The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) has been adapted to accommodate ‘flexible’ furlough and gradually begin to phase out the financial support available from the Government.
From 1 July, employers can furlough employees on a part-time basis, whilst still claiming for the hours not worked under the CJRS. The proportion of time can be agreed between the employee and employer, there is no restriction on the flexibility of the furlough scheme.
Flexible furlough provides organisations with the opportunity to introduce part-time working, allowing them to keep employees on the payroll but working reduced hours based on the business needs. This may mean bringing back employees who have been furloughed on a full-time basis in recent months to a different working pattern, and could mean that some employees will be undertaking part-time work for the first time.
HR professionals will need to support employees and managers to adjust to new working patterns and workloads whilst continuing under the guiding principle of caring for employees and safeguarding their health and wellbeing.
Managing employees on flexible furlough
Employees on flexible furlough may be undertaking a range of varied working patterns. For some employees, this might be the first time they have worked part-time or flexibly. Managers may also be managing part-time or flexible employees for the first time.
Part-time working can consist of:
- Employees working fewer days than full-time staff
- Employees working fewer hours each day
- Job sharing.
There are a number of practical issues to consider when managing employees on the flexible furlough scheme, which we will consider in turn:
- Agreeing the new working pattern
- Monitoring hours worked
- Managing expectations and workloads
- Work life balance and wellbeing
Agreeing the new working pattern
Under the flexible furlough scheme, the organisation and employee must formally agree the working pattern: specifically, how much time the employee will be working and how much time will be furloughed.
Taking into account the employee’s job role and the operational needs of the organisation, employers must consider:
- How many days or hours a week does the employee need to work in the current situation?
- Whilst working part-time, should the employee work a reduced number of days or a reduced number of hours?
- What other commitments or personal circumstances are relevant to the hours the employee can work – for example, are they also still undertaking childcare due to school closures or are they providing care for people who are clinically vulnerable?
Wherever possible, the working pattern should be mutually agreed. If an agreement about working hours cannot be reached, it may be necessary to continue with full-time furlough where the employee is eligible, or change the employee’s terms and conditions without their express consent. This should be a last resort and legal advice should be taken if this approach is being considered.
Depending on the organisation and its policies and procedures, it may or may not be necessary to formally record and monitor employee working hours. Where existing systems exist (for example, time recording software) they should continue to be used.
It is important that employees who are working part-time under the flexible furlough scheme do not work during their furloughed period. Therefore, organisations without formal time recording mechanisms may find it helpful to establish ways of recording the hours of work of part-time employees under the CJRS. This should be accompanied by clear messaging about not working outside of the newly agreed working arrangements.
Employees can be asked to formally record their own working hours or arrangements in any way that is suitable and practical for the organisation and the role they undertake.
However hours are recorded, line managers must ensure that part-time employees are not working in excess of their contractual working hours and should take steps to address it with any employee where they believe this is the case.
Managing expectations and workloads
It is important that employees on flexible furlough only work the hours that have been agreed with them. They should not undertake any work during their furloughed periods.
Managers must ensure they:
- Agree expectations with employees as soon as the part-time working begins.
- Review existing workloads and tasks to take into account the new hours. Depending on the nature of the job, it may be necessary to reduce workloads, provide more time to complete activities or remove some tasks from the job description.
- Review existing formal objectives and amend them where necessary.
- When assessing performance, for example during a future performance review, take into account this period of time and ensure the employee is not unfairly penalised for having worked part time.
- Clearly communicate the new expectations and keep these under regular review.
- Where employees have recently been on full-time furlough, managers may find it helpful to take some time to update the employee on any changes in overall priorities or team objectives that have taken place in recent weeks and months.
Work-life balance and wellbeing
It has been reported that part-time employees feel that their work activity spills over into their non-working time, or that they find themselves working more hours than they are contracted to undertake. The pandemic itself also may reduce overall wellbeing for all employees, with mental health being a particular concern. These issues can arise as a result of a range of factors including a lack of boundaries between home and work, the challenges of balancing work and childcare, isolation and lack of contact with friends and family. These challenges apply equally to all employees including part-time workers.
Some employees who are working part-time under the flexible furlough scheme will be returning to work from full-time furlough. Being furloughed, and the resulting lack of purpose and structure, can also have a negative impact on wellbeing for some people. Together, this complex mix of issues mean that employee wellbeing should be high on the organisational agenda for all employers.
Where the organisation has wellbeing support or available activities these should be highlighted regularly to all employees. Part-time workers should specifically be encouraged to make use of them in the same way as their full-time colleagues.
Managers can support the wellbeing of part-time employees by closely monitoring workloads, adjusting objectives and targets, ensuring regular communication and regularly checking in with them. They should also be aware of the potential for part-time employees to work longer than necessary and take steps to address this should they see any signs of this occurring.
Ensuring effective communication with employees is essential. Managers must ensure that all employees, whatever hours they are working, receive relevant and timely information, and have the opportunity to be involved with team discussions.
Consider the following:
- Holding team meetings on days when everyone is working. Where possible, schedule work so that there is a time in the week where this is possible.
- Where people cannot attend team meetings, ensure that they receive a separate update through an appropriate mechanism, whether this is face to face, via email or through a one-to-one meeting.
- Set up an online space for sharing and discussion where employees can engage asynchronously if they are unable to communicate at a time when they are all working.
- Ensure regular dialogue between managers and employees – ideally weekly wherever possible. Talk to the team about the best ways to communicate.
- Where a whole team is working part-time or flexibly, consider setting up an informal place to communicate in order to keep in touch and foster a sense of team working; a WhatsApp group can work well but participation should be voluntary.
Finally, where a team has multiple part-time workers on flexible furlough, it may be helpful to agree some team protocols around team communication, meetings, providing updates to each other, technologies and availability and contact times. The whole team can work together to create and agree on these.
Planning for the future
Although the CJRS is due to end later this year, it is possible that some employees may want to continue to work part-time. There may be several reasons for this; in the short term, if they continue to have ongoing personal reasons relating to the Coronavirus, or long term because they have preferred doing so.
Where employees wish to request part-time working after the flexible furlough scheme ends, they should normally do so via their organisation’s Flexible Working Policy. Requests for flexible working must be considered in a reasonable manner and in a reasonable timeframe.
When the flexible furlough scheme ends, unless an alternative has been agreed, the employee will return to their normal hours of work as set out in their contract of employment. It is advisable to have a meeting with the employee before this to discuss any issues or concerns they may have. If the employee has not undertaken some aspects of their normal work for some time, check if they need any refresher training or development support to facilitate their successful return.
You can find official Government guidance here.