Travel Industry: are your staff ready to return to work?
June 25, 2021
As the biggest mass vaccination program in history reaches the milestone of 43 million people in the UK having received at least one dose, the travel industry can dare hope that a sort of new normal may return before the end of the summer. The Government’s employment lifeline furlough scheme is due to end at the end of September with percentage reductions to payments set in July and August.
Once the scheme has closed, life will seem very different for those with jobs returning to work and maybe equally challenging for their employers. Neither the returning staff, nor those who have worked through the crisis will be the same as they were previously. The business that employs them certainly will not be.
How the returnees may have changed
Commitment levels, motivation and even apparently simple things like their powers of concentration may be seriously impaired. Their detailed knowledge of the business and how it is operating, previously constantly refreshed, is likely to be out of date; the extent of which will depend on how well or not you have kept them in the loop.
Their mental health must be taken into consideration. For months they have been forced into inactivity; they may be haunted by self-doubt based on why they were chosen for furlough, while colleagues were kept on. They may have money worries, they may have had issues in their private life with relationships, housing and other important matters. Lockdown restrictions and reduced income may well have deprived them of key elements in their lives: sport, hobbies, exercise. They will have missed the face-to-face interaction with people at work. They have endured month after month of uncertainty about whether or when they would be coming back to work.
The ‘two-tribes’ problem
Employers need to worry about more than just their furlough returnees. How will those who have worked through the pandemic react to them? Will they accept them back or unconsciously categorise them as second-class colleagues; seeing them as the ones not important enough to be kept on or the ones who had months of leisure, while they carried all the burden and often worked extraordinary hours under hugely challenging conditions?
What about the returnees? Are they jealous of those who kept their jobs and stayed involved, who maybe gained promotion over them while they were away?
Resentment may run very deep on both sides. Co-operation could be difficult.
There is a real risk of an ‘us and them’ syndrome emerging, which can only be harmful to the future operation and efficiency of the business. Anyone who has worked in a two-tribe scenario has war stories aplenty of just how damaging it can be.
What should the Employer do?
A well thought through re-induction programme for the returnees is essential. In essence, they need to be treated almost like new joiners. So much about how they will be doing their jobs has changed and it will be much more than a one-way system round the office or a ban on gathering round the water cooler or coffee machine, both of which have long gone. A particular issue is how video call protocols and etiquette will have developed their own unique characteristics in every working environment; it will take returnees some time to assimilate these new and often unspoken behaviours. Getting re-induction right will make the whole workforce productive again far quicker and eliminate a host of avoidable problems.
Set up a ‘buddy’ system
Call them what you like, each returnee will need someone to help ease them back into the environment and be there for them as and when issues arise. If furloughed staff are returning in batches over a period, maybe that buddy or mentor can come from the first or successive cohorts, having been though the readjustment themselves.
Create non-judgemental forums for sharing
As well as a nominated supporter, returnees may get a huge benefit from some sort of Furloughed Anonymous, where they can together to share their feelings and experiences with others who have been through the same harrowing emotions. It can either be inside the business or possibly set up independently outside, but at the same time supported with finance or other resources by the business.
Neutralise the two-tribe issue – fast!
Employers need to be alert to this problem from the very start of the return process, ears firmly to the ground to pick up any signs. Staff should be encouraged to talk about any discrimination they perceive they are experiencing, not in a judgmental way but as basic communication. The Buddy system should help, but another effective strategy will be to facilitate social interaction of some sort between a broad range of staff, either face-to-face on a socially-distanced basis where people are physically back working together or perhaps through online ‘town hall’ meetings if they are not.
Solving this potential problem is all about effective internal communication, as well as management being prepared to open their eyes to it rather than ignoring it in the hope that it will somehow dissipate as time goes on. Unfortunately, it will not. There was still significant infighting and endemic status conflicts between the employees of two merged UK airlines over fifteen years after the merger and between the employees of two unhappily-merged construction giants well over ten years after they came together.
The travel industry needs to hit the ground running as we emerge from the horrors of the Pandemic. Botching the return of furloughed staff is likely to have a far more serious impact on the performance of the business than might be anticipated; inevitably it will hit the bottom line as well as distracting management unnecessarily as they battle to restore their company’s battered financial and commercial fortunes.
How can Opus help?
If you are in the travel industry and the above points are of concern, we are here to help you to find the best way forward. We are comfortable with the issues involved and we love assisting people to make good choices in these circumstances. Our ethos is to work with people to find solutions, not to lecture them or impose our ideas. Either email or contact one of our Partners through your nearest office.