At the end of March 2021, 4.2 million UK workers were still on furlough. With the scheme due to finish in September and the government (so far) hitting its dates for lifting lockdown restrictions, this represents a big challenge for HR leaders to ensure that these employees are reintegrated in the most positive way – for the individuals and the business.

Let’s start with the individuals and how they may be feeling about returning to work. The furlough scheme started in February 2020, which means many workers have had a lengthy period away from the business. Any time that employees are away from the business it can create feelings of uncertainty that impacts emotional wellbeing. Even those that are excited about returning to work may feel nervous and less confident about their role and their ability to perform in the workplace.

This is why the first step in reintegrating workers must start before they come back to the business. This should include formal communications, such as company updates, together with less formal events such as virtual team get-togethers. Once a decision has been made to request that people return, the timetable for this should be signposted as soon as possible, even if it is provisional, to allow people to start preparing and provide an opportunity to raise any queries. This means that the HR team should be thinking about a project plan. Who will be involved? What will the process be? How long will the process last? Are there enough internal resources to support?

Communicating the plan

Part of the project plan must include factoring in proposed issues that can impact the timeline. For example, employees who have taken another job during furlough (in line with the rules) and may now need to give notice before returning. Then there may be people who have suffered bereavement of a close family member during furlough, employees who have been shielding or suffering from long Covid etc. There will be many varied circumstances so, dependent on numbers, a short survey or individual call to your furloughed employees might help you to develop your approach and adapt your policies and communication strategy effectively.

It’s also key to be clear on the changes that may be taking place to make the workplace more secure. It’s important to reassure employees about how you intend to ensure their health and safety at work, including any changes to working practices or company policies. Ideally this should be done on a one to one basis, and if face to face, appropriate social distancing measures must be taken into account.

Creating FAQ sheets and using company intranets and apps is also helpful as often people need to time to absorb information. Brevity and clarity are critical, but tone is equally important. At times of change and possible stress, people always seek an answer to the question “what does this mean for me?” so as much as you can, aim to answer this question in your communications.

The most common concerns will be related to job security. Furlough has been required because the workload has reduced or disappeared so people will naturally be concerned about possible redundancy. A return to work may make people anxious that redundancy decisions delayed by furlough are now more imminent. Where possible leaders should try and address this concern through open communication and where redundancy might be a possibility explain clearly the circumstances that would trigger this. People may still be concerned but at least they will be informed and can start to plan and adjust accordingly.

In the workplace

The process of reintegration will not finish once staff return to the workplace. It’s key to create a culture where staff can talk and ask questions. It’s important to create the opportunity for people to have regular individual conversations with their line managers so worries or changes of personal circumstances can be understood. Be prepared to consider flexibility to suit school drop off and pick-up times, or other caring responsibilities or potential barriers or distractions if required to work from home.

It’s important also to consider what updated or new skills furloughed workers need, so that training can be prioritised. For example, it’s likely that managers will face an increase in team members suffering with mental health issues or may be faced with having more regular sensitive or challenging conversations or may have to deal with resentments between furloughed and non-furloughed staff, so any training that enables them to develop skills to be effective in these situations is beneficial.

Many people will have missed the social connection with workplace colleagues and so creating a buddy system with colleagues who have remained at work or setting up a forum for returners where they can share information and mutual support, can help to reconnect people.

Well validated research confirms that during periods of change and transition, a feeling of loss of control is one of the main drivers of anxiety. There is still a great deal of uncertainty related to management of the pandemic, its ongoing effect on the economy and the workplace, that employees will be concerned about. The spectre of possible redundancy will also loom large for some. Providing returners with access to confidential coaching, counselling or mentoring support – dependent on identified needs – can help people take control, make any necessary adjustments and develop the resilient mindset required to move forward with confidence.