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Kate Mara


Career Development Consultant

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How furloughed employees can ‘find their flow’ with self-development

L&D has an opportunity to help furloughed employees to develop – but it requires empathy.

With so many employees now on furlough, L&D teams can make a tangible impact both for these employees and the organisation as a whole by thoughtfully and strategically crafting self-directed career development opportunities for those at home.

Communicating with furloughed employees from an understanding and sympathetic place is critical. As the saying goes, 'we are all in the same storm, but not all in the same boat’.

By developing new and innovative ways to encourage self-directed career development for furloughed employees, organisations have the opportunity to provide focus and meaning at a time of great uncertainty and change. As a result, they can foster lasting employee engagement and develop an employer brand rooted in growth and an employee-first culture.  

As important as it is to act, however, it is equally important to consider first how to create the right conditions for self-development.

Furlough anxiety

The limbo status of a furloughed employee is anxiety inducing. Qualtrics reports that furloughed workers are 37% more likely than those who have been laid off to report declines in mental health.

Furloughed employees report feeling a heavy sense of ‘should’ during this time and are saturated by the barrage of online courses and videos to consume. Their social media feeds implore them to take this opportunity to reflect and grow, and yet studies show that individuals living through major work adjustments experience a significant loss in their sense of personal agency and self-efficacy. This directly undermines their ability to turn their attention to developmental activity.

Communicating with furloughed employees from an understanding and sympathetic place is critical. As the saying goes, 'we are all in the same storm, but not all in the same boat’.

Loss of agency

Before an individual can make efforts to work on self-development, an internal locus of control has to first be restored (Bandura, 1990). The ‘locus of control’ concept refers to the degree to which an individual sees life as driven primarily by external or internal forces (Lefcourt, 1991), i.e. the extent to which life is beyond their control.

Recognising our inclination to project onto others our own frustrations and needs, managers should endeavour to adopt a position of acceptance and positivity towards their team members’ circumstances

Those with an internal locus of control are more likely to take action towards change and are more likely to believe that they have some control over their own future. Without addressing this, encouragement to ‘make a start with that coding course’ or ‘take advantage of those executive communication modules’ will fall on deaf ears and ratchet up the feeling of ‘should’.

Restoring control

Studies have found that one way to foster an internal locus of control is pursuing graded personal goals. Building incrementally towards a measurable outcome proves to oneself the presence of agency, and by extension some say in one’s own future.

In practice, this small goal should be generated by the individual, but the important thing to encourage is that it should truly be a micro-step – a guaranteed win for the short term, like walking for 10 minutes more per day, getting up on the first alarm clock, or a glass of water each morning for one week.


When Timothy Gallwey wrote Inner Tennis, he found that when coaching one of the keys to meaningful progress was the ‘coachee’ first getting into the right state. A shortcut that he found to this was engaging in an activity that brought with it a sense of flow. It restores confidence and primes the body for receiving new information.

Any furloughed employee embarking on development activities, would increase their chances of success by first spending a short burst of time doing an activity in which they feel that ‘flow’ state. This could be any skill they enjoy using – cooking, playing a musical instrument, writing – nothing is too mundane. It may seem like a frivolous recommendation, but it is very challenging to consider change or improvement from a low state.

Aspirations of productivity

The death knell of any ‘helpful tips’ regarding self-development is the implicit expectation of increased productivity on the part of furloughed employees. Managers who may have spent all morning grappling with frayed WiFi and patchy video meetings may find their personal hopes for productivity, optimism and a ‘can-do’ attitude get displaced. They demand of their furloughed peers the spirit and mindset they’ve struggled to adopt themselves.

Recognising our inclination to project onto others our own frustrations and needs, managers should endeavour to adopt a position of acceptance and positivity towards their team members’ circumstances before each interaction.

Development – it’s an inside job

In a world full of uncertainty and instability, self-reflection is the most stable and productive way to begin any programme of development. This rare opportunity to take stock will make any future training more impactful and relevant.

Continuous career development is an iterative process of gradually moving closer to the roles and opportunities that play to our strengths in environments that bring out our full potential. This means that outside of any formal performance management programme, it is essential to foster in employees the skill of reflecting on themselves to know how best to move forward.

The most empowering start is a set of questions designed to reconnect furloughed employees with what they know for sure, themselves. An individual's response to the questions below may help them to optimise their working practices and better direct themselves towards learning avenues while furloughed.


  1. What style of learner are you? Visual, auditory? Hint: when presented with a number to remember do you: visualise it, make a pattern, say it aloud? Do the people you work with know this about you?
  2. In your role, are you presenting information in the way that suits your audience's learning style, and in a way that suits your strengths? Is your manager someone who appreciates visual stimulation but you currently don’t bring visuals when presenting new ideas or information? If you are a natural storyteller, are you using this skill in your role to optimise your effectiveness?
  3. What activities leave you feeling more energised? What are the commonalities?
  4. What activities leave you feeling depleted? What are the commonalities?
  5. Can you schedule your activities better to balance your energy throughout the day?
  6. Are there certain meeting rooms where you do your best work? Why? How can you introduce some of those elements into your desk/working environment?
  7. Which of your strengths do you believe are under utilised in your current role?
  8. What are the characteristics of colleagues who bring out the best in your performance?
  9. When you look at your future career path, what sorts of problems would you most like to solve (or) what skills would you like to be using most?
  10. What kinds of training or mentorship would help you to bridge the gap from where you are now to where you want to be? How can you seek these out?
  11. Who at this organisation is doing something you think you could thrive at doing?
  12. What are some actions that could be taken between now and the end of the year that might move you forward?

Meaningful results

Any effort to engage furloughed employees in development is well-intentioned, but for meaningful results it is critical to first create the right conditions and to begin with a focus on what is known through self-reflection before moving onto content-driven skills programmes.

Interested in this topic? Read Which skills are learners honing during lockdown?

Author Profile Picture
Kate Mara

Career Development Consultant

Read more from Kate Mara

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