One significant outcome of the Covid-19 crisis is the growing visibility of the word ‘furloughed’: a status into which so many workers in the UK and elsewhere are in the process of being placed.
In his recent package of special economic measures to deal with the impacts of coronavirus, chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed that the government will pay workers 80% of their wages, up to a cap of £2,500 per month.
With that security in place, firms are increasingly asking staff to step back from their day-to-day duties and remain at home, on the understanding that they will continue to be registered employees – the basic conditions of being furloughed.
Some companies are using this contingency against layoffs in a holistic way, combining it with pay cuts for senior figures to ensure long-term business survival throughout the crisis. For example, building contractor Wates has announced that it will furlough around 1,000 staff – just over a quarter of its workforce – from Monday 6 April, while rolling out wage reductions at all levels, including a 35% pay cut for board members up to the end of June (Building.co.uk, 2 April 2020).
CEO David Allan said: “No one can foresee how long this crisis will continue, and other adjustments may need to be made, but we are determined to get through it, to emerge stronger, and for our people to keep their jobs.”
In its official guidance on furloughing staff (HM Treasury, March 2020), the government makes clear: “To be eligible for the [80% pay] grant, when on furlough, an employee cannot undertake work for, or on behalf of, the organisation. This includes providing services or generating revenue.” As such, employers face strict limitations in terms of the purposes for which they can contact staff who have been placed on furlough.
But what can leaders do to ensure that such workers continue to have a sense of belonging with the organisations they have temporarily stepped away from? Which management techniques can senior figures utilise to help furloughed staff feel that they are still part of something, rather than drifting in limbo?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “While there are restrictions on what furloughed staff can do, one avenue that remains open to them is to engage in learning and development activities. In terms of how leaders should manage that process, my advice is that, in order for it to properly take root with the learners, it must be absolutely systematic.”
She explains: “In negotiation with each employee, organisations should devise plans setting out expectations of which goals those workers should achieve within a specific number of days, weeks or months. The only way to maintain the sort of motivation that this demands is a coaching relationship – in other words, a leadership figure being deeply interested in what you are learning, who is happy to spend time talking to you about it.”
Cooper notes: “The Institute’s MyLeadership tool will provide a host of ideas on this front. It’s systematic, formulaic, consistent and accessible, and supports the interpersonal aspects of coaching, which can play out remotely. Get people together in pairs and, as well as asking them to talk about the subject matter that is being learned, encourage them to use the way they talk about it as a path towards adopting coaching approaches. Ask them to read about coaching – what it is, and what it takes – and then practice the relevant techniques on each other, while exploring the topic at the centre of the learning process.
“As well as gaining essential knowledge, those individuals will pick up a terrific capability to conduct adult conversations where they’re actively listening, caring about each other’s success and looking towards the future.”
However, she adds: “It takes real energy, enthusiasm, focus and commitment on the part of the manager who organises these learning activities to keep the momentum going. You can’t just say, ‘Get on with this and I’ll see you in three months.’ The real challenge is maintaining interest. So it’s vital to ensure that there’s a tangible sense of achievement among the learners as they make their way from one goal to the next.”