The government’s furlough scheme has been a lifeline for many retailers forced to cease or limit trading during the coronavirus pandemic.
ONS data shows that the number of people on furlough peaked at just under 9 million last spring and of those whose wages were being subsidised by the state 1.85 million worked in the retail and wholesale sectors alone.
The scheme has officially been extended until the end of September, however with retailers deemed non-essential allowed to reopen from next month decisions about who to bring back from furlough, if at all, are coming to a head right now.
This presents employers with a series of challenges that will need to be met with skilful and thoughtful leadership.
On the one hand are those employees who have spent most if not all of the past 12 months on furlough, receiving 80% pay but effectively no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the business.
The decision to place them on furlough in the first place may have prompted them to question their value to the organisation, especially in cases where certain colleagues within the same team have been kept on.
Some may have stayed informed of business developments through informal check-ins with colleagues and managers. Indeed, businesses should have made it their duty to ensure furloughed staff have felt well-supported during this difficult period.
But there will equally be those who have had little meaningful contact with their employer over the past year. They may be dreading the prospect or returning to a role that seems like a distant memory or concerned about how they will be accepted back into the fold. They may also be unaware of how the business has evolved strategically and operationally during a period of rapid and unprecedented change.
On the reverse side of the coin are those employees who have been retained and as a consequence have seen the demands on their time increase in order to compensate for a sharp reduction in headcount. It would be understandable if these people felt some resentment towards those able to ride out the pandemic at home without the added pressure of meeting work commitments.
For retail leaders, the task of re-uniting furloughed and non-furloughed staff will be among the most difficult they face over the next few months. The lack of face-to-face contact in a confined office environment may, in the short term, help ease the transition but this is not an excuse for letting nature take its course.
Communication will be key. In particular, each employee should be assured of the important role they have played in helping the business survive the pandemic, whether by saving the organisation the significant cost of employment (and accepting a 20% pay cut that is a substantial sacrifice for most households) or by working long hours to compensate for a smaller workforce.
Rather than let feelings of mutual antipathy bubble up beneath the surface, bosses and managers need to face the issue head-on. This could mean inviting people to speak openly about their feelings and welcoming suggestions for how trust and goodwill can be rebuilt.
The return to more normal work is to be welcomed but it will also provide an acid test for the strength of a company’s culture. Retail leaders need to embrace the challenge, not bury it at the bottom of a lengthy ‘to-do’ list.