When “Up in the Air” – the comic-drama movie starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick – released in 2009, it seemed to foretell the future of firings and layoffs. The flick centers on Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who flys around the US as a corporate downsizer enjoying life racking up flyer miles while stressing the importance of in-person firings. With a love affair involving Alex Goran’s (Vera Farmiga) character sprinkled in, Bingham’s future changes both personally and professionally, especially when Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) offers a new way to save money and conduct layoffs via remote firings.
Technological advances have made it even more accessible to conduct firings by remote access in recent years. VR company Talespin recently introduced demo software that coaches bosses on how to handle firings properly by practicing firings on a virtual human, which reacts to the delivery and tone of the news accordingly. While it’s not currently being used by companies, it’s designed to teach bosses how to emotionally react properly, which is not far off from what transpires in “Up in the Air” and what is currently taking place in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
As offices around the country are forced to close to encourage social distancing and help maintain the spread of COVID-19, remote firings have started to take place through video-conference services like Zoom. Two companies — Bird and Rent the Runway — reportedly conducted mass layoffs over conference calls over the past week.
Rent the Runway, a clothing brand rental service, laid off its entire retail staff via a Zoom conference, The Verge reported. The company called it a “heartbreaking decision”, according to the report, which said the decision was based on closing all of its stores during the COVID-19 crisis. Shortly after the call, employees saw their email accounts wiped out, while employees will receive a severance package and two months of health insurance, the report said.
Dockless scooter company Bird cut 30% of its workforce Friday due to the “financial and operational” impact of the coronavirus, according to the Los Angeles Times. In all, 406 people of the company’s 1,387 employees were laid off, Bird confirmed to Tech Crunch.
Those firings were reportedly done on Zoom, but how they were handled remains murky. Journalist Julia Black tweeted that her friend was laid off by Bird via a pre-recorded Zoom message.
My friend just got laid off along with 400 other employees by dialing into a pre-recorded Zoom message. Her manager never even called to say goodbye. The virus may be out of your control, but how humanely you handle it is not.
— Julia Black (@mjnblack) March 27, 2020
One former Bird employee detailed the Zoom meeting in a post on Medium, saying that the presenter’s identity in the meet was “obscured” and many colleagues believed the call was pre-recorded. Jenny Li Alva, the author behind the post, said the Zoom meeting was about 90 seconds before auto-ending. She also called the actions that took place Friday “horrendous”, calling attention to how TechCrunch’s article was published before those who were laid off received emails about offboarding, with even some employees being left in the dark due to having different work schedules.
Bird had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication, however, the company’s CEO Travis VanderZanden quickly denied the meeting was pre-recorded, but admitted things could’ve been done differently.
“We did NOT let employees go via a pre-recording,” VanderZanden responded in a tweet. “It was via a live zoom mtg (not ideal either) b/c we’re all WFH during COVID. Video was turned off which we thought was more humane. In retrospect, we should’ve made 1on1 calls to the 100s impacted over the course of a few days.”
VanderZanden said he and managers had reached out to impacted employees immediately after the Zoom conference.
Considering the circumstances, more and more layoffs are expected as a result of the coronavirus. Nearly 50% of companies said they are considering layoffs in the coming months due to the pandemic, according to a recent study conducted by Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The St. Louis Federal Reserve predicted the unemployment rate could rise to 32.1%, with 47 million Americans losing their jobs.
‘Zoom is fine’
Many of these layoffs won’t happen in person, which means Zoom and other telecommunication ways will be the way employers deliver layoffs to employees. For bosses and managers facing this reality, it’s important for those making the decisions to approach this correctly with as much compassion as possible, according to Elaine Varelas, managing partner of Keystone Partners.
“What I find most interesting is we do have control over how we treat people. In this kind of circumstance, companies need to treat people with more humanity, not less,” Varelas told Ladders recently. “Zoom is fine for a method of communication, but it needs to be the most personal method of communication as possible.”
Varelas said certain measures should be taken, such as the most senior leader being live on the call to address the participants affected. Leaders should be affectionate and professional and verbalize their appreciation and communicate all the benefits that can be provided, such as:
- Layout the financial support or severance.
- Outline health and medical benefits after termination.
- Offer job search support.
- Eligibility for re-hire.
- The necessary paperwork for unemployment and COBRA.
Since layoffs cannot be done in-person, the approach cannot be robotic just because it’s on a computer, as Varelas explained.
“It has to be a very personal message,” Varelas said about approaching employees. “Using a script to make sure you get the message correct is important, but recognizing you need to be authentic and need to speak from a personal point of view as a leader.”
She also said the HR conversation is a must because it helps discuss the benefits and support that’s being offered.
“The reason the HR conversation becomes important is that these are people who 10 minutes ago worked to make your company successful,” she said.
The mental approach for those affected
From a psychological perspective, career and life coach Dr. Marty Nemko said there’s no perfect way to approach firings during the coronavirus pandemic. He equated it to the end of a relationship, leaving the keys in your hand to move forward, while remote firings could also be a blessing in disguise.
“Some people can move on and find something better or have free time for once in their life, while others grieve for months. It’s the same way with virtual firings – one size doesn’t fit all,” Nemko told Ladders. “To tell you the truth, if I were getting let go, I wouldn’t want the posturing and dance – I’d rather get an email. I don’t want to have to face them or say the wrong thing. If I’m face-to-face, I may say the wrong thing and could burn a bridge that would stop me in the future from getting a job. I would rather be part of a group and get out of this.”
Nemko broke down layoffs through two scopes – the practical and psychological side. Unless you’re a star in an in-demand area, it’s going to be very difficult over the coming months or years. Jobs won’t be as easy to find unless you are a superstar, but for normal people, there are also steps that can be taken to improve yourself now while building yourself for the future.
“For normal people, this is a good time to build up your network so that when the job market does turn, you have networking people connections who can help you get ahead,” Nemko explained. “It can be a good time to update your skills or a good time to take up some cool thing. You won’t be going to Europe, but maybe it’s a good time to do something you’ve always wanted to do.”
Finding something to fill your mind is pivotal, Nemko said, especially after losing your job. Whether it’s picking up a new instrument or working on that novel you never started, it’s about moving forward and not dwelling on the what-ifs.
“The sadness tends to dissipate when you have a substitute,” he said. “If you got laid off by any company, it doesn’t matter. The answer is the best way to drive forward is to drive forward. It’s not to think about it. Whatever it is, do the stupid things you need to do to get a job. If it’s to wait it out, wait it out but have a lot of fun.”