At the time of writing this, we are still in lockdown until at least the 7th of May, with the earliest practical lifting of any restrictions for most businesses being the 11th. Not quite the Ides of May I admit, but close enough!
So, if restrictions are lifted, which is not certain, why should we be aware? I believe the issue is that most businesses will find a return to anything close to ‘normal’ trading to be slower than many anticipate. Currently, many workers are on furlough which will be a strange experience for them, and there will be a level of anxiety about what their future employment prospects are. Reassurance from the business owner is difficult at the moment because they simply do not know what lies ahead, and will be cautious about making promises that they cannot deliver.
When workers are called back from furlough there may well be the expectation that they hit the ground running straight away, and continue working as they did before. I believe that this neither fair nor realistic. This will be especially true if communication is not maintained between the business and employees during the furlough period. In this case, anxiety levels will increase, and when the call to return is made, the employee is likely to have many questions to ask, and feel anything but ready to go back to work as normal. There will also be the impact for many of going from isolation, at whatever level they experienced, to being back in the social mix of their workplace. The pent-up frustration will be quick to emerge in workplace conversations, and may not be positive.
For the business owner, desperate to be getting back to profitable trading, the last thing they want is a returning workforce more interested in conversation than getting on with the job. With stress and tension on both sides, the potential for conflict is there.
But it does not have to be this way. Proper communication, throughout the period of furlough, and before and during the period of return can avoid much of the tension and anxiety. During the furlough period, a simple e-mail each week updating what is going on in the business, if it is still operating, or just as a general update if not, maybe enough to relieve the feeling of isolation. There is also no excuse these days for not using technology to stay in touch, with online meetings easy to arrange as an update for people. The business owner also has a particular responsibility to stay in touch with employees that are in a high-risk category or live alone. An e-mail or telephone call can mean a lot to an employee in this position.
When it comes to ending the furlough period or making changes to it, I believe that personal one to one communication is the only way. Each individual employee should be spoken to, given a clear explanation of what is happening, and given the opportunity to ask questions. In larger organisations, this may well fall to the HR department to deal with, but the business owner must make sure that a clear and consistent message is passed down the line.
Before the actual return to the workplace why not have a social gathering, where everyone has an opportunity to catch up with the team and talk about their experience on furlough? This will make the return to actual work so much smoother, and give a better environment to deal with any grievances that may be there.
Investing time in proper communication may well pay dividends when we do eventually get back to business.