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Bringing Them Back: Internal communication strategies to keep furloughed workers engaged

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc within our healthcare systems and economies, businesses of all sizes, across every industry, have been forced to lay off workers. Nearly one-quarter of small businesses in the U.S. have already laid off or furloughed their workers due to the pandemic. And nearly half (49%) of U.S. mid-sized to large enterprises are now considering layoffs and hiring freezes. Companies that were once flying high and couldn’t hire fast enough, such as AirBnB, TripAdvisor and Boeing, have made drastic cuts to their workforce.

Meanwhile, as local officials begin making plans for safely re-opening in the coming weeks, organizations must also start thinking about how to bring workers back. Some workers will return to their jobs—but the reality is, if a company has been shut down for an extended period of time, it’s possible that some employees have found other work.

Your company has already invested significantly in the workforce you had before the pandemic. With few exceptions, it’s always preferable to bring back employees as opposed to going through the recruitment, interviewing, hiring and training phases again. Securing good people is difficult, even under the best of circumstances, but retaining them can be even tougher. Especially if your company has no way of communicating with laid-off employees other than their corporate email. But there are some strategies you can use to increase the likelihood of their return when the time is right.

Be human when using technology

The number of workers who decide to answer the call and return to work is directly tied to how your company handled the workforce reduction in the first place. Letting employees go is never easy, but in a world where we must now deliver bad news virtually and deskless employees rarely have access to traditional employee communication channels, this becomes even more challenging.

Clearly, laying off workers remotely is not the way most companies would choose to handle such a sensitive situation, but the pandemic hasn’t given them much of a choice. But there is a correct way to handle layoffs remotely while still being compassionate and personal with your staff, and there’s most certainly a wrong way.

Case in point: Bird, the electric scooter rental company, laid off more than 400 workers within minutes by sending them the same generic Zoom presentation simultaneously, titled “COVID-19 Update.” The employees were blindsided and obviously upset at this cold-shoulder treatment. One of the laid off workers even told a media outlet that Bird was “a poster child of how not to lay people off, especially at a time like this.”

The pandemic has made all companies evaluate their communication channels and how they are engaging with remote and frontline employees. Unfortunately, many companies weren’t prepared with the right tools to communicate with their dispersed workforce, even before the crisis. And more companies are now realizing they need a better way to communicate.

A quick note about your management team: Make sure to support the managers who are responsible for communicating furloughs and layoffs. Don’t assume these leaders already know how to have a difficult conversation. Instead, coach them and ensure they have all the information they need to answer employee questions, or to point them to the resources available. Your managers are critical components of your workforce. A lack of support or acknowledgement for how hard these discussions are on them can lead to additional turnover.

Make important information easy to find

Employees want and deserve personal interaction during the layoff process. They also need to know what they are entitled to and how your company will support them. They will have questions about severance, unpaid vacation or sick time, any 401(k) accounts they have with you, and of course, any healthcare benefits that are tied to their jobs. It’s important that as you demonstrate compassion to your workers, you also give them the timely, concise information they will need to navigate through this uncertain time.

Your employees will want fast answers to these questions at first, but then, as the reality of their situation kicks in, they may need more detailed information. Don’t be surprised if weeks or even months later, they still have questions. Make it easier for your employees by creating a centralized, secure repository of information that they can quickly access, even if they can no longer log in to a corporate intranet or check their company-issued email. And for deskless employees who may not have had access to your intranet or company email in the first place, ensure this is a place where they can access this need-to-know information. And ensure these key topics are easily searchable, so your furloughed workers don’t have to wade through files to find one certain document they need.

Furthermore, consider providing a list of helpful (and reputable) resources (like the information found at benefits.gov in the U.S.), that can assist employees with food, finances, healthcare and more during hardships. If you know of local companies who are currently hiring, sync up with their HR teams to hold a job fair, or fast-track the application process. Going the extra mile for your staff by delivering reliable information will be remembered and appreciated.

Find ways to stay in touch

Another factor in successfully returning your employees to the workplace is the communication you’ve had with them since they left. Have your internal communication messages been aimed only at the remaining workers who stayed on? Or, have you been in regular contact with your furloughed employees too? Don’t leave them out of your communication strategy! If they’ve been left out of your internal communications, it’s time to change that. Give kudos to workers who went above and beyond, right up to their last day on the job. Continue to share updates on where the company is and what their role would look like, if and when they return. Tell them you’re working hard to get them back, and that when you are able to grow your workforce again, you’ll let them know when and where they can apply.

Ask employees what they need and want

Don’t assume that because local officials have started loosening stay-at-home orders that all of your furloughed employees are eager or able to jump right back onto the manufacturing line or into the office. Employees may still have children at home that will need to be cared for. They may have questions about the safety and risks of their workplace. An employee survey is a great way to quickly gather feedback from all employees about what may impact their ability to return to a regular schedule and what expectations they have for health and safety.

It’s critical that you prepare for the answers you’ll receive, so you can respond in a reasonable time. For example, how will leadership respond if 25% of employees say they do not have childcare available? If employees indicate that they’re concerned about not being able to practice social distancing on the plant floor, what will your company do to alleviate that? Asking the right questions is important, but following through with responses to their challenges will improve employee morale and increase loyalty.

Employee retention is important to the longevity and productivity of a company, and that remains true even now. That’s because your people are appreciating assets. They’ve already put the time in to learn your processes and systems, your products, and how to work together as a team. The more time you invest in them, the longer they will stay with your organization, even if you were forced to let them go for a period of time. It’s never been more crucial to continue to invest in them. All the effort you put in now to keep your former employees engaged, valued, and informed, will increase the chances that they will return. And when they do, they will be more productive and loyal than ever. They will not forget the compassion, transparency, and encouragement you showed them in a scary and unpredictable time.

Amy Jenkins

Amy Jenkins is the director of client strategy at theEMPLOYEEapp, a native mobile app platform that helps companies improve communication and employee engagement. Amy has a passion for internal communications and engaging the deskless workforce. Prior to joining theEMPLOYEEapp, she spent the last decade at Chipotle Mexican Grill, where she built the internal communications function and most recently, launched the Pepper App (built through theEMPLOYEEapp) to over 3,500 employees.

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