By: Caitlin Gibson
As businesses continue to grapple with the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have resorted to furloughing some or most of their employees. As an alternative to layoffs, a furlough is a mandatory, unpaid leave that’s designed to be temporary. Many companies are using them to save significant costs on labor as they attempt to ride out this period of social and economic uncertainty.
As if honing internal communications during a pandemic wasn’t challenging enough, now businesses need to devise a strong communication plan, so they can effectively communicate with their furloughed employees. Why is this so important? Furloughs come with significant retention risks. Specifically, they can pose a financial hardship many employees can’t endure. They can make employees feel disengaged and disconnected. Then, when employees begin re-entering the workforce, they can feel behind and ill-equipped to resume their jobs. A strong communication plan enables the essential, two-way communication needed to mitigate these retention risks and navigate both a furlough and a transition back to work.
What to Communicate to Furloughed Employees
Before you can create a communication plan, you have to know what exactly you should be communicating. These are the most important things to relay:
- Why the furlough is happening
Your employees likely understand that the pandemic is having a financial impact on the business. What they probably don’t know is what specifically that impact is. Be transparent about cash flow issues and predictions. Give folks a sense of how exactly the furlough will help your company weather the storm. This transparency shows your employees you care about being honest with them, and it gives them a clearer sense of what to expect in the weeks and months ahead.
- Your concern
From your CEO to your people managers, make your care for your employees and how this furlough will affect them and their lives visible. By leading with empathy, you’ll be able to better connect with your employees. They’ll be much more likely to trust what you say and remain invested in the company and their job.
- Legal obligations
If you need to take specific steps to comply with local, state, or federal laws, let your employees know what those are, what you’re doing to comply, and where they can find more information about those requirements.
- Benefits information
If there will be any change to your employees’ benefits before, during, or after the furlough, communicate those changes. Consider creating a hub for this information, such as a dedicated microsite, intranet page, or communication journey. That way, your employees know exactly where to go to get all of the latest, up-to-date information on the furlough and how it will impact them.
- Federal and state-specific unemployment information
Depending on your state, furloughed employees may be eligible for some unemployment benefits. Figure out if those are available, and clearly communicate those options to your employees.
- Business updates
These are best delivered on a regular basis, like every other week. Share what’s happening at the company—including any positive news—what’s changed since the last update, how the business is doing financially, and any upcoming changes employees should be aware of. Your furloughed employees are still part of your workforce, so they should be updated about the business as regularly and consistently as they would be outside of a furlough.
- Who to contact with questions or concerns
Make sure every furloughed employee knows which people managers, in particular, to reach out to when they need help or more information. Let people know how they can share their feedback about their furlough experience. By making sure folks know which leaders to connect with and how, you can keep communication open and active and help prevent the spread of rumors, inaccurate information, and negativity in general.
- Re-onboarding procedures and logistics
If there will be changes to safety protocol when employees return, make sure they know that in advance. If performance expectations or priorities will be different, share those changes. If employees will need any refresher trainings or support, let them know what will be offered and when. By clearly communicating re-onboarding information, you can abide by your talent management process and make the transition go as smoothly as possible for everyone.
How to Build and Shape Your Communication Plan
Once you’ve identified what to communicate, you can create your communication plan. Take the following steps to make sure it’s well-built and as effective as possible:
1. Identify your key messages, approach, and timeline.
Figure out what exactly you need to communicate, how you plan to communicate it, and when. Consider breaking your timeline into phases, so you can deliver messages in a more measured, balanced way, versus, for example, flooding inboxes with emails at the start of the furlough and again right before people return.
2. Segment your audience as needed.
You may need to communicate specific messages only to people managers or HR personnel, so divide your furloughed employees into smaller groups. That way, you can send communications that feel personal and relevant to each person’s job, responsibilities, and situation.
3. Decide which communication channels to use.
Slack may have been an especially effective way to reach and engage your employees before the furlough, but you’ll need to utilize alternative methods of communication while they’re on leave. You can start by ensuring you have an updated personal email address and phone number for each furloughed employee. Then, figure out which communication channels will allow you to best reach your furloughed employees, and let folks know which ones you’ll be using. That way, employees know, for example, to check their personal email at least once a day, visit a specific webpage once a week, or look out for text messages from their manager.
4. Match each message to the appropriate sender.
To figure out who that is, think about whose name or title carries the appropriate weight for your message. For example, if you’re sending a business update, your CEO would be the ideal sender to set the tone. If you’re sharing a feedback survey, the head of HR or your people team may be the ideal sender. By leveraging a sender’s role and familiarity, your employees will be more likely to engage with your message and take it seriously.
5. Choose your timing wisely.
Strive to keep your communications balanced by sending out messages on a consistent schedule and spacing them out. For example, if multiple departments will be sending messages throughout the furlough, consider designating certain days of the week for different types of messages, so you don’t overwhelm your employees.
6. Create channels for feedback.
Things like pulse surveys, sentiment polls, and discussion forums will allow you to understand how your furloughed employees are doing. You can learn how they’re feeling about their jobs and re-entering the workforce, as well as what, if anything, they need from you to better manage their furlough experience. This outreach can help employees feel they’re being heard and that their input is valuable, which can even boost employee engagement during the furlough. Collecting feedback will also help you adjust your communication strategy if needed, so it better reaches and engages your employees.
7. Prepare your leaders.
Make sure every leader knows what key messages to communicate. Coach them on how to answer difficult questions and have challenging conversations. Make sure they have all the information and tools they need, so they’re not tempted to make promises that can’t be kept or spread misinformation.
8. Integrate your communication and re-onboarding plans.
To do so, communicate things like:
- What training and other support will be offered to help employees navigate their new workplace, like health and safety protocol and remote working policies
- What survey and sentiment feedback revealed about how employees are feeling and what’s being done to address employee feedback
- What resources are available to help employees make a smooth transition back to work
- What reopening strategies and schedules will be in place
- What’s changed operationally and what hasn’t
A change communications software can be especially instrumental in melding your communication and re-onboarding plans in these ways.
With this approach, no matter what specific challenges your business is facing, you can maintain strong, two-way communication with your furloughed employees. Be sure to first identify what needs to be communicated, and then develop a communication plan that’ll keep furloughed employees informed and connected to the company. With these measures in place, you can better navigate this period of uncertainty together.