Furlough: 4 things senior leaders should bear in mind

For independent schools making the difficult decision to put staff on furlough, there are important factors to consider

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Independent schools, like other businesses, may be facing a sudden and substantial loss of income, and, as a result, they may be furloughing staff. 

While this is understandable, there are certain things that senior leadership teams might want to keep at the forefront of their minds, to make sure that the furlough process goes smoothly for both employees and the school.

Coronavirus: How schools can manage the furlough process

1. Ensure that someone speaks to those being furloughed personally 

Hard though this might be, the human element is vital. Do not just send out an email from HR. However nicely that email is phrased, there is huge potential for it to feel impersonal, utilitarian and as if those being furloughed matter less to the school community. 

You can choose how you divide this task up, but the likelihood is that, due to the number of calls, line managers may well need to step up. These people, in turn, might need help and support with how to deliver this information. 

Perhaps suggest keeping the call short and focused on the caring, human connection. The ins and outs can come in an email from HR later in the day. Sympathy and listening to the other person will be really important. As hard as these calls are to make, they are often harder to receive, so line managers might need to remember that they are not the one being asked to lose 20 per cent of their monthly income.

2. Involve middle leaders in decisions about furlough

Speak to your section heads and ensure that they are involved in decisions over who in their team is furloughed. They will have a better handle on individual roles, situations, nuances than you will. Asking line managers to be a part of the decision making will also make it feel less of a hierarchical process that is imposed from above.

3. Remember, you can’t afford to lose goodwill 

When furloughed staff return, you will need them to do so with a sense of goodwill – and this will be determined by how fairly you treat them throughout the furlough process.

Bear in mind that the matrons, cleaners, sports centre staff, lunchtime supervisors, admin assistants, gap students and so on are the ones who are often relied on in term time to pick up the extra jobs, the extra hours, often for little or no extra pay. Do not alienate them or leave them to feel cast aside or forgotten. 

Work gives one a sense of value and purpose: being told you cannot work will be hard for some. Ensure they are able to feel like they are helping to support the school in the long term through being furloughed, rather than being excluded from the group doing the “real” work. 

4. Stay in touch  

Encourage department heads or others to write, phone or even to have a virtual coffee with furloughed members of staff on a regular basis. 

Remember that the rhetoric you have been using up until now is one that celebrates all members of the school community. You need to be sure that you are not inadvertently implying that some of this community is not as important or valued as others. The sense of community and "all in this together" is vitally important for society at the moment. People do not want to feel they are no longer part of a community in which they will have, in all likelihood, found a sense of belonging and have huge affection for.

Furloughed members of staff will have been involved in the day-to-day dramas of the students, they will be friends with teachers and they will probably miss being part of things. They may want to know how things are going and hear how the students are doing.

Do not slip into a place where the only communication you have with them is via HR. If you have already furloughed staff and not been in personal contact with them, it is not too late to do so. They will appreciate you taking the time and no doubt will understand that you have been busy as times are difficult at the moment. 

The writer is a member of the leadership team at an independent school in the South West of England

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