workers.

What does post COVID-19 pandemic look like?

Big question. Deserving of a whole separate blog in all honesty. But I will leave this thought with you.

COVID-19 is a disrupter. It is disrupting how we work, what we do for work, and how we live our lives. Some of the disruption is temporary, but like I said earlier, it is unprecedented and no doubt will leave its mark on history and impact our future.

The words ‘disruption’ and ‘transformation’ quite often get used interchangeably, but to me there is a real difference. Disruption leaves people behind, transformation takes your people with you.

Our role in HR is to turn disruption into transformation. So, identify what has been disrupted in your business, how you are going to pivot to cope with the post-pandemic world, and what plan are you going to put in place to take your people with you.

And, remember, wash your hands, stay home, protect our NHS, save lives!

Hayley Connor will be sharing further tips and insights on dealing with COVID-19 in a week-long webcast series from The People Space in partnership with 10Eighty. The series will feature leading HR directors sharing the lessons they have learnt so far and will run in the week of 11-15 May. To register please go here

This article was sponsored by Hawkwood. Hayley requested Hawkwood make a donation on her behalf to Only a Pavement Away — a charity offering to fund the 20% furlough gap for employees and assisting the homeless & vulnerable find meaningful work.

Published on The People Space 7 May 2020
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