Jerome Kalan has over 20 years’ experience in the sphere of people management, HR and consultancy, having worked in a broad range of industries, from print and publishing to manufacturing to commercial recruitment, where he last worked as HR Director for a London-based investment company. He is currently a management consultant for Three Things, working with small teams to help them improve performance and team working. His passion is to see newly appointed or less experienced managers coached and developed to become effective and dynamic leaders.

Justin: Quite a bit has been written about how people can work from home in the current coronavirus situation. However, there’s not much for people who find themselves on furlough, especially as the lockdown is extended

Jerome: Yes, there’s also a lot out there on what furlough is, what it means in terms of pay, and what you can and can’t do from an employment contractual perspective. There is a general assumption is that people will simply treat the time off as a form of paid holiday.

Most people will rarely take more than two weeks annual leave in one go during the course of a typical year. Most companies wouldn’t approve more than that. Even if employees did relish the thought of time off, albeit at reduced pay, they have now entered new territory, facing being off for longer than ever before.

Remember, people are trapped inside their homes, unable to really go out. They’ve been instructed to take time off work – a bit different from an application to take holiday entitlement.

While off, people may intend following the general advice to keep busy, spending quality time with their spouse or partner and the family, getting fit through exercise, taking out time to get all those things done that have been sitting on a long to-do list (gardening, DIY projects, painting, decorating), catching up on reading or taking up that long-delayed hobby.

But, in reality, it turns out to be watching too much Netflix, having too many late nights and lie-ins, munching on all manner of junk all day long, drinking one glass too many every night, helping out with the home-schooling, making the occasional trip to the supermarkets or pharmacy, all the time fretting about touching contaminated surfaces or breathing the virus.

Hardly feels like annual leave or holiday, does it?

Some are experiencing anxiety about coronavirus. For many, they are faced with their own mortality and gripped by the fear of death. Others are wondering about when they can get back to work, what it will look like, and whether there is even going to be a job to go back to, depending on how long their employer can survive. And some people actually experience guilt that they are receiving an income for not doing any work while on furlough. So, it’s not really a one-size-fits-all experience. People will go through different things. And what they go through could impact on how they prepare for a return to work. There is even the danger that some employees – even the ones you consider to be very good and you definitely want back after the mayhem is over, may not return, depending on how well they deal with the situation and how well you as a business interact with them during furlough.

Justin: So, what can people on furlough do to deal with their situation?

Jerome: Actually, there are a few very simple things people can do to keep their sanity, while preparing for an eventual return to work. Here are just three that are really easy to do and can make an immediate and lasting impact.

 - Change perspective – Write things down – We all think we know our own thoughts and what is going on in our own minds. But, we can be lulled into a false sense of clarity. Write down your thoughts and feelings and you may find your perspective changes as you look at them on paper. See what you can control and understand what you can’t.

List the things you fear or worry about and ask “So what?” as you think about the worst case scenarios. Usually, you will see that every worst case scenario has options attached to it. They may not be ideal, but probably not as bad as you first thought.

And better still, count your blessings! List everything you have to be grateful for. Make this exercise fun by getting everyone in your household to participate. It may surprise you and probably lead to a better perspective than your current one, even if you current one is positive.

 - Change the narrative – One way to do this is to think about the language you use. For example, if your spouse or partner or best friend or boss upsets you, you may find yourself saying, “You always...” or “You never...” This tends to be accusatory and implies something can’t change. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?… You could try alternative wording that lends itself to a better outcome. Think about what and how you say things.

- Think – about ideas on how things could be done differently in the new normal, when lockdown is lifted and you return to work. You have an ideal opportunity – and some time – to think at leisure, without the pressure of deadlines, targets and a long work to-do list. You have time to let your creative juices flow. Don’t waste it.

Justin: And what can managers do to support their staff who are on furlough?

Jerome: I suggest 4 things. And yes, it will take some effort in the middle of your own business, operational and time pressures. But, this is about the immediate impact and the long game.

First, stay in touch. Communication is key. People want to know they are not forgotten or ignored. They may have questions. You may not have all the answers, But, it doesn’t matter. Talk to them. Even if only by e-mail or messaging. Or what about a team catchup on Zoom. But, preferably, your managers should be calling around and chatting with people individually, even if just to say, “Hi”. Don’t think it’s okay to just leave them in peace and quiet. You do not want them jumping to conclusions for lack of contact and information.

Second, don’t be afraid to ask people how they are really doing. Many managers will wince at the thought. Too touchy-feely for them. “Get real, I’m running a business in crisis, not a counselling service!” they may say. Others might view it as downright unprofessional, adopting the old fashioned stance that people’s personal problems should stay outside the business. That’s unrealistic. The whole person who works for you – personal and professional – is what walks through your door. And that whole person is the person who is on furlough

Third, listen and empathise. Remember, empathise and sympathise are two different things. Empathise means you show that you understand what they are going through. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them or approve of what they say or think

And finally, start to talk about what they can do to get back on track when they return to work. Ask them about the ideas they have been thinking about, what they think has been tested in this crisis and shown to be weaknesses in the business, what might work if it is done differently. Tell them about how you value their past contributions, but also how much more you are looking forward to building a new, invigorated business with their help and support. They need to know what part they will be playing and how this fits with their own personal and the business’ purposes.