How can companies regain trust with furloughed employees?

21 May 2020 By Alys O'Neill

As staff return to work, some will be angry at having been considered non-essential, others at having to take on extra work, so firms must work hard to rebuild engagement, says Alys O'Neill

In the not-so-distant future, millions of furloughed employees will be asked to rejoin the businesses that took up the government’s job retention scheme. The organisations they left will be tasked with rebuilding for a better tomorrow, quickly. To be successful and to spark productivity, relationships and trust will need to be re-established. But where to start? 

We spoke to managers, leaders, employees and recruiters who gave us their experiences and views on being furloughed. We asked how they felt and what they thought post-lockdown working life would really be like, and quizzed them on their expectations of their companies.

One thing is clear. When businesses start to bring people back into the fold, there won’t be a magic formula to getting it right. Because everyone’s experience of the lockdown will have been fundamentally different. Feelings of isolation, anxiety and vulnerability may be rife. For some people, their world views will have drastically changed, while others may be grieving for loved ones or experiencing financial hardship. 

A cluster of employees will feel grateful to their companies, thankful to have been furloughed with some pay and eager to return to work. Others will be angry to have been considered non-essential. And we mustn’t forget the millions of employees who continued working for slimmed-down businesses – including those who agreed to pay cuts and those working on the frontline who had to manage childcare or increased work pressure. 

Recognising that these polarising experiences exist is so important. In many of these scenarios, there is one common factor: trust has been eroded. Loyalty will have been shaken. Many businesses are exposed, with revenues falling off a cliff. Some companies have been under increased public scrutiny too, which has a direct impact on how they are viewed by employees. Even those organisations that stepped up to deliver for the greater good will be quietly judged for the internal decisions they made. 

It’s a given that employers will need to continue to communicate transparently and frequently, while providing clear and safe return-to-work plans as soon as possible. But what else will the best organisations, leaders and managers think about and do differently to earn trust again? They will listen closely and ditch traditional segmentation. 

The most tuned-in leaders and managers will work quickly to re-establish psychological safety, finding new ways to support and motivate their people by re-evaluating the contract between employer and employee. These leaders will listen closely and will stop to understand their people’s fears, expectations and drivers, changing the way they segment their audience forever by focusing on mindset, not demographics.

Influencer networks will be leveraged or quickly established to give a solid read on sentiment. And companies will demonstrate they are doing things differently as a result of what they’ve heard, proving that the business has learnt from the experience. What companies and their leadership teams do, and how they do it, will matter more than ever. 

The best leadership teams will act with empathy, strength and humility. And they will be honest about the fact they too are navigating this new reality. They will take accountability and will clearly set out how decisions will be made, even if they don’t have all the answers. To inspire trust, they will make people feel valued, promising to guide them through the inevitable ongoing disruption without sugar-coating things. 

Companies that have focused on culture will leverage their connected communities to create a meaningful employee experience during onboarding for furloughed teams. They will re-establish a sense of belonging to accelerate the rebuild. This will help inform recruitment and attraction in the future. 

Some will re-evaluate their purpose and strengthen the promise they have made to their people, and the value they offer to consumers and the wider world. 

Instilling a more agile approach to working will also encourage people to be more comfortable with change and ambiguity. To ensure success, businesses will look to upskill their entire population (albeit in different ways) to help employees feel their companies are investing in their future resilience. 

People will be naturally sceptical in the coming months, and it will take time to overcome doubt and regain lost productivity. But making employees feel they can really contribute to the rebuilding efforts through collective problem-solving will engage them in the business’s future. 

Recovery will be powered by people, so they have to be well equipped to drive change, and trusted to do whatever it takes to push the company forward. Everyone should be empowered to do their very best work and have a meaningful impact. 

Alys O'Neill is founder and director of United Culture

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