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The current global crisis has forced many organizations to furlough at least some of their employees for the foreseeable future. Though a difficult and unpopular decision, furloughs give businesses the ability to offer vital benefits to their employees — and hopefully retain talent until the economy begins to recover.

However, companies are battling numerous challenges throughout the process, most notably the risk of furloughed employees becoming disengaged or losing trust in the company. Digital water coolers like social media and chat platforms make it easy for bad news or gossip to circulate before a furlough is announced or as it takes place. Businesses are also beholden to various legal policies and regulations regarding how they can interact with furloughed employees.

So, how can leaders effectively communicate and keep valuable individuals engaged before, during, and after a furlough takes place? Here are three best practices for HR and communications professionals to keep in mind when implementing a furlough in uncertain times.

1. Show, Don’t Tell, Your Support for Employees

A furlough announcement is never easy for those on the receiving end. If possible, allow direct supervisors to deliver the initial message so employees know and trust the source of information. Whether or not direct supervisors are the ones to deliver the initial message, make sure to equip them with the information they need, as they will be the source to which employees turn with questions. Distribute targeted communications and FAQs so managers have the information at their fingertips when employees inevitably come to them.

Also, make sure these communications are omnichannel and available everywhere employees consume information, from your intranet to your mobile app to the digital signage on your manufacturing floor. Consider making an information hub available on an external site, as a no-work policy may prevent furloughed workers from accessing company resources. Clear, consistent instructions will be key in helping the workforce adjust to and mobilize around rapid change.

2. Foster Connection and Maintain Alignment

How an organization communicates with its furloughed employees will impact whether or not they choose to return at the end of this tough period. That means leaders must keep the lines of communication open. This will likely necessitate establishing new lines of communication entirely, as work email accounts, Slack channels, and the like will probably be off limits. The content of your communications must also remain compliant, so furloughed employees should be removed from any work-related, team-level, or project-level communication lists.

Employers should consider compiling all the resources their workers will need during this time, including options for alternate employment during the furlough, information on benefits access and wellness support, and training opportunities to maintain or expand their skill sets. This will give employees the head start they may need without burning bridges and preventing employees from choosing to return to work when the furlough is over.

3. Prepare to Re-Onboard the Workforce

As companies adjust to the new normal, they will likely have to make many operational changes, including introducing new policies, procedures, systems, and technologies. Returning employees will need to be brought up to speed on all of these developments when they rejoin the workforce.

Employers should treat the return to work much like the onboarding process for new hires. Identify the information that needs to be communicated and the tasks that need to be completed for each returning role, and then build your post-furlough onboarding around these action items. Leaders should also plan for some employees transitioning to new roles and responsibilities, which may call for new training and professional development opportunities.

Remember that technology alone will not be enough to foster personal connections between a company and its employees. Outside of informational support and close communications, returning employees will need to reconnect with other members of the workforce, reengage, reestablish trust with company leadership, and rebuild their sense of community within the organization. Employee recognition programs and fun perks and contests are great ways to kick-start this reintegration. They can be easily implemented, even if self-isolation regulations continue. Virtual wellness programs, such as fitness sessions, can also easily be continued even when regulations end.

Overall, employers should go to great lengths before, during, and after the furlough to demonstrate they are doing all they can to bring workers back as quickly as possible. Whether or not a furlough is underway for an organization, HR and communications leaders should still be considering how to communicate rapid change to their workforces. It’s more critical than ever to put employees first, and establishing a single, company-backed source of truth means workers can get the information they need to feel supported and connected — now and long after the pandemic subsides.

Sonia Fiorenza is vice president of communications and engagement strategies at SocialChorus.

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