Virtual layoffs - the challenges and opportunities in an age of remote work

JC Townend, President of The Adecco Group UK & Ireland, explains how outplacement services are adapting to suit a new generation of remote workers.
APR 24, 2023
JC Townend

‘You’re on mute’. ‘Can we jump on a quick call?’. ‘Let's grab a virtual coffee?’. In the age of remote and hybrid work, sentences like this have become commonplace.


Unfortunately for thousands of workers, so too have they received templated emails stating: “We regret to inform you that your services are no longer required.”


Layoffs are nothing new in the workplace and providers like LHH have well-established outplacement processes to support companies and workers during redundancy. But, with 58% of US workers doing so remotely at least some of the time, we've had to change the way we do things.


In this increasingly distant (geographically speaking) work environment, colleagues might go months or even years without meeting in person.


So, when it comes to layoffs, what additional challenges does this present for employers? And how can we adapt outplacement services to provide the same compassionate, human support from a distance?


Emotional support


Losing a job impacts on our livelihood, our self-esteem, even the relationships we’ve built with colleagues – so understandably it can take a massive emotional toll.


This can be especially tough for remote workers. They may have less contact with their managers, and it can be harder for some to build work relationships virtually. To then receive the news that they’ve been laid off via email or group call can feel particularly jarring.


When you’re working remotely, there’s no immediate emotional safety net from your colleagues. They aren’t around you to give you context or sympathy, or even to bring you a cup of tea and have a chat. It can be an incredibly isolating experience.


The companies I talk to are aware of this. They care about the wellbeing of their employees but, under legal and logistical pressure, they tell me they don’t always handle the process as compassionately as they could.


That’s where remote outplacement services come in.


Having those interactions face-to-face, either in the office or over a video call is something we actively encourage to start the process. It offers laid-off workers verbal reassurance and a chance to ask questions to make them feel more like a human being and less like a number.


Emails are almost never a good communication method for such personal news. Tone of voice is hard to read, and emails can be interpreted in ways not intended. When communicating in writing, correspondence should be carefully written using empathetic language, then checked by communication specialists in the local jurisdiction. Even in the same language, words in different environments can have very different connotations. Telling someone their job has been ‘eliminated’ might be acceptable terminology in some parts of the U.S., but it can sound very harsh to British ears.


Of course, the initial communication is just the start. Good outplacement services can provide coaches that very quickly help the employee move into a more positive frame of mind. If the process hasn’t been handled as compassionately as it could, career coaches are trained to rebuild confidence and get people thinking proactively about their next opportunity.


A personalized experience


The outplacement process should be as personal, engaging, and accessible as possible for remote candidates, catering for their unique circumstances.


Some prefer a personal touch – meeting their career coach face-to-face in a nearby office space, especially as a first meeting. If they go to a provider’s core offices, they might have the opportunity to meet fellow candidates and even join them in workshops, which can help them get comfortable with redundancy being a fact of life.


Others prefer to work from the comfort of their own home. Remote working shouldn’t and doesn’t stop candidates from benefitting from outplacement as in-office individuals would. Candidates can arrange video calls with their coaches, attend virtual workshops to hone their skills, or even record themselves answering questions from an automated virtual interviewer.


Need some encouragement along the way? Just because someone isn’t standing next to you doesn’t mean you’re alone. Sometimes remote workers are put into groups of around 15 to 20 jobseekers who help encourage one another to keep up their morale and take their next steps in their action plans.


Those who stay


Layoffs have an impact on the remaining team too. Employees may be feeling upset that their friends are leaving and feel uncertain about what lies ahead. They can be demoralized just when companies need them to be more engaged than ever.


For that reason, managers and employees should be part of the outplacement process. Our workshops help in expressing empathy in both words and actions when working with teams.


We sometimes talk about a ‘Pain-Gain’ model. Many companies are so focused on the pain of downsizing, that they miss the chance to think about the planned strategic gains from the new, streamlined, efficient company. How can the new company be a better and more positive place to work? Is there freed-up capital, which can be reinvested in the remaining team and strategy? Taking these kinds of positive steps helps the team recover emotionally and feel more confident about the future.


Restructuring is hard, but there are ways to do it right


I love the support we are able to give to redundant employees. I get letters sometimes from remote workers telling me that their whole world fell apart when they got laid off, but their compassionate outplacement service helped turn it all around. So many of our candidates end up in a better role, more confident and happier than they’ve ever been, because they’ve finally found the role that fits. For me, there’s really no greater measure of success than that.


Being laid off can be a devastating and lonely experience if you’re a remote worker. Remote outplacement services offer a helping hand to pick you back up and get your mind focused on the next chapter.


To support you in achieving the best outcomes for your employees, LHH are pleased to provide a complimentary set of resources in the 2023 Layoff Resource Hub.