Blog

8 April 2020

Communicating with furloughed workers

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The word ‘furlough’ did not previously exist in UK employment law. Now, there is no escaping it.

Perhaps furlough even features in your dreams, as your brain tries to de-clutter and make sense of the transformed world around us. But furloughing is not the stuff of nightmares: furloughing workers could save your business.

What is a furloughed worker?

A furloughed worker is put on temporary leave while remaining on payroll, to enable businesses to take advantage of the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.  Eligibility criteria apply and the Scheme’s exact terms are still being finalised.  What we do know, however, is that furloughed workers cannot do any work for the company furloughing them. By extension, any communications to furloughed workers must be unrelated to work.

I can’t communicate about work – is there any point doing it at all?

By communicating work-related content, an organisation would break the Scheme’s rules and lose the Government’s wage subsidy.  Why communicate then, if it carries the risk of error?  Workers will feel differently about being furloughed.  For some, it may bring relief due to their caring responsibilities.  Others could be left socially isolated.  Some may feel undervalued at being furloughed while others may feel guilty that colleagues are still working to earn their wages.  All may be concerned whether there will be a job for them to return to when furlough ends.  Communication is a means by which worry and isolation can be tempered; it can maintain a feeling of belonging and consistency at a time of social distancing and churn, and it can help retain staff morale and fulfil an employer’s duty of care in extraordinary times.

Ideas for communicating within the rules

To communicate safely within the rules of the Scheme you need first to ensure everyone knows that any communication with furloughed workers must not be about work.  Also, explain the consequences of breaching the Scheme’s rules (if workers understand, they are more likely to comply).  Employers could create a factsheet on what does/does not constitute ‘work’ communication, with HR and/or legal teams advising.  The factsheet could be given to all staff so everyone is clear and they have it for reference.  Ask furloughed workers to include their furloughed status on their ‘out of office’ messages (with a reminder that they cannot be contacted about work), to support their non-furloughed colleagues’ compliance.

Furloughed staff should not be logging on or answering their work mobiles.  Just logging on to receive communications from their employer could be regarded as logging on to view work emails.  There are steps employers can take to remove this risk:

  • Use furloughed workers’ personal contact details when contacting them about the practical aspects of being furloughed (e.g. notification of the furlough period’s extension or end; online training requirements). Ensure you have their up-to-date contact details before furlough commences.
  • Express consent (opting-in) is needed to use personal contact details for more general communications.
  • You could set up a newsletter for furloughed workers (again, opt-in is required) or a dedicated Facebook page, for example.

You might be asking, if I can’t contact them about work, well what is there to contact them about?  Aside from the practicalities of managing the furlough period, employers can use communication to keep in touch with and support their workers.  This could include:

  • Organisation updates
  • Wellbeing guidance (including details of any Employee Assistance Programme or Mental Health First Aiders the organisation has and how to access them. You could set up wellbeing calls or groups, for those who would like them).
  • Signposting to charities or local support groups
  • Ideas for volunteering (furloughed workers can volunteer) e.g. GoodSAM, National Care Force.
  • Tips for how to keep busy e.g. home-schooling websites, free theatre streaming etc.

Navigating communication with furloughed workers need not be difficult if you take the appropriate steps.  Indeed, communicating with furloughed workers will be beneficial: something we can be certain of in uncertain times.

Catherine Munro

Catherine Munro is a HR Advisor at MHR and has been with the company for three years. She offers HR expertise and tailored solutions, and enjoys making a difference to her clients’ businesses alongside the variety the role brings.

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