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The transformative nature of furlough

23 Sep 2020 By Riccarda Zezza

The coronavirus pandemic has been incredibly disruptive, but businesses shouldn’t waste the chance to use new skills their workers have learnt, says Riccarda Zezza

The global pandemic has brought unparalleled change to our lives, and it's not dramatic to consider it the biggest global event for several entire generations. Particularly for those furloughed, it’s been a time of anxiety, uncertainty, and at times, misery. Mental health charities like Mind even have a dedicated guide specifically for coping with the furlough experience.

So what happens next for these people who have gone through this unique crisis? Well, there may be some silver linings to this cloud.

Perhaps most importantly, we must remember that significant life events make us who we are, and are the moments in which major personal growth is enabled. Think about this in the context of your own life. What has driven you to make changes? What has inspired you to move jobs or take on a new project or sign up for an ultramarathon? It’s likely that it comes down to a life event that made you grow as a person. 

This is certainly true for me. After I had my second child, my then-employer clearly felt that the responsibility of motherhood was a burden to me and decided to demote me. In actuality, I knew that the experience had made me more valuable, imparting incredible soft skills that I could not have learned so quickly from anything else, like self-awareness, time management and complex problem solving. This miscalculation was actually what inspired me to start my company. It made me realise that we still need a big perception shift in how employers view and deal with life transitions – whether it’s parenthood, relationship changes, or a crisis like being furloughed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

So how exactly have these people changed from this crisis? 

Harvard Business Review has identified some of the general short-term hardships involved with the pandemic crisis: “The fear and uncertainty created by Covid-19 is putting a huge amount of pressure on our limited [mental] resources. This can result in a compromised decision-making process, breakdown and fatigue.”

While very valid points, it’s also worth noting that this same pressure can have more positive outcomes. The scientific board we work with has identified plenty of long-term benefits of the crisis, such as how the need to be conscious of and care for all our loved ones can help train our emotional awareness, or how the obstacles faced when connecting with others has developed strong new communication skills; and how the rapidly changing context of day-to-day life has made us more flexible than ever. 

Looking specifically at those furloughed, many claim to feel re-energised, and feel that the experience has given them a chance to reflect. We recently conducted our own research with more than 1,500 people from across Europe that supports this. We investigated their attitudes around returning to work, and found that 60 per cent of people are ready to return to work with ‘renewed energy’. Almost half say they have gained new skills during this time of crisis, too. 

So it seems that the furlough experience may have actually played a positive role in helping develop some soft skills in people. The next question is what do HR teams do to reacclimatise these furloughed workers? And how can they capitalise on these new skills? 

Firstly, workplace management methodologies need to change significantly. Most importantly, they need to be more caring, giving as much space to people’s thoughts and feelings following the return to work as possible. Our internal research also looked at how people feel workplaces should change – 69 per cent expect there to be more space for their thoughts and feelings to be heard in the future, and a further 82 per cent reflected a more definitive opinion that “lots of things must change”. 

A culture of care, and understanding the value of life experiences like this, is becoming business-critical, and leaders can also help with all of this. They need to behave in a protective, open and reassuring way, whilst also showing people that they are part of the driving force behind defining the ‘new normal’. We call this ‘generative leadership’ – the act of building and nurturing something that will outlive your tenure, and it’s been shown to be very effective during a crisis, and will be extremely reassuring to people who have experienced furlough. 

Riccarda Zezza is founder of Lifeed

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