How to manage and support your employees on furlough

Ann Kerr, HR adviser at Business Gateway shares her top tips for managing and supporting employees on furlough and discusses how HR policies could develop as a result of COVID-19.

Guide

5 min read

The COVID-19 outbreak has presented everyone with challenges, both personal and professional. Thousands of businesses have been forced to temporarily suspend operations and, devastatingly, some will struggle to survive the lockdown.

However, in the face of this challenge, the business community has shown remarkable resilience during extremely difficult times. Businesses have quickly adapted to the current climate, with teams working effectively and collaboratively in a virtual environment, utilising technology that until a few short weeks ago, most never knew existed.

Thousands of businesses are already taking advantage of the UK Government’s COVID-19 furlough scheme, which received claims for 67,000 employees in 30 minutes when it opened earlier this week.

This unparalleled scheme will help businesses across the country to cover wages and prevent unavoidable job losses. However, while it has been widely welcomed by the private sector, there remain questions and concerns from businesses about implementing the scheme.

At Business Gateway, we have experienced a substantial increase in HR enquiries from business owners who are unsure of their legal obligations to their staff. As an HR adviser, the most common questions I have received relate to the furlough scheme; with business owners asking how to apply for the scheme, which employees can be furloughed and about the wider implications, such as maternity or sick leave. In addition to these technical questions, business owners have been sharing their concerns about maintaining a positive and productive workforce throughout these uncertain times.

Three of the most common concerns are:

1. What should I take into account when deciding which employees to place on furlough?

If only placing a proportion of employees on furlough, employers must ensure that they can justify their decisions to avoid any accusations of discrimination. It is important to clearly demonstrate how decisions regarding which members of staff are required to continue working have been reached. Employers must also ensure that they are fully abreast of their legal obligations when operating the furlough scheme, for the protection of the business as well as the rights of the workforce. HMRC will audit all furlough claims and businesses do not want to fall foul of the rules through misinterpretation.

2. How should I approach the topic of furlough with my staff?

When approaching the subject of furlough with employees, employers should have an open and honest conversation about the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on the businesses. It is important to highlight that the main purpose of furlough is to avoid redundancies, and that all employees remain crucial to the business. Alongside a verbal explanation of what the implications are to their current contract of employment, I would suggest sending a follow up email to all employees including a link to the Government website to provide the full details of the scheme.

3. How can I support my staff on furlough?

Employers need to deliver a calm, reassuring and positive message to their employees, whether on furlough or not. However, it is especially vital that business owners remain in contact with their furloughed staff. Regular contact – whether via telephone, email or ideally a video call – ensures that all employees feel part of the team even when on furlough. As well as providing updates about the business, employers should use this opportunity to discuss plans for the eventual return of the workforce. Any employees not on furlough should also be involved in all these discussions to promote the continued team spirit of the workforce.

For mental health and wellbeing of all involved, employers should encourage employees to keep in touch with each other. This could include the provision of wellbeing apps for all employees, information about local support agencies or social events such as team quiz nights via Zoom or Skype. Where possible, I would recommend including employees’ families and children to become part of the team effort and benefit from the support network.

While this situation may feel confusing or overwhelming, there is support available for business owners struggling to navigate this crisis. Business Gateway is offering one-to-one appointments with specialist business advisers via video or telephone calls. All previously planned workshops are now available as webinars, and a suite of new resources have been developed to support businesses trying to adapt to new circumstances. These are available via a dedicated COVID-19 business support hub. Online tutorials, checklists and articles cover topics including Managing Your Business Remotely, Getting Your Business Through Coronavirus, Switching to Trading Online and a Five Point Plan For Keeping in Touch with Customers.

We still have a long way to go before the business community can take stock and begin to rebuild. However, employers might consider taking this opportunity to adopt some of the changes they have introduced to tackle COVID-19, and make them permanent policies. This could include offering a much more flexible work pattern for employees, offering permanent homeworking, increasing training programmes, revisiting health and safety guidelines or focusing on employee health and wellbeing. This is a rare opportunity for business owners to look at every aspect of their business, how it operates and consider the key role of their employees.

To find out how Business Gateway can help your business during the COVID-19 outbreak, visit www.bgateway.com.

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