Carol Leaman is the CEO of Axonify, a disruptor in the corporate learning space and innovator behind the Axonify Microlearning Platform.
More than 50 million people have filed unemployment claims in the U.S. since March. Macy’s, Marriott Hotels, AT&T, IBM, Walgreens — the list of major corporations hit by the pandemic keeps growing, with many organizations forced to make deep cuts to their workforce. In July, United Airlines said it would likely have to furlough nearly half of its staff by October, a move that will leave customer service and gate agents, flight attendants, and pilots temporarily unemployed.
There is no historical model for dealing with such unprecedented levels of job loss. How do you set your company up to succeed once the economic recovery happens if you’ve had to furlough thousands of employees? More importantly, how do you take care of those employees and keep your furloughed staff engaged in such a time of crisis? Flexible technology is critical.
One of our training clients, a retailer with more than 200 locations across the country, had to furlough 95% of its staff when shelter-in-place policies went into effect. Management knew the furloughs would result in a loss of trust with its workforce and that it would need to rebuild that trust if the company was going to survive long term. General managers had a limited number of options for reaching out to the frontline associates who had been temporarily laid off, but the CEO wanted a way to communicate with individuals directly.
The organization quickly pivoted to our online learning platform. Instead of offering frontline training modules, the CEO used the platform’s mobile app to send live videos from his home office, letting the staff know how much the company cared about them. The videos received more than a 90% engagement rate. Employees logged in to listen to the CEO and remained engaged beyond the one-on-one phone calls with their general managers, setting the entire organization up for a much smoother “reboarding” process — especially for the frontline staff, who must have additional safety and customer relations training before the reopening.
According to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll, 77% of nearly 1,000 unemployed people surveyed expect to be rehired by their previous employer once local stay-at-home orders are lifted. Labor laws vary from state to state, but most employees who have been furloughed expect to return to work at a later date and can continue to receive employee benefits during the furlough period while receiving unemployment insurance.
Furloughed employees may be unable to perform any work-related duties, but this doesn’t mean a company should go silent on them. If you want to keep your staff engaged during a temporary layoff, you have to communicate with them regularly and early on in the process. Employees who are furloughed should get as much notice as possible: Let them know when the furlough will begin, what benefits they will still receive during the furlough and, if possible, how long the company expects the furlough to last.
Employees should also have easy access to resource materials covering employee rights and guidance for unemployment insurance applications. One-on-one assistance throughout the process can help alleviate stress and anxiety for those facing unemployment. The more you can do to build trust between you and your furloughed staff, the more likely they are to return to their roles once you’re able to rehire them.
Offering a weekly newsletter they can subscribe to via a personal email address is a good way to keep everyone informed and up to date on the latest company news. But real engagement comes from direct communication with your employees. A video chat via Zoom with the furloughed staff led by the CEO is a great way to provide ongoing communication with team members.
If you are currently using an online training platform, consider ways you can repurpose it to connect with your workforce and offer new training opportunities. Remember, many of your furloughed employees will likely have time on their hands — offering training programs they can do from home, or encouraging staff to cross-train and gain new skills, is an effective way to keep employees engaged and help them feel less isolated.
Managers and team leads should make an effort to reach out to employees on a consistent basis throughout the furlough, calling direct reports weekly to let them know where things stand and check on their well-being. This is also a good time for companies to revisit their employee assistance program (EAP) benefits and see if there are any extra steps they can take to offer short-term counseling and wellness initiatives for people who have lost their jobs.
When it is time to reboard employees, your staff needs to be prepared for any workplace policy changes. The reality is, with new safety precautions and public health policies going into effect, most work environments look much different now. Not only will retail store and restaurant employees have to be trained on new routines, but employees may need to learn how best to communicate new policies to customers. Keeping furloughed staff aware of such changes will make the transition back to work more seamless.
We are in uncharted territory right now. Millions of people are unemployed and suffering through the anxiety that comes with a loss of income. People want reassurance they will eventually return to work. They want to hear from their workplace leaders. They want to know they are still valued. The businesses that come out of this pandemic in a stronger position will be the ones that embraced a culture of empathy, keeping the lines of communication open and continuing to engage with their employees during such trying times.
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