The Acas Podcast
The Acas Podcast
Jul 16, 2020
Managing the transition from furlough
Play • 16 min

With the furlough scheme beginning to end, Acas adviser Sue Raftery shares her insights into the main challenges for workplaces and how to navigate them. We look at ideas for minimising the practical and emotional impact of transition from furlough, plus the critical conversations employers, managers and staff need to be having.


Episode resources:

Acas advice on furlough:

Acas webinar on flexible furlough (free):


Robbie Hurley 0:00  

Hello and welcome to The Acas Podcast. I'm Robbie Hurley, part of the communications team here at Acas. In this episode we'll be focusing on furlough and returning to work. Today I'm very lucky to be joined by Susan Raftery, one of the senior advisors who has been particularly involved in aiding the Acas response to the Coronavirus emergency. Hi, Susan. Thanks very much for coming on. So we know that you've been speaking to many employers recently about these issues. Could you give us a quick overview of what you've been hearing?

Susan Raftery 0:26  

Yeah, I think employers have got quite a difficult time at the moment. It was almost easier in sometimes some ways whilst we were all completely locked down, because they didn't really have any choice. But the managing the return to work is is difficult. It's difficult for employers, it's difficult for employees and it's trying to reach that balance of helping everyone to get back to work in a safer way. It's possible. I think probably the biggest issue that I have been hearing from employers is around getting people back in safely and also for those employees who may be can't get back into work at the moment, particularly around things like shielding and childcare. I've spoken to actually a couple of employers this morning who were saying that they've got employees who are saying, "We can't come back to work because we have no childcare." That is a big concern for employers and understand to be for employees as well.

Robbie Hurley 1:30  

Absolutely, I mean, more than 9 million people in the UK were on furlough at the peak of it, and obviously a lot of people are starting to return to work. What do you think, are the are the challenges and what are the conversations that should be being had between the employers and the employees?

Susan Raftery 1:46  

Yeah, you're absolutely right. And it's one of those unusual things where every employee has a different set of circumstances. So the employer is having to be extremely flexible in each in each different set of circumstances. I think the most important thing is not making assumptions, whether you're an employer or an employee. So there's a risk that employers will assume that, for example, right, furlough is coming to an end employee can come back to work full time. And of course, that's not always the case. As we've said, if they're carrying responsibilities, they may still have health issues. Similarly, employees, I think, are assuming I can go straight back into work into my old job in exactly the same way. And again, that's not always going to be the case. So it's it's trying to find that balance. There will be some employers that want employees to come back, for example, part time or doing the flexible furloughs, so maybe doing a few hours a week and being furloughed for the rest, some employees who will want to carry on working from home. They've been doing it successfully in their mind for the last three months and "Don't see why I can't continue to do that." And there will be so employees who are actually too scared to go back to work because they're concerned about things like having to travel on public transport. And I think it's remembering that the message is still, if employees can work from home, then they should still be working from home. But obviously, that's not always appropriate or practical for the employers to be able to allow them to do that. There's a myth amongst employees, some employees that they can ask for flexible working, working from home changing their hours, and they have to be given it. That's not the case. It's a right to request it. It's not a right to be given it. The biggest piece of advice we're giving to everybody is talk to each other. Employees, ask your employer, employer speak to employees and not making assumptions.

Robbie Hurley 3:50  

We touched on a really, really interesting point about people sort of anxiety about returning to work, and I'm just wondering what you've found and what you'd recommend. To make that transition back to work comfortable for employees,

Susan Raftery 4:04  

I've actually spoken to some occupational health experts who've said that they are seeing what they're calling COVID anxiety. And it's not anxiety about COVID itself, but rather about the return. And it's a question of communicating, the employer has to do a risk assessment of to make sure that their workplace is as COVID safe as it can be. And the government's advice is that if you have more than 50 employees, you should be publishing that risk assessment onto your website. But actually, we'd be saying less than 50 employees publish it. In any event, employers should be sharing that risk assessment with the employee and explaining it and whether it's small things like more hand sanitizers around, whether it's large things like having automatic doors, for example, but sharing that information with employees and again speaking to employees and asking them what they think. Because the employees are the ones who know where, for example, the bottlenecks will be of people coming in and out of the workplace. So it's it's talking to the employees and reassuring them and making sure the employee understands actually their input is incredibly important. But you're right, the psychological anxiety is huge if people haven't been in the workplace for three months, and "I've only been working on the other side of the screen," how do they know what it's going to look like? I've spoken to some employers who've said they've actually been doing like a mini video, if that makes sense that they've sent out to their employees. So a tour of the workplace, saying you know, these are how the doors are gonna open. This is how we're going to reconfigure the the desks for example, and and almost doing in a mini induction for employees. So if it was a new starter, what would you be doing, and doing that for employees? I know other employers that have been buddying people up. So if we've got people who've been in the workplace throughout, then they are then speaking to colleagues who are coming back in, who've been on either furlough or working from home. Because of course, we're sometimes more reassured by our workmates than we are necessarily by our managers. So it's it's thinking about all of those things to say to help them to understand look, we have your safety is of paramount importance to us, and this is what we've done to help you.

Robbie Hurley 6:42  

And typically, on that point, how do you think that employers and line managers are going to cope with such a unique situation? There's so many furloughed workers who are going to be coming back, some to the same organisation sometimes at different times, and sometimes into different teams. Have you seen any examples of how they're already dealing with this?

Susan Raftery 7:01  

I think it is something that employers really do need to think about. I certainly spoke to an employer who said, they'd got a situation, which I don't think is unusual, where they had a group of people in work who've worked throughout. They've brought some people back from furlough already. And they've got other people who are going to be coming back at a later stage. And it's always the grass is always greener. So the non furloughed employees assume the furloughed employees have been sitting at home and getting the town. The furloughed employees are possibly on less pay, because they may only be an 80% of their pay and have been out of the workforce for maybe three months and are worried that they're not going to understand the new the new routines, the new rules, the new procedures. So for employers, it's thinking about how they do that do they have a gradual return to work? I know some employers who were putting their employees into teams. So Team A would come in for a few weeks, and then Team B would come in for a few weeks. It's having that conversation with them, making sure that there isn't conflict because there is potential for conflict. As I say, each side has their own concerns. And it's thinking, well, how can we move this forward? What conversations can we have with them? And as I say, a lot of it has been around things like reinterpreting the employees. And also thinking about things like well, what would we do if the employee had been off sick for three months, six months, for example, a lot of organisations have policies around return to work for people who've been ill, or for example, people who are on maternity leave, well, can we use some of those policies and procedures and help line managers to follow those sorts of procedures to get people back into the workplace. I do know some people who've done the equivalent of keeping in touch days for furloughed workers in the same way they do for people on maternity leave. So it's just being a bit more imaginative and maybe using the policies you've already got. And looking at those and saying, "Well, we've managed this before, how can we do this going forward?" 

Robbie Hurley 9:24  

So we've heard that there are a lot of people who have gone off on furlough, and possibly weren't quite sure about the circumstances on which they've gone on to furlough, and then henceforth aren't quite sure about how they're going to come back to work. How do you think that they should be communicating with their employers? And what do you think employers can do to help sort of manage this engagement and trust as they return to work? 

Susan Raftery 9:50  

It is something that we have heard about and I can see how it can have risen because of course employers think was so relieved when the furlough scheme came in And to be fair, we're having to make very quick decisions. So we're sending people home on furlough, perhaps without explaining that actually, they were doing this to try and protect people's jobs, and that people were valued. And that's why they were putting them on furlough. Now, that message may have been lost for some employees. And if there hasn't been good communication during furlough, which again, some employers have had haven't had too many other things to do. So it's really a question of trying to get the message across to employees when they come back to reassure them that they are valued. And if for example, you are bringing people back maybe part time, or keeping some people on furlough and bringing some people back earlier. Then again, explaining why so, "Why have I still got to stay at home for the next six weeks, whereas the person I work next to is being brought back in?" So if there are reasons for It then explaining it. What I've seen some employers do is almost using the equivalent of a selection criteria a little bit like redundancy, but this isn't redundancy. So saying, "At the moment we've brought these people back because they've got these skills, however, we will need you to come back because you've got these other skills." So it's the reassurance and just being really honest and explaining why so even if the employer forgot to tell the employee why they're being furloughed, or didn't get that message across, holding their hands up and saying, "I didn't explain this very clearly, but you are a really valued member of the team. And this is what we're going to do going forward and sharing the plans going forward."

Robbie Hurley 11:44  

And then with line managers, obviously lots of them will have been furloughed will be coming back as some part time and full time and their staff will be doing the same with the teams that they manage. Do you have any specific advice for them and how they can cope as they come back into the workplace?

Susan Raftery 12:01  

Yes, it can be very difficult for managers, we do a lot of training for line managers. And I always say to them that I think in some ways, it's the hardest job, they've got to put into place the instructions from their senior management. But they've also got to keep their teams, productive, engaged, as well. And again, using those skills that they probably already have, talking to people, understanding what's happening, and actually really looking at their policies and procedures, because quite often we find that line managers, they are so busy, quite rightly doing the day to day work, that of course they're not necessarily that familiar with some of their policies around parental leave maternity leave until it happens. But actually looking at what the processes are and saying, "Oh, actually, I could use that I could adapt that", talking to their colleagues if there are other line managers, some of them We'll have had different experiences and may be able to come up with different ways of doing things. And again, being prepared to flag up your concerns to senior managers think sometimes line managers are worried that they have to make decisions on their own, because they need to be seen to be reacting. But actually having that taking a step back, talking to senior management, talking to HR, and if there are trade unions in the workplace, speaking to the trade union representatives, because this is a situation everybody wants the same thing they want the business to do well, they all want to get back into work and for the business to be productive. So having those conversations.

Robbie Hurley 13:44  

And now, of course, line managers - you tend to sort of talk about them in bigger organisations, but there's also lots of small to medium businesses that are now opening up and returning to work. We're looking at things like pubs and hairdressers, these kind of things, where pressures are possibly slightly different on staff and on employers, because they've naturally got a smaller team and maybe don't have things like line managers and HRs. Do you have any advice specifically on how maybe smaller businesses might be dealing with their staff coming back from furlough?

Susan Raftery 14:16  

I think there are, I think it's in some ways that there is going to be slightly easier now we've got the flexible furlough scheme, because of course, one of the difficulties was that previously furloughed workers could do no work. And there were small businesses who needed their staff in for short periods of time, but couldn't have come in and I absolutely understand why the rules were put in the way they will put. But I think now it is a good opportunity for smaller businesses to say, "Well, actually, we can't take you off furlough completely. But if we could have you back in for a few hours a week to help us get the business up and running." You mentioned bars I've certainly seen it with things like breweries - makes me sound like I'm slightly drink obsessed - but things like hairdressers, as you've said, places where we maybe don't need you back in full time. But we need you back in to help out so that we can start to build the business back up and get some income, whilst we still have the benefits of the furlough scheme being much more flexible. So I think for smaller employers, that is going to be really helpful to them.

Robbie Hurley 15:30  

Thank you so much, Susan. It was really enlightening. And I think it's really going to help a lot of people who've been on furlough, or who are going back to work and helping employers who are bringing their furloughed employees back in so thank you very much.

Susan Raftery 15:43  

Okay. You're welcome. Thank you.

Robbie Hurley 15:45  

Thanks very much for listening to today's Acas Podcast. You can find more useful links in today's session notes and on and if you enjoyed today's episode and would like to listen to more, please like and subscribe.

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