Masterclass: How to bring employees back from furlough

Employees are beginning to return to the office, but the process isn't as simple as just unlocking the door, says Pete Colby

During a crisis we can usually learn from experience, but this pandemic is unprecedented. Sensible, pragmatic and inclusive decisions are essential if businesses want to avoid disaster. The key to success is listening to and involving employees – most problems find a solution when staff are involved and effectively engaged.

Action plans should be in place before employees return to work from the job retention scheme. Businesses often place responsibility solely on HR to solve ‘people’ conundrums, but this is a business risk issue and should be treated as such. Somebody other than HR (ideally with project management skills) should coordinate and manage the ‘project’. Involving employee representatives, health and safety, operations, logistics, occupational health, HR and mental health first-aiders will give a better chance of success.

Plans should consider both practical and emotional aspects, and it’s important that short-term measures are clearly defined. You should be clear how long temporary amends to, for example, sickness and absence policies, remote working or shift patterns, will last.

Understandably, after several weeks in lockdown, some employees will be fearful of commuting and/or being in a space with other people, so they will need enough support before they return. Some may also have experienced bereavement or have loved ones who are vulnerable, so managers need to talk to staff to find out their situations and allay any concerns.

Making sure your managers are equipped with good leadership skills is also important, as effective one-to-one return to work discussions with each member of staff will prepare better foundations for the workforce to become operational again with minimal disturbance. There will of course be many genuine concerns – not least that some employees will clearly not take kindly to returning to work after enjoying being at home with no work and 80 per cent of their pay. But balancing employee welfare with strong, compassionate leadership will be critical, and upfront planning of potential scenarios will significantly mitigate unexpected issues. 

Finally, remember those who have gone above and beyond – and don’t forget the impact that  ‘thank you’ has on people.

Pete Colby is director at Pragmatism and a former HR director