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Bringing staff back from furlough: Best practice and pitfalls

As coronavirus restrictions ease, workplaces must return to capacity. How can the channel best navigate these changes?

empty office

"Everyone has worked amazingly from their homes during the pandemic, but we really value the camaraderie and vibrancy of our open-plan offices," says Westcoast managing director Alex Tatham. Many in the channel will readily agree on the benefits of a shared team experience on site, but what might this mean when bringing staff back from furlough?

Westcoast staff have already returned as activity increases, Tatham says, with more to follow. Furloughed staff are joining those who worked from home during lockdown, and those who had been required to attend the office throughout.

According to Rachel Lashford, vice president of marketing at analysis firm Canalys, channel furlough has been used selectively, mainly for non-core staff or front-line sales, marketing or professional services, with other staff redeployed or upskilled, often to support remote working. But now things must change once more.

"Our research shows that remote working will not remain the norm. Indeed, the death of the office has been greatly exaggerated," she notes. "Any channel partner that is still furloughing a significant proportion of their workforce is probably not in a great financial position. Big challenges are ahead as the economic recession deepens, and there will be casualties in the channel."

Furlough must be wound down between August and October, points out Alan Price, employment law expert and CEO of BrightHR, while companies need time to plan, create processes and make decisions, including on redundancies and temporary layoffs.

"And it's essential to take the personal circumstances of all employees into account. For example, some may live with someone more vulnerable to the virus," says Price.

Legal issues might trip up companies without suitably agile processes, agrees Alastair Currie, partner at law firm Bevan Brittan, which offers a guide to in-house legal issues arising from coronavirus. "Coronavirus has resulted in a backlog of unresolved grievances, disciplinary allegations, or bullying and harassment cases. The danger is that more cases could arise."

Frances Sneddon, CTO at developer Simul8, warns that ending furlough means compromises to balance safety against productivity for all staff. Social distancing, hygiene and managing numbers on site at all times is only the start.

"What happens if everyone entering the workspace needs a test for coronavirus? Add to this the wider interconnectivity of daily working needs, from customer interactions to managing supply chains, sharing workspaces with other businesses, controlling the flow of people against transport and infrastructure dependencies. Suddenly the ramifications of any changes begin to multiply," Sneddon says. "Finding the optimum work-arounds will likely need some experimentation, which comes with risk."

Where do you start?

Suzanne Hurndall, relationship director at hr inspire, says best practice is to look at latest government guidelines and outline phased and gradual changes, which should be communicated carefully and clearly, then tested out. This should follow the three key tests of whether an action is essential, safe and mutually agreed.

"I do think there will be some friction on this," she warns. 

Dawn Brown, transactional services head at HR provider MHR, says it’s worth looking to adopt more flexible work schedules or having two teams. In terms of set-up, MHR has added sanitiser stations, open doors, a one-way system, car parking restrictions, regular temperature checks and stopped hot-desking.

Rachel Suff, CIPD senior policy adviser, says its research confirms that many are anxious about returning to workplaces and the related risk of infection. Where possible, non-essential staff should still stay away – perhaps adopting the new flexible furlough options. And when they return, many may require some re-onboarding or training.

"Some people will have been on furlough for several months. A re-induction process can be an opportunity to discuss developments and arrangements," Suff says.

Helen Astill, managing director of Cherington HR, says some employers have not contacted furloughed staff since lockdown began. Communications should be addressed and dialogue opened as soon as possible to ensure a smooth transition.

"See how the staff are, then find out their current circumstances. Have they got children at school, for example? What restrictions do they have?" Astill says. "Technically, employers could say 'furlough's over, come back tomorrow' but this will cause strain. Psychological preparation, as well as logistical, is desirable."

Workplaces may already be operating differently, having reshaped roles and processes during furlough. Offering 48 hours or a week's notice for return, or perhaps asking for volunteers to return over a staggered timeframe based on individual circumstances, are just two options of how to do this. Decisions need to be made about accrued leave, as well – some may prefer to roll theirs over into next year.

"Confusion over what to do still exists in people's minds. It might sometimes be better to err on the side of caution," Astill says. "Staff may be anxious, particularly if they use public transport. Technically this is not employers' responsibility but being insensitive and saying they've got to come in on a crowded rush-hour train might be too much."

Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act indicates that staff don't need to attend work if they do not feel safe. "And then you have a problem and could end up with a dispute," Astill says.

However many staff you furloughed, it’s worth taking a methodical approach when it comes to bringing them back to work. If you’re struggling for a place to start, a checklist from consultancy Let’s Talk Talent on re-onboarding staff can be downloaded here, with employee risk assessment issued by the government is available here.

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