What It's Like To Furlough Your Employees In A Pandemic

What It's Like To Furlough Your Employees In A Pandemic

We were catching up with Kate, an awesome Ori customer who is quick to offer us advice on everything from the fit of a garment to social media tips, on how her time in quarantine has been. She shared that she had to furlough a number of her employees, given that there wasn't enough work for them. While our hearts are with all of those who have lost their jobs given the state of the pandemic, we also majorly feel for every employer who had to deliver the sad news. So we sat down to chat it through with Kate.


Ori: What's the nature of your work?

Kate: I work for a social media agency. We support a ton of great brands across a variety of industries: technology, automotive, pharmaceutical, travel, hospitality, etc. I run the social care part of the business. All of our community managers report into my group.


Ori: When did you start to see that serious changes needed to happen for your company? Was it when stay-at-home orders were first given?

Kate: When stay-at-home orders were first given, the rest of the world was adjusting to life changing and the new dynamics of working from home, but we are actually a distributed remote team who has always been working from home. Since those on my team were already pros, we were just giving work from home advice whenever we could. While stay-at-home orders didn't impact our team immediately, but it did impact our clients. We had a pretty big client relationship end in March that created a lot of uncertainty for us. 


Ori: Why and how did the pandemic change the workload?

Kate: We knew changes were going to have to happen when our big client relationship ended in March, but then we had a number of other clients scale back work or suspend altogether. We support a national restaurant brand that had to figure out a new normal and they needed to pause our work, as did other clients. I don't know a single business that hasn't been impacted by this pandemic in some way: supply chain issues, access issues, staffing, inability to open, etc. While we were technically very fortunate that we were a distributed team that could work remotely, most of our customers had to make some pretty big pivots, ultimately forcing us to make some tough decisions.


Ori: How did you come to the difficult decision of furloughing employees?

Kate: It was the toughest decision to furlough our folks. Let me be clear, I have a rockstar team of the most talented people out there. We specifically furloughed people so that they could collect unemployment benefits but made it very clear to each of them that as the work starts to come back, we will be calling them back! And we urged them to please answer the phone when we call! We did the layoffs in three phases to try to keep as many people working as possible but also to make sure that they were going to be as financially stable as possible. With a reduction in work and hours, it really was best for our team to roll into furlough. We tried to run a lot of different scenarios to see how we could best make it work, but ultimately we had to make a lot of difficult calls.


Ori: Before the news was given to your employees, what was going through your mind?

Kate: We run a pretty transparent company and I don't hide from the team when we lose business. I had been pretty up-front about all that was going on, so things didn't feel so sudden. I met with everyone prior to HR talking to them and followed up immediately providing them with as much information as we could, as well as my personal contact information so they knew they could call me at any time. 


Ori: After they received the news, how did you feel? What kinds of actions did you take?

Kate: We did this in three phases. The first round was tough. But the second round was really hard because this was my core team of rockstars and I felt personally connected to each of them. It's hard to tell people that you don't have work for them and not feel a sense of responsibility. Normally, if we would have a shift in client work I would be able to hop on a plane to visit prospects and find new work. But that's not an option right now, and it left me feeling pretty frustrated. By round 3, I realized that wallowing in it wasn't helpful and we needed to get busy.


Ori: Is there any silver lining you've found in all this?

Kate: The phrase "silver lining" may be a stretch, but this has created an opportunity for us. We know that once things calm down, we'll get busy again and need to call back our team that is furloughed and then we'll need to hire more. As a result of this inflection point, we are creating a new training for folks to get certified in Community Management. We are still writing content, but our goal is to open this training up to the general public to allow them to learn a new skill, be able to add something to their resume, and most importantly for us to create opportunities for others that have been professionally impacted by this pandemic.


Ori: What advice would you give to an employer who has to downsize and let employees go?

Kate: Be as transparent as you can to your team on why it needs to happen and, if there is one, your plan to bring them back. Honesty and humility go a long way right now. Whatever you do, keep the call brief. This is not about you and your feelings, you just need to provide information and next steps with very little color commentary. I know the instinct is to keep chatting, but really you just need to let your employees process and be available to them when they're ready to talk. If you have an HR team, leverage their skills during this time. What you say, how you say it, and what advice you give should be approved by a trained HR professional, including how you tell people to file for Unemployment Benefits.


Ori: What would you like to say to someone who has recently lost their job due to the pandemic?

Kate: I know this is a scary and hard time, but please use the tools available to you. Be persistent in your quest to file and complete your Unemployment Benefits. Watch your spending and if you aren't budgeting, this might be a good time to implement a strategy to manage your finances. It's okay to be frustrated and angry about this, you have a right to feel all of the feelings. Use this time in the way that makes you comfortable. There is no right or wrong way to manage yourself, but there are a few things that can make life easier. 

I always recommend making sure your resume and LinkedIn profile are up-to-date and represents your work in the most efficient way possible.

Here are some other tools:

Most of all, remember this time will pass. Lean on your village and stay connected to friends and family.


Kate G.
Kate is a Michigander living in Texas with her two dogs, working in social media, and making the most of her herb garden in quarantine. You can follow her on Instagram.



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