As more parts of the economy reopen, employers are planning how to manage their staff and workplaces. While many staff have been working from home, a significant number of people have been furloughed under the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). 

In some cases, people may not have worked for several months and in extreme cases for almost a year. Others may have been ‘flexibly furloughed’ – working fewer than their contractual hours (for example 3 days rather than 5). This guide looks at some of the key issues that employers need to consider in managing the return to work for furloughed workers.

Preparing for return

Most employers will have furloughed staff for one of three reasons:

  • Their work cannot be done from home
  • The company or organisation has been required to be temporarily closed (such as hospitality)
  • Individuals have been unable to attend work for health related reasons (particularly those required to ‘shield’)
Your approach to preparing for the return of these employees may need to be adapted depending on the reason for the furlough decision. In particular, if your workplace has been fully closed you will need to take steps to make it “COVID-secure” before people return in line with Government guidance. Employers should also prepare to discuss any concerns employees may have around returning. There’s more advice on mental health and wellbeing considerations below.

Communication

Companies have kept in touch with furloughed staff in different ways and at different times. As you begin to plan your return it is important to keep staff up to date so that they can prepare to return. Even though legally you do not have to give notice to staff to recall them to work, in practice it would be sensible to aim to give at least a week’s notice of requiring them to return. Individuals may have made domestic arrangements (for example around childcare, or other caring responsibilities) which they will need to resolve before returning. You may also want to alert them to any changes they will immediately encounter in advance such as canteens no longer taking cash; restrictions on car-parking and so on.

If it is a requirement that individuals take a COVID test before returning you need to ensure that they can do so (and if necessary enable them to access tests) in sufficient time before they return. 

Communication isn’t one way so make sure you build in the opportunity for staff to raise questions or concerns before they are due to return.

Reinduction

If people have been away from work for a long period, you may want to hold a formal ‘reinduction’ before they restart work. How long or short this reinduction is will depend on individual business situations, but it should normally cover the following:

  • Welcome back to the company – remind individuals they have been missed 
  • A health and safety briefing on any COVID related changes (such as social distancing, new entry/exit points, one way systems, when masks need to be worn etc).
  • A reminder of normal health and safety processes (particularly if these have been amended since the start of the pandemic)
  • Changes to company rules and procedures
  • Any other changes to the business (see next section).
Furloughed employees may feel disconnected from the company and their colleagues, and so rebuilding connections and a strong culture should be a priority. Building in time for socialisation and the chance to raise issues is an important part of the reinduction process.
 
For certain businesses, training or retraining may also be necessary, especially if there is a technical element to the job which individuals may not have undertaken for some time.
 
A formal reinduction is only the start – individuals will need ongoing support, particularly for the first few weeks.

Changes in the business

During the time staff have been on furlough there may have been significant changes to the business, which could have an impact on those returning. You may need to ensure returning staff are aware of:

  • Changes to personnel – colleagues or managers who have left or joined the company
  • Changes to business strategy, especially if it affects their role, such as: loss or gain of new customers; changes within key customers/suppliers; changes to company plans (such as decision to cancel planned expansion); changes to products or services offered to customers
  • New protocols or procedures that are now legally required (such as Brexit-related export documentation).

Dealing with issues that arise

Even with the best reinduction and training plan, there will still be support needed for returning staff. Some of this is covered in our returning to the workplace guide and FAQs, but there are a number of specific issues that may relate to furloughed workers.

Holidays
Staff may have been required to class certain days as holiday while furloughed. However, if you did not do so, it is likely that many employees will return with a significant backlog of holiday entitlement. Under the Working Time (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 staff can carry forward up to 4 weeks leave for up to 2 years if it was not ‘reasonably practicable’ for them to take their holidays for a COVID-related reason. This will obviously require careful managing and planning to ensure that staff are able to take holidays they are entitled to. 

Conflict with colleagues
There may well be issues between staff who have worked throughout the pandemic and those who are returning after furlough, based on misconceptions that furloughed staff have had a lengthy ‘holiday’ while those who have been working have kept the business running. While cases will need to be dealt with on their own facts and circumstances, it is important that matters are resolved in a supportive and constructive manner. Read our report on managing conflict for more information.

Vaccination and health concerns
As the vaccine rollout continues you may still find that a significant section of your workforce has not yet been vaccinated. Individuals may be worried about returning to work if they are not yet vaccinated or if they are working with staff who have not yet been vaccinated. You also need to think about your company policy towards vaccination and be able to deal with any who are reluctant to be vaccinated, advised against being vaccinated, or opposed on principle. Read our guide on vaccination to find out more.

Staff who have been furloughed because of shielding requirements may have particular issues due to the nature of their own condition. In many cases such staff will be classed as disabled and so you may need to think about ‘reasonable adjustments’.

Travel
Staff may not have issues with returning to work but may have concerns over their need to commute. While public transport operators have taken specific steps to ensure safety of passengers, there may still be issues:

  • The need to ensure social distancing may mean that capacity is limited on services
  • Some services may have been rescheduled or are running at reduced capacity
  • Some services may need to be pre-booked.
As an employer you may want to look at amended start and finish times (if this is possible) or taking a more lenient approach to punctuality if transport options are limited.
 
If staff are unwilling because of health concerns to use public transport, you should discuss the situation with them. Refer them to the Government guidance where necessary.

Mental health and wellbeing

Staff were furloughed as a consequence of a business decision and could have been on a reduced income for an extended period. They may well have had little to do during lockdown and as a result may be suffering from a variety of mental health issues. It is important that businesses plan and prepare for this, including being able to deal with a range of mental health and wellbeing concerns.

For example, furloughed staff may be nervous about the possibility of returning to work, or may suffer from social anxiety at the prospect of having to interact and communicate with colleagues, having not done so for some time. Reassuring them in advance of their return is important and, as noted above, building in time for socialisation and informal non-work contact may be as vital as updating them on business issues. This does not mean social functions (which are unlikely to be an option under current restrictions) but could for example be addressed by assigning a colleague to act as a ‘buddy’ to a returning worker.

In other cases staff may be suffering from financial problems which are causing them stress. If you have an Employee Assistance Programme then ensure staff are aware of it. If you don’t, having information available about local charities who provide Debt Advice and other financial support will allow you to signpost staff to appropriate support.

Staff may have become more dependent on alcohol and it is worth reviewing the CIPD guide on managing drugs and alcohol at work on how you can deal with such situations. They may also feel a lack of confidence in the workplace as a result of weight gain. Such situations need to be considered sympathetically.

Returning to work after furlough will, for many employees, be similar to returning after a long period of sickness or unemployment and you may wish to adapt any existing procedures you have that deal with such situations, including Occupational Health support and making use of specialist mental health organisations.

Read more about this aspect of returning in our Mental Health Guide.

Role of line managers

Other than in the smallest company, managing returning staff directly will fall to line managers rather than HR staff. It may be sensible to hold a short briefing session with managers who will be responsible for staff who have been furloughed to cover some of the key areas highlighted in this guide. Important issues to cover will include:

  • Reminder that furlough is not a ‘holiday’ – it has been a stressful and isolating period for many and returnees require support
  • Everyone will take time to adjust to returning to work and things will not be the same as before the start of the pandemic.
  • COVID has not disappeared and so it is important that they ensure any ‘COVID-secure’ procedures are followed, and that they are role models for staff.
  • Taking a sympathetic approach to individual issues is important. Ensure they know how to ‘signpost’ staff to additional support and resources.
  • Holidays will need to be managed in a fair way, allowing staff to take their full entitlement (including any carry forward).
It may be sensible to involve line managers in any communication or reinduction processes wherever possible. You can also refer to the line manager support materials for further resources to support managers.

National differences

It is important to remember that each of the UK nations (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) has slightly different rules and you need to be aware of them, particularly if you have staff who cross a boundary (for example live in Wales but work in England) or have sites in different countries. Employers should refer to the relevant rules and guidance for each nation and adapt their plans accordingly.

In planning a return for furloughed workers employers should aim to be flexible and understanding, taking into account the different types of support and communication which may be needed.

DISCLAIMER: The materials in this guidance are provided for general information purposes and do not constitute legal or other professional advice. While the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances may impact the accuracy and validity of the information. The CIPD is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for any action or decision taken as a result of using the guidance. You should consult a professional adviser for legal or other advice where appropriate.

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