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How To Bridge The Post Furlough Divide In Your Team 

Here in the UK, the government's job support scheme is coming to an end and the latest figures suggest that about 50% of of the people who were furloughed have either returned to work or been made redundant. As the scheme is phased out over the next couple of months those managing and leading teams that the furlough workers are returning to are being left with some very tricky team dynamics to manage.

A dynamic I'm calling the post furlough divide.

 It's going to provide yet another test of our leadership and given the challenging trading conditions we are all operating in, getting it right is potentially critical to the future of our businesses.

So are you ready to get curious about the post furlough divide and make some choices about how you minimise its impact for your team?

The scale of the post furlough challenge

By the end of July,  9.6 million workers in the UK were covered by the furlough scheme - it's a mind-blowing number and about a third of the workforce.

As companies start contributing to the cost of those employees, hopefully, many of them will return to work and sadly many will be made redundant. We will talk more about how you can best support those being made redundant in another episode, and for today we are going to talk about the impact of those who have been on furlough returning to work.

Unsurprisingly there is a growing divide between those who have been on furlough and those who have been working through this period.

The conversations I have been having with clients and friends has illustrated just how deep this divide is and how most leaders have been so busy keeping the lights on in their business and making sure that there are roles for people to return to, that it's not something they have given much thought to.

It's also something which if addressed now will ensure that your team are soon working together again and you can all focus on securing your future, rather than you spending your time managing a team with deep divides where one set of people resents the other and no one is doing their best work.

What is the post furlough divide?

If you take a moment to think about your personal experience and that of your friends and colleagues, I wonder if you will notice what I have noticed?

Let's start by thinking about the people who have worked through and not been on furlough. They have generally been dealing with larger than normal workloads and certainly a lot more pressure than previously. Keeping the business alive has been their focus, everything around them was changing and they have had to create and adapt to new ways of doing things. Most of them have had to do this while working from home, juggling childcare and home-schooling, sharing their internet connection and often from a temporary desk set up around the house each day.

They have put in a huge amount of effort and many are exhausted. The way they work and get things done will have evolved significantly and they have just settled into their new way of doing things and as people return from furlough it's all changing again.

They have been worried about their jobs and the future of the organisation, and have at least had some sense of how things are going and been able to contribute to ensuring the organisations future. Most of them are not looking to be called out for their heroism, but they do want some recognition for what they have done.

They also feel that on the whole their colleagues who have been on furlough have had it easy compared to them since they have been paid to stay off work and who wouldn't want a nice long paid holiday?

Now let's contrast that with the experience of those who have been on furlough.

I have yet to speak to anyone who was furloughed who thought it was a holiday, some were glad of the break but the reduced pay and the ongoing uncertainty about their future have been very stressful for them and their families. They have spent the whole furlough period wondering if they have a job to go back to. They too have been juggling childcare and homeschooling and to some of their surprise, they have missed having work to do!

They have been dealing with not having the sense of purpose and the sense of self-worth that going to work can give. It's tough to hear your role isn't essential to the organisation.

In general, they feel the people who worked through had it easy compared to them.

So already you can see where there is potential for a very divided team with lots of emotion flowing between the two groups.

And then you've got the people who have been working reduced hours - they have had the best and the worst of both sides!

A 5 step plan to manage the post furlough divide

When they are thinking about coming back to work, the furloughed people I've spoken to have expressed lots of concerns around the practicalities, but there is one big area that almost none of them seem to have considered and that I think is going to be quite a shock when they start back. Regardless of whether they are going back to the place they used to work, or if they are going to be working from home, the workplace they are going back to and the ways of working are going to be very different. In their absence so much has changed, It's going to be more like starting a new job in a new company than it is returning from a week away.

This all leaves a very complex dynamic for leaders, and the situation is going to be different for each team based on the individuals concerned, the company situation and the quality of the relationships you as a leader have with your team.

This may make it sound like a helpless situation, but it's not. If you are now acknowledging that this post furlough divide is a real possibility and that you can't hide from it, you have already taken a step towards managing the situation.

But what else do you need to do?

Here are the five steps I recommend you as a leader take to bridge that post furlough divide and get your whole team working together effectively again.

Step 1: Acknowledge the situation and act quickly 

This is an issue which if you ignore will get worse and you will have bigger problems to work through with your team, so act as early as you can. Acknowledging that this post furlough divide could impact your team and being alert to signs that it is will allow you to do this. The kind of signs you want to be looking out for are things like snippy communications, a drop in people's energy and in the level of discretionary effort they put in, a dip in the quality of people's work, emotions running high or people acting in a way that is not typical of them. Remember this is another wave of change for people to manage and you are going to see everything associated with that. We talked about that in episodes 2, 3 and 4 of this podcast so if you want a refresher check them out. When you see these or any other signs, act quickly, acknowledge to yourself and to the team that this is what's happening and make it OK to talk about it.

Step 2: Getting Curious and Listening to Understand 

As with all difficult situations at work bring your listening A-game! Make sure you are listening with the intent to understand the other person's perspective. You don't know what is going on in their mind, what's worrying them and how that is impacting their work. You don't know what their experience of furlough or working through was like - but you need to find out. Listening in this way will strengthen your relationship with them and is foundational to bridging this divide

Step 3: Get returning team members back up to speed with how things are working now

In the same way you wouldn't expect someone who is new to the team to know how things work around here, those returning from furlough are going to need a reintroduction to how things work now. While they won't need, or want, a full induction programme, taking the time to discuss what is different and the changes you need them to make in the way they work will help reintegrate them into the team. It will help them understand what has changed while they have been away and reduce the chances of their way of working, the old way of getting things done, causing friction in the team and impacting the productivity of the people who have been working through.

This isn't something you have to do on your own, you can involve those who have been working through in it too, especially when it comes to the detailed ways of working and how to make it work now the person is back.

One bonus benefit of doing this is that it will help you, and the team who have been working through to appreciate just how much you have all achieved, something we don't always take the time to do.

Step 4: Find things to unite the two groups 

When you create opportunities for your team to talk and for them to do things together, you reduce the divide between them. And this needs to go beyond just talking about work tasks. Try doing something fun as part of a regular team meeting, having team coffee and doughnuts together either in person or online, you know your team and what they like to do, and what creates the opportunity for connection for them. That's what you need to be doing.

Step 5: Build a shared vision of the future 

An effective way of bringing the team together is to create a shared vision of the future. Having a vivid picture of where you are going and why it's important, creating a sense of purpose for your team will act a bit like a magnet, pulling people together and towards itself. I've talked more about this in a previous episode which I will link up in the show notes.

You may want to consider getting some outside help with bringing the two groups together and building a shared vision of the future. Using an external coach or facilitator brings a level of neutrality and allows you to participate as part of the team. For example, my team of Curious Choice Coaches and I are working with a number of clients to design workshops that allow teams to tell their story, decide what elements of it they want to keep and what they want to leave behind, and then together to write the next chapters of their journey to their vision. The leaders we are working with are telling us that by working with us they are able to address this quickly and they are able to focus on getting the work done rather than adding designing and delivering this as another task on their already too long to-do list.

Help bridging the post furlough divide

As I hope you can tell, bridging the furlough divide matters to me, our economy needs it but more importantly, our people need it - they deserve to work in places where they can add value and feel valued. So if you have a team some of whom have been furloughed and some of whom haven't I want to do what I can to help you get your team back working effectively together as soon as possible. If you would like, we can hop on a video call and take about how to apply these five steps in your team - and that call will be totally free. To take me up on this offer click this button

Summary & Taking Action

So in this episode, we have talked about how different the experience of those who were furloughed and those who worked through were and how in general both feel the other got the better deal. We've talked about how important it is to bridge that divide, and I've shared 5 practical things you can do to bring the team back together effectively;

  • Acknowledging the situation and acting quickly
  • getting curious and listening to understand people's experiences and concerns
  • making sure you plan and take the time to get returning team members back up to speed with how things work now
  • finding things to unite the two groups
  • and finally building a shared vision of the future.

The things I share in this podcast are based on my experience. It's up to you to decide what you take and apply - that's what being a curious choice leader is all about, getting curious, building our understanding and then making choices and deciding what is best for you and your business. 

And the question I would like to leave you with is:

What are you doing to do to make sure there is no great furlough divide in your team?