Covid-19 has changed not only how we work but also who is working. According to the British Chambers of Commerce, since the job-retention scheme was introduced on March 20, 71pc of companies have placed staff on furlough – a term virtually unused in British business before the coronavirus outbreak.
Now 30% of companies have furloughed at least three-quarters of their staff. Suffolk-based brewing and hospitality giant Adnams is one of them. It employs some 550 people and has had to furlough about 90pc of them, across all areas of the business.
“We’d already begun closing shops, pubs and hotels, asking our people if they’d take unpaid leave,” says Sadie Lofthouse, Adnams’ director of culture and performance. “The furlough scheme meant we were able to go back to them with good news.”
For employers, the big challenge with furloughed staff is keeping them engaged and looking after their mental health – which is particularly tough in the hard-hit hospitality sector. “There is a lot of absolute fear,” admits Sadie. “When you have Michael Gove saying pubs may have to stay shut until Christmas... We can’t allay that fear but we can give our people positive messages and try to make life feel as normal as possible.”
Different people like to be reached in different ways, so employing a range of communications channels is vital with a large workforce. Adnams uses everything from posting physical letters to regular updates on Facebook and WhatsApp groups. “It’s important to deliver a mix of appreciation, information and reassurance,” says Sadie. “We don’t just want to churn out information. We have to keep it normal, with a mix of amusing stories, information and practical advice.”
Marketing agency StrategiQ has taken the ‘practical’ element a stage further, with a very different approach to furlough. “We’ve actually banned the use of the word ‘furlough’,” says founder and CEO Andy Smith. “We refer to it as ‘training leave’.” While the job-retention scheme clearly forbids furloughed staff from doing any work, it does allow for training. Having studied the impact of Covid-19 on workflow, StrategiQ put 15 of its 44 staff on furlough. “They’re taking advantage of a scheme where the government pays them to stay at home and train themselves to the maximum,” says Andy.
“We started with individual skills assessments, looking at the core skills needed for people’s current roles and those needed for further development. We expect them to do a minimum of two tracked hours of training a day, plus half an hour of exercise, plus half an hour of a wellbeing activity. At the end of each day, they report to their team leaders to update them on their progress,” Andy explains.
Each member of staff has an individual development plan and they’re even finding fresh training to do – everything from coding and SEO courses to Chartered Institute of Marketing courses. “We want them to return to the business physically and mentally stronger, with more skills,” says Andy. “I think our structured approach has saved a lot of people from anxiety and depression.”
At the end of April, after the first month of the scheme, both Adnams and StrategiQ were able to bring a number of staff back to work (the Adnams warehouse staff celebrated by coming in fancy dress). However, the challenge for both firms – and for every business – remains looking after the wellbeing of those that are still on furlough.
This focus on the employee is part of the culture at Adnams and StrategiQ, which are both accredited Best Employers. The biennial Best Employers Eastern Region programme, established by recruitment specialists Pure and psychometrics experts Eras. “The survey can give pointers on how to keep people motivated and engaged,” says Alex Pearce of Eras. “You can look at how people are and develop strategies to look after their wellbeing.”
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Lynn is a founding Director of Pure and leads Pure Executive with over 25 years recruiting for Executive appointments. Lynn supports East of England-based businesses with senior management and Board level recruitment. Lynn leads the Best Employer Eastern Region Initiative and the Women In Leadership Programme both of which are aimed at helping companies and people to develop.