Don’t Mention The F-Word

Richard Leader, MD of Collaborative Creations, on the nuances of discussing furlough in a public forum.

Over 185,000 businesses applied for state aid to pay furloughed workers in just 24 hours when the application site launched. An estimated 3.8million workers were furloughed in the first 3 weeks. So, why aren’t we reading about being furloughed on people’s Linked-In posts?

I’ve been reading about people’s Zoom meetings. I’ve been reading about the amusing trials of working from home. I’ve even read posts from people looking to fill vacancies. It’s like furlough has become the new “f-word”.

I think companies and individuals have a number of different views of the f-word.

The Enforced Ostrich

While we know the numbers of furloughed employees in the UK, when it comes to openly discussing the situation, business owners can start to get cagey.

As you continue to communicate with people on your business network, you occasionally hear of employees who are furloughed and aren’t actually allowed to talk about it publicly. Their employers have actively told them it is a private matter and not for public discussion.

I can only assume that the businesses in question think having to furlough staff sends “the wrong message” or they are ashamed of taking state aid.

Is there really a reputational risk in telling the world that you are using the scheme? At Collaborative Creations, we told clients who we were furloughing and when – and gave them an indication of the service they could expect while people are furloughed. They understood – partly because they’re doing it too.

Perhaps you don’t want your competitors to know? Psst, here’s a secret: they do know already.

The Indispensable Truth

It’s understandable that some employees might be distraught at being furloughed, thinking it looks as if they aren’t as indispensable as they first thought.

It’s tough to be made redundant (I should know, it’s happened more than once in my career). But this isn’t redundancy. This is an extraordinary time. When Primark’s revenue drops from £650m per month to zero, you know it’s a truly extraordinary time.

If your employer has furloughed you, it’s not because you’re dispensable. It’s because they have to.

The Fighting Furloughers

Of course, many furloughed people are busy working hard to keep their families together and not spending their days updating LinkedIn.

I know that feeding a family of four, queuing outside the supermarket for an hour, helping the kids with their schoolwork, managing a tight budget, worrying about family and friends and everything else, is more than a full time job. Thinking of something to stick on LinkedIn is the least of our worries.

The Open Book

I’ve seen an increasing number of businesses being very open in how they are approaching the current situation. Examples include Blue Array, an SEO consultancy in Reading, who published an open letter at the start outlining how many people would be furloughed and why they had to do it.

More recently, I’ve seen similar messages from the likes of GoCardless – public statements that are often hard for CEOs to make. But each time I’ve seen one of these open and honest messages, the word that jumps into my head is #leadership (sometimes even with the hashtag). Each time I think that this is a company I might do business with, or want to work for in the future.

There are furlough avoiders, too, of course. Some (usually larger) businesses are asking staff to voluntarily cut down hours for a slightly less cut-down salary (e.g. work 80% of your contracted hours for 85% of your salary). Online bank Revolut has offered £2 in share options for every £1 salary sacrificed. It is both laudable to avoid taking from the public purse but the approach also allows for more flexibility if you can afford it.

It seems like a lifetime ago that I worked for TalkTalk, but back then I had a project which involved sending senior management into customers’ homes to talk face-to-face with them about their service. Well now, TalkTalk have retrained over 200 head office staff and redeployed them as customer service agents. That’s an amazing way of keeping staff gainfully employed but just as importantly, imagine how much they are learning about the problems customers face. When you have millions of customers, it’s easy to forget they are all individuals – the insight TalkTalk gains from this exercise will help to make them a better business in the future.

Whether you’re an employer or an employee, furloughing shouldn’t be taboo. We’re all in this together.

But as I have posted previously, as an employer or a manager, you need to be thinking about your teams’ mental wellbeing at this moment. Whether they are frustrated because they can’t talk about it, ashamed because they don’t want to talk about it or just too damned busy to talk about it, they need your help.

Let’s not forget, many employers have effectively broken their contract with their employees – they have reduced salary significantly (by a lot more than 20% for those earning over £30,000). Staff are doing this to help save the business. You might want to thank them for their help once in a while.

As a manager, I urge you to check in with your furloughed teams frequently. On WhatsApp, on video conference, or on a call. They are still YOUR team. If you want them to be on the team when they come back, you’d better show them some love now.

Remember, the government is not paying staff – employers are still paying them and claiming the money back. Furloughed employees are still employees and need the same level of care (if not more) than if they were working in the office.

The furlough scheme – or the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to give it its full title – is an amazing thing. There’s been nothing like it before. It might just save your job and mine.

Don’t let it become the new f-word.