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Study: Most Furloughed Workers to Return by 2021

Most North American employers expect their furloughed workers will return to work by the first quarter of 2021. However, very few organizations anticipate this to be the case for employees who have been laid off during the pandemic.


This is according to a survey of 283 employers by Willis Towers Watson, which found that 55% of respondents expect most (at least three out of four) of their furloughed employees to be back at work by the first quarter of next year; however, just one in six (16%) expect to rehire most of their laid-off workers by then.

“One of the myriad of challenges employers face as they begin to restore stability in a post-COVID-19 era is deciding which employees to bring back to work and when,” said Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director, Willis Towers Watson. “While those decisions will ultimately depend on public health and economic recovery, employers will also need to adapt to having a larger percentage of remote workers, and this will fundamentally change their culture.”

Looking ahead, employers expect that the proportion of their workforce who are full-time employees working from home (19%) will be less than half of current levels (44%) but nearly three times what it was last year (7%). Despite the expectation of a greater proportion of employees working from home, many employers have not yet taken steps to address this shift. Less than two in 10 employers (19%) have changed policies to encourage more remote work, although 60% are planning or considering doing so. Only two in 10 (20%) have provided tools and resources to employees who may work remotely long term, although two-thirds (66%) are planning or considering doing so. Additionally, just one in 10 respondents (10%) have acted to offer employees subsidies to manage costs of working remotely while nearly three times as many (29%) are planning or considering doing so.

Employers, however, are making changes to how work is being done because of the pandemic and its subsequent economic effects. Roughly eight in 10 employers (79%) made adjustments to reflect the new protocol while more than half (58%) adjusted to the definition of the role of the workplace and what work should be primarily done onsite versus remotely. And nearly three in 10 employers (29%) made changes to move work to different jobs.

“The pandemic is forcing employers to rethink virtually every aspect of how work is being done and how to reward this work,” said Catherine Hartmann, North America Rewards practice leader, Willis Towers Watson. “With many companies planning to accelerate their reliance on automation and remote workers, the focus on how work gets done will become paramount. In turn, the organizations that get in front of up-skilling, re-skilling and, in some cases, out-skilling will be best positioned coming out of the pandemic.”

Other survey findings include:

  • Over half (52%) of employers expect most (three out of four) workers who took a pay cut or had their workweek reduced will be back to normal levels by the first quarter of 2021.
  • Three in 10 employers (29%) have accelerated or adopted new special initiatives, such as technology rollouts, while nearly four in 10 (38%) have changed or are planning or considering changing where work is done to reduce supply chain risks.
  • More than half of respondents believe changes they have made since the pandemic began have had a positive impact on employee well-being (53%) and the employee experience (51%).
  • Most respondents have a sufficient budget to maintain and effectively deliver existing talent and rewards programs (88%), but fewer have the budget to add critical new programs (58%) or adopt new technologies (49%).

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