Laid Off in Your Living Room: The Chaos of Remote Job Cuts

The entrance to the Meta campus in Menlo Park, Calif. on Jan. 1, 2023. (Aaron Wojack/The New York Times)
The entrance to the Meta campus in Menlo Park, Calif. on Jan. 1, 2023. (Aaron Wojack/The New York Times)

Kerensa Cadenas opened Slack on Friday morning to an expletive-laden message from a colleague that said essentially: “I got let go.” Cadenas, steeling herself, checked her email. Then she typed out her own expletive. She’d been laid off, too. Alone in her New York City apartment.

Cadenas, with more than 100 of her Vox Media colleagues as well as thousands of other workers this week and last, was submerged in a lonely, surreal wave of remote layoffs. People got the news through emails, Slack messages or video calls, then sent their goodbye notes and powered down their computers, with no teammates around to commiserate over beer.

“Normally you’re like, ‘OK, I can go get drunk,’” said Cadenas, 37, noting that atop the isolation comes frustration with the instability that so many media workers have now come to accept as a fact of their working lives. “It’s scary because I’m like: ‘Will I ever have a savings account? Am I ever going to own something? Probably not.’”

Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times

This month, angst has rippled across laptop screens, with dozens of companies announcing mass layoffs and even the most large and well-established workplaces finding distinct ways to breed extra chaos in the process. More than 1,000 tech companies laid off nearly 160,000 workers last year, according to Layoffs.fyi, which is tracking job cuts across the industry, and another 185 companies have cut some 57,000 tech workers since the start of this year.

Layoffs are among the most challenging life experiences, causing more psychological stress than even divorce, according to one study. Losing a job can upend workers’ finances and their sense of self, and layoffs in the world of remote work have in many cases been especially destabilizing, with employer missteps fueling uncertainty and unnecessary unknowns.

At Twitter, employees were notified in the middle of the night that they had been laid off, and at least one worker found out during a team call when that person lost access to company accounts. At the mortgage lending company Better.com, Rena Starr, 33, missed a short and unexpected Zoom meeting in 2021, then texted her boss to learn she and more than 900 of her colleagues had been fired during it. In a later round of job cuts at Better.com, last year, some employees there learned they had been laid off when severance pay hit their payroll accounts; this was months after the chief executive had apologized for summarily firing nearly 10% of the company’s employees in a roughly three-minute call just before the holidays.

“They’re immediately cutting you off from your technological connection,” said Sandra Sucher, a professor of management at Harvard who has studied layoffs for more than a decade. “I’ve been hearing of a number of companies where people were in the middle of things and couldn’t continue and didn’t know who to address.”

Many laid off workers are left with a long list of questions and an utter lack of clarity about who can help them. A recruiter at Amazon was told within four months of starting her job that it would almost certainly be cut, and she was encouraged to accept a severance package. She had to mail back her company computer and doesn’t have a personal one, making it challenging to search for a new job.

At some companies, people noted that their teammates were far more helpful than their employers after a layoff. Shortly after losing her job at an e-commerce marketing company in November, Erika Kwee, 32, heard from a colleague who had crowdsourced a list of opportunities and recruiter contacts to help Kwee navigate her search process.

But many remote workers don’t even have their colleagues’ phone numbers, and they don’t know who to go to for comfort or information. Beth Anstandig, a psychotherapist in the Bay Area, is seeing her clients bear the mental toll of this period.

“I hear that people are not sleeping, or sleeping two hours at a time on their couches,” said Anstandig, who is currently working with both clients conducting layoffs and those experiencing them, many of whom are distressed and overworked. “They’re in tears during our meetings together.”

Millions of American workers have never known a world without the specter of mass layoffs. That kind of instability has characterized the economy since the late 1970s and ’80s, when the notion of prioritizing shareholders above all else took root and companies embraced the strategy of growing fast and then cutting down quick. Some executives rushed to frame that tumult as intrinsic to corporate life: In 1996, Robert Eaton, chief executive of Chrysler Corp., said that downsizing and layoffs are part of the price of becoming more competitive.”. Now 85% of workers rank job loss as a top concern, according to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer.

Last year ended with job cuts across tech behemoths: Meta laid off more than 11,000 workers, or about 13% of its workforce, and Lyft laid off 13% of its workers. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said last week it plans to cut 12,000 jobs, or about 6% of its global workforce; Microsoft plans to cut 10,000 jobs, or 5% of its employees; and Spotify this week said it would cut 6% of its workforce. For many of these companies, these cuts followed years of free-flowing perks and flexible work arrangements that were part of what was called a “war for talent.”

“That is one of the great contradictions of corporate life,” Sucher said. “All corporations say ‘People are our most important asset,’ but they don’t really seem to believe that.”

“Calling someone ‘talent’ is quite different from calling them a person,” she added. “People aren’t a resource that can be depleted over time.”

Trip Barnes, 39, who works in Atlanta, has been laid off three times in the past three years, each experience bringing pangs of grief in a different form. In spring 2020, for example, he got an 8 a.m. call from his longtime boss and was quickly told that he was being laid off from his hospitality staffing role and would be hearing from human resources about the details later that morning.

“Everybody in the moment is trying to get out of the conversation — get it done quickly,” Barnes said. “It was all about ripping the Band-Aid off.”

Two weeks ago, he rewatched his favorite movie, “Up in the Air,” a 2009 film that follows a character played by George Clooney whose job is to ax people from corporations. Barnes resonated, painfully, with the treatment of workers as interchangeable and expendable.

And in some industries, especially media, many workers voiced a sense of resignation with the layoffs that swept their workplaces this month.

Phoebe Gavin, 37, who ran talent and development for Vox.com, said she wasn’t surprised when she found out Friday that she had lost her job. Ever since her role was cut at the storytelling website Upworthy in 2015, Gavin has been preparing for bouts of unemployment. She has put 10% of every paycheck into her savings account, building a nest egg. In 2019, she started a coaching business, which she devoted her Saturdays and early mornings to building, because she wanted to have a backup plan in case she had to deal with losing a job again.

“I don’t have any expectation for any company I work for to prioritize my interests,” Gavin said.

But management experts stress that businesses don’t have to navigate periods of economic turbulence so haphazardly.

Sucher noted that Nokia, when it was restructuring in 2011, gave the roughly 18,000 people who would be affected about a year of advance notice and offered them several pathways forward: The company would help them find new roles internally, get new jobs externally, start their own businesses or begin an educational program, among other options.

Nokia’s success metrics were whether people had a job lined up when they left the firm, and whether they were leaving with a positive enough impression that they would be open to returning in the future. Nearly two-thirds of people who left knew what their next steps would be.

“This is going to be the lasting impression that sticks with your previous employees, your current employees and all future employees,” said Tanner Hackett, chief executive of Counterpart, an insurance technology company that helps small businesses.

Hackett said companies frequently take a rushed approach to layoffs, as their shareholders watch other industry layoffs happening and expect the same, which contributes to a climate of alarm and also leaves employers open to being sued for wrongful termination or violations of the WARN Act, a 1998 labor law that requires large businesses to give advance notice of mass layoffs. In recent weeks, Hackett has watched some companies move reactively instead of purposefully in responding to the economic downturn.

Briana Boehmer, 44, drove to her office in Boulder, Colorado, on Jan. 18 for what she thought was a normal executive meeting at the fitness technology company where she was the chief operating officer and had spent nearly six years working long hours and weekends to support customers. When the meeting started, the founders seemed nervous.

After a few unclear minutes, the chief technology officer jumped in: “So are you saying we’re terminated?”

It was a peculiar moment for Boehmer, who had spent recent months following the news about chaotic layoffs at other tech companies.

“I’ve been hearing it on these podcasts and being like, ‘Oh that’s a shame, that’s a terrible way to do it,’” she said. “And then I’m like, ‘Oh, that just happened to me.’”

© 2023 The New York Times Company