Ending a furlough can be an incredibly positive experience for a business: Not only does it signify that the company is in a better place financially, but it also means that it gets to bring back furloughed employees — which can make the organization stronger, more efficient, and more successful overall.
But bringing back furloughed employees isn’t as simple as sending an email letting them know that you’re ready for them to come back. It’s a transition, both for your returning employees and your organization. And transitions can be rocky.
In order for the transition to be as smooth as possible, it’s up to your HR team to ensure returning employees have everything they need to settle back into their respective roles and the organization.
Here’s how HR can successfully bring back furloughed employees — and keep them motivated throughout the process.
Bringing back furloughed employees isn’t the same thing as hiring new team members. Returning employees were only gone for a relatively short period of time. Plus, they’ve already worked at your company and spent significant time in their roles there. So they should just be able to pick back up where they left off, right?
Unfortunately, this is not the case. A lot can change in a short timespan, so “whether an employee has been furloughed for four weeks or four months, they’ll need to be reoriented,” said Shawn Gulyas, cofounder of Humanworks, a consultancy focused on organizational People practices.
That means you’ll need to go through an onboarding process with every employee that’s returning from furlough.
“In coming back together, there's a great opportunity to re-onboard furloughed employees, offering them a shared state of understanding with information about what's stayed the same, what's changed, and what they can expect for the future,” said Amanda Herring, Chief Experience Officer at organizational, career, culture, and workplace consultancy LivingHR.
Before your returning employees’ first day back at work, schedule a time to connect with each of them. Let them know what they can expect upon their return and what policies have changed (and which have stayed the same), and see if they have any questions about transitioning back into their roles. If, during the period of the furlough, your company has pivoted from in-person to remote work, take time to walk them through your business’s suite of remote tools, get them set up with their necessary login information, and answer any questions they may have about the technology.
You should also let them know who their key contact person will be in case they have any questions as they reacclimate to work, whether that’s someone in HR or a contact on their team.
“As part of their re-onboarding, they can also be paired with a go-to person who can help guide them through the process,” suggested Herring.
Furloughing employees isn’t fun for anyone — not for HR and certainly not for the furloughed employees. Because it’s such a challenging experience, when you’re finally ready to bring back furloughed employees and bring an end to this difficult period, your instinct might be to focus on the future and how you can support your returning employees moving forward.
But your employees need to know that you understand the impact the furlough has had on them, and if you refuse to acknowledge or talk about it, it could make them feel overlooked or like their experience is being minimized.
“The best tactic for you to employ is candid and open communication to acknowledge the furloughed employees’ experience,” advised Laura Handrick, HR and business consultant and contributing HR professional for mental and behavioral health startup Choosing Therapy.
When you bring back your furloughed employees, acknowledge how challenging the furlough might have been for them. Give them space to talk through any furlough-related issues or difficulties they experienced, and make sure to listen to their concerns. Let them know how much you appreciate them sticking with your company, and how grateful and excited you are to have them back at work.
And while it’s important for HR to have these conversations, it’s just as important, if not more so, for your leadership team to acknowledge furloughed employees’ experiences as well.
“These employees deserve to hear from their leadership [in some way]...with an acknowledgment and appreciation of what they just went through,” stated Herring.
Chances are, when furloughed employees return, they’re going to be happy to be back to work — but they might also be feeling a bit shell-shocked about what they just went through and wary about the future, possibly concerned that this could happen again.
“For those furloughed employees who are returning, they…[may] have mixed emotions about company loyalty, their role, and job security,” Handrick noted.
That’s why it’s important to do everything you can to put their minds at ease, and give them the data, information, and support they need to feel comfortable and confident as they navigate the transition out of being furloughed and back into their roles.
“To retain those employees after bringing them back, you will need to go a bit overboard in terms of celebrating them back into the company, sharing your business and financial projections to provide them with security, and bridging the gap between those employees who stayed and those who were furloughed to prevent resentment,” said Handrick.
Your business kept moving forward while your employees were furloughed, which means that other team members likely had to tackle some of the furloughed employees’ responsibilities while they were gone. When you bring back furloughed employees, it can be unclear who is responsible for what, which, if not addressed, can lead to serious issues.
“Another challenge comes in adjusting responsibilities and expectations among members of the team,” said Gulyas. “Roles may have shifted while some were furloughed and some were not. Tensions may present between those groups of employees.”
That’s why, when bringing back furloughed employees, it’s crucial to set clear expectations, both with your returning employees and your employees who worked through the furlough.
Get the entire group together to have a conversation about how your returning employees are going to integrate back into the team. Make sure to address the following questions: What are your returning employees going to be responsible for? Who has been handling those responsibilities while those employees have been gone? How are you going to navigate the transition of responsibility?
This will also give your team the opportunity to divvy up responsibilities in a way that makes sense for them. For example, after talking things through, your team may realize that, for continuity’s sake, it would be best for an existing employee to finish working through a project, even though that project technically falls under a returning employee’s purview.
Just make sure that at the end of the conversation, everyone on the team — returning and existing employees alike — is clear about expectations and who is handling what. Not only will it help your returning employees’ transitions go smoothly, but it will also ensure that team productivity doesn’t take a hit during that process.
There’s no doubt about it: Furloughing employees is tough. And, if you don’t know how to navigate the process, bringing back furloughed employees can be just as difficult. But by doing everything you can to support your returning employees, you’ll be able to make this transition as smooth, efficient, and successful as possible — for your returning employees, your remaining employees, and your organization as a whole.