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How to support a furloughed workforce: best practices from our customers

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As more companies consider how to modify their operations in the wake of this crisis, here are the furlough best practices we’ve learned from SocialChorus customers and the wider industry landscape.
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During this extraordinary time, several of our customers are being forced to furlough at least some of their employees until the COVID-19 recovery begins. Some in the hospitality industry have had to reduce their workforces by as much as 80%, and while furloughs are never a popular option, they do at least enable these companies to continue offering vital benefits to workers. When done right, furloughs also help organizations retain talent for when their business is again running at full capacity. 

As more companies consider how to modify their operations in the wake of this crisis, I wanted to share the furlough best practices we’ve learned from SocialChorus customers and the wider industry landscape. 

1. Announcing the furlough: provide as much support as possible

We’ve all read the stories of companies botching various COVID-19 announcements to their employees. Just think of scooter startup Bird announcing 400 layoffs over a Zoom call. A communication plan for your furlough rollout will help prevent these kinds of blunders and improve the employee experience during this stressful time. 

If possible, allow direct supervisors to deliver the initial message so employees know and trust the source of information. Then follow it up with communication from the company. Some of our customers have chosen to do live CEO videos that allow leaders to demonstrate authenticity and show empathy for their workforce. 

Furlough announcements will leave workers with a lot of questions, so it’s important to make answers available immediately. First, be sure managers are equipped with the information they need to guide employees through these decisions. Whether or not they are the ones to deliver the initial message, they will be the trusted source that employees go to with questions. Distribute targeted communications and FAQs so managers have the information at their fingertips when employees inevitably come to them.

Provide clear instructions regarding when the departure will happen and what to expect during it. It’s also critical to clarify your no-work rule from the start if the furlough is to reduce operating costs as intended. Make sure these communications are omni-channel and available everywhere employees consume information, from your intranet to your mobile app to the digital signage on your manufacturing floor. 

Compile all the resources your workers will need during this time, including options for alternate employment during the furlough, information on benefits access and wellness support, and training opportunities to maintain or expand their skillsets. Consider creating a hub for this information, but keep in mind that your no-work policy will prevent your workers from accessing some channels during the furlough. For example, if furloughed employees won’t have intranet access, host your resources on an external site that employees can access outside company firewalls. 

2. During the furlough: foster connection and maintain alignment

If you want your employees to return at the end of your furlough, keep the lines of communication open during it. That means determining exactly where you are (and aren’t) allowed to communicate with workers. Their work email accounts will be off-limits, as will Slack and Teams, because if exempt employees answer even a single message, they must be compensated for a full day of work. You’ll need to make sure you can reach your employees on personal devices like their smartphones, even as IT security blocks work emails from them. 

Remember, too, that technology alone won’t foster a personal connection between employees and the company. Some of our customers are designating “ambassadors” to serve as individual points of contact for furlough advice. If you go this route, make their contact information easy to find through your resource hub. You can also encourage furloughed employees to socialize digitally outside of work—traditional social media platforms can be good options for this, but so can your workforce communication platform, as long as you make clear that using the system to get information is optional and users must comply  with your no-work policy. 

Additionally, your communication platform or method should give you a way to target only relevant information to your furloughed workers. This prevents working employees from being spammed with furlough content, and ensures no-work compliance among furloughed staff. 

The content of your communications must also remain compliant, so furloughed employees should be removed from any work-related, team-level or project-level communication lists. However, they should be kept up to date on company information that relates directly to the furlough, such as changes in time frame and which roles and locations will return first. This will help them stay aligned with the company in anticipation of their return to work. 

3. After the furlough: prepare your people to re-enter the workforce

With public health officials predicting that COVID-19 will be with us for months or years to come, it’s likely many furloughs will last for an extended period. As your company adapts to the new normal, you’ll likely have many operational changes, including new policies, procedures, ways of working, systems and technologies. Specific roles may also have changes to their workflows. Returning employees will need to be brought up to speed on all of these developments when they rejoin the workforce. 

We recommend treating the return to work much like onboarding. Identify what information needs to be acknowledged and what tasks need to be completed for each returning role, and build your post-furlough onboarding around that sequence. You’ll also need to plan for some employees being transitioned to new roles and responsibilities, which may call for new skill development on their part. A communication platform can help you expedite this process, because it gives returning employees one place to go for all of the information they need, and built-in automation can prompt for responses like policy acknowledgements and review of training materials.   

To help returning employees mobilize around company changes, leadership should continue to publish updates regarding strategy, new operational initiatives, and new goals for the business. Giving line managers the ability to publish updates specifically for their teams will also help in this regard. 

Outside of informational support, returning employees will need to reconnect with other members of the workforce and rebuild their sense of community within the company. Employee recognition programs and fun contests are great ways to start, and can be easily implemented even if self-isolation regulations continue. Virtual team wellness programs such as virtual fitness sessions can also be easily continued even when regulations end. 

Adaptation requires communication

Whether or not a furlough is currently planned for your organization, this is a time of rapid change across all industries. Clear, consistent communication is the key to helping your workforce acclimate to, and mobilize around, these changes. 

If you’d like to learn how to communicate effectively during these uncertain times, take a look at our customer stories, check out our crisis communications guide for CIOs, or contact us directly for additional assistance. 

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Sonia Fiorenza

Sonia Fiorenza

Sonia Fiorenza leads Stratgic Advisory Services and develops communications and engagement strategies for SocialChorus. Sonia has more than 20 years experience in Corporate Communications at Fortune 500 companies across the financial services, biotechnology, and retail industries.

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