3 ways companies can engage and connect with furloughed employees

From major airlines to retail stores, millions of employees are still furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic. While some have returned to work, others are still wondering when, and if, they’ll get their jobs back.

“They have the uncertainty of not knowing when they will be able to go back to work, but they still need to provide for their family and pay their bills,” says Stacy Bolger, vice president of global employee experience at InMoment, a Utah-based customer feedback management company. “They may love what they do and the organization they work with, but basic human needs are going to overtake those other preferences at this point, especially given that we're several months into this.”

Read more: 6 ways employee well-being is suffering during COVID-19

Bolger says there will likely be a large shift toward job seeking, where workers look for job opportunities outside of their realm or industry, potentially forcing them to take a lower paying or skilled job just to provide for basic health and safety needs. This will not only cause a decrease in retention, but also in engagement, she says.

“I think we are going to see employee retention numbers really start to take a hit because of that uncertainty,” she says. “Where people were willing to hold out in the beginning, the luxury of holding out is likely not going to be maintained for very much longer.”

For employers who are hoping to hire back high achievers, staying in contact with their furloughed employees is key. Company-wide emails can quickly provide helpful information, but they typically don’t address the individual questions or concerns of furloughed employees, which can lead to frustration and feelings of neglect. Instead, businesses should stabilize employee morale by personalized outreach for those that hope to return, Bolger says.

Read more: Why returning to ‘business as usual’ during COVID-19 jeopardizes employee productivity and mental health

“The more personalized and direct that we can be with this group of individuals — whether that be letters, email or phone calls — that's going to be the better route to go,” she says.

In a one-on-one interview, Bolger shared three ways companies can manage the engagement as well as retention of furloughed employees.

Rebuild damaged workplace culture
We’re seeing that engagement is lower and that people are feeling less connected. [Employers need to] consider both the social and work related needs of employees who are furloughed, and that there is an emotional and social component that they're missing from being in the workplace. It's not just employer-to-employee relationships that need to be maintained and rebuilt from the time when someone is on furlough to going back into the workplace, but there's also the employee-to-employee relationship. Naturally, there could be some challenges there between employees who were furloughed and those who were not, and organizations should consider that team-building aspect upon bringing back furloughed employees, and realize that there's going to be an adjustment period. Employers need to deliberately think through how they rebuild that team and the culture that they had before the pandemic.
Personalize your outreach
It's important to recognize that not only are [corporate emails] not personal in many cases, they’re also not feasible. In the quick-serve restaurant industry, for example, there are workers who may not even have a corporate email. So those companies may not have a way to communicate broadly to these individuals and employees who are furloughed often get their access turned off to systems and platforms. Employers have to consider that logistic, and that they have to communicate differently. We have one client whose leadership team has taken it upon themselves to reach out directly via phone to every single furloughed employee of the company for the check in. It’s demonstrating that the organization cares and that they're willing to take highly paid resources and the value of their time spent on keeping in touch with individuals who may not feel very in touch with the organization right now.
Help workers maintain their skills
We have employees who perform a role for the organization when they are not furloughed, which means they're applying skills and learning on the job, and that they are getting coaching, feedback and mentoring. We have to recognize that they are also likely losing some of that by not being able to practice some of those skills while their peers who remain working are still getting that coaching. So when this furlough time lengthens, it makes that gap wider. One thing that organizations should do is work to reassure the employees that when they come back to the workplace, they will be provided with support and training and given the time needed to redevelop their comfort level to do their job and to do it at the level of performance that they were performing at before being furloughed.