As coronavirus restrictions continue to ease and furloughed workers return to work, there is potential for a challenging workplace dynamic. The experiences of retained workers — employees who continued to work during periods of lockdown — and of furloughed workers — who had to take paid or unpaid time off — are, understandably, very different. To avoid a workplace disconnect, it’s important to spend sufficient time and energy reboarding furloughed colleagues and reuniting the team.
In many cases, retained workers found themselves operating in a changed and challenging environment. Many will have found themselves having meetings and connecting with colleagues remotely. It is possible there were technological challenges to overcome, in addition to individual preference and proficiency. Some may have experienced an increased workload, picking up tasks normally assigned to furloughed colleagues or temporary contractors. Many have found themselves working in a more pressurized environment as non-essential businesses closed and the economy contracted. In many cases, retained workers had to balance work with caregiving responsibilities, also.
Working in such a pressurized environment, it is easy for retained workers to have an inaccurate perception of the furlough experience. One misconception may be that furloughed colleagues were able to relax and unwind, in some cases on full pay. The reality was probably quite different.
For some, furlough was an equally challenging experience. They may have experienced increased anxiety. Would it end in a restructuring? Would the company be the same as it once was? Would policies and processes be different? Furloughed colleagues may also have worried about the reception they would receive when they returned.
When employees feel unsettled, anxious or disconnected from each other, it can negatively impact team unity and cohesion, which can have a detrimental effect on employee well–being and business productivity. To make this process more effective, here are a few tips for successfully reboarding furloughed employees and achieving a successful transition.
1. Respect Different Experiences
Everyone has had a different experience over the past year, with different lessons to learn from. Create a safe space for team members to come together and talk about how they are feeling: What are they excited or anxious about? What are their hopes and fears? How can the team work together to create a great reboarding experience for everyone? What did team members learn from the past year and how can the team apply those lessons to improve unity and drive productivity?
Be an active listener throughout this process, ensuring that everyone feels that he or she has been heard. Then, be a servant leader, and do your best to address everyone’s concerns. Take time throughout the reboarding period to regularly check in with team members and offer any additional support they need.
2. Encourage Inclusion
Share business updates from the past year with the team. What changes took place? What were the major innovations or developments? What were the people changes, and how can you support furloughed employees by facilitating introductions?
This process will ensure everyone has a common starting point and improve unity and cohesion. Encourage people to ask questions about any changes, and give them the time to reboard at their own pace. If any team members were out of the business for a long time, they may need extra time.
3. Respect Working Preferences in a “Post-COVID” World
For some, the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled extra freedom and flexibility, and they may be anxious about reverting to old ways of working. Explore ways to maintain positive innovations from the past year as you return to “normal.” Give team members — and yourself — time to find out what works best, as a group and individually. The first approach may not be the final one. Workloads and family circumstances can vary throughout the year, and building in flexibility will help people identify what will work for them.
4. Clarify Roles and Responsibilities
Come together as a team and set expectations by co-creating a detailed plan for returning to work. What do you have to achieve over the next period, and what are the key milestones and actions? Look at your team members’ different abilities and preferences, and remind everyone of the value he or she brings to the team. Be sure to spend sufficient time discussing the plan with your team members, listen to what they say, and ensure everyone understands and is supportive. Remember to build in a little flexibility in case circumstances change down the line.
5. Empathetic Communication Is Key
People are much more receptive — and responsive — to an open and honest two-way style of communication. Being an active listener will help you hear what others are saying and not saying. Always assume the most respectful interpretation; nobody wants to do a bad job, but people may need extra time to adjust, especially if teams, roles or responsibilities have changed. With empathetic communication, you can build solid relationships, create community and achieve your hoped–for outcomes.
Do these few things right to successfully reboard employees, reconnect team members, and you can create a happy and high-performing working environment.