Death of an Office

On January 30th of this year I heard the words dreaded by many during these tough financial times: mass layoff. Our employer had called an all hands meeting for our office, which was not wholly unexpected as we were in the habit of holding all hands meetings on the last Friday of the month for company updates. This was different though, and it was obvious something was up because folks from the home office had flown in. The message was clear, direct, and immediate: the Indianapolis office was to be closed, and the meeting served as our mandatory sixty day notice.

I thought it might be useful to document what I observed during this sixty day period. Who knows, if your business is looking to perform a mass layoff or site closing, maybe you can get some use out of this.

The Indy office was composed of around 50 employees. There were training staff, inside sales, technical support, engineering and IT, product management, and manufacturing management. A severance package was offered to everyone at the site. The severance pay called for one week of pay for each completed year of service, with a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of ten weeks. They rounded down, so my three years and ten months of service called for three weeks of severance. Some people were offered an opportunity to move to the West coast to stay with the business, possibly in a new role. Some, especially those with daily contact with customers, were asked to go home immediately and issued a check for the full sixty days plus severance payment. One member of the staff sought and received permission to spin-off the product line into a new business. The engineering staff was asked to continue to come to work until a new job was found or the sixty days expired. The engineering staff would be paid for time at work, but once a new job was found, would be terminated at that time.

The reaction was grim. The following week most of the staff who were not asked to go home still came into work. Many of us made calls to recruiters we knew in the area and setup mini job fairs in the office. Our employer was very gracious in allowing recruiters to come on-site, as well as allowing folks to use their time and resources for seeking a new job. This only made sense: the company had no interest in the staff continuing to work on a product that they were abandoning, and it was not worth the effort to re-assign these folks as temporary help to on-going projects. At the end of the first week, most folks were sad due to the layoff, but upbeat about finding a new job. A couple had even found new work in that short time. The spinoff effort was taking shape, and the leader of that effort was hoping to receive good support from the staff before the end of the sixty days.

Week two was a different story. In week two the recruiting activity slowed way down, and people found themselves sitting at their desk just waiting for the phone to ring. Some had simply stopped coming into the office, and others only arrived for a few hours to put in some face time. I tried to keep my days full through calls to recruiters, interviews, and exercising my network of contacts. At the end of the week I checked the source control server to see what kind of activity there had been during the week: zero commits. Nothing was getting done. To compound things, at the end of week two the local employment office arrived to provide a two day seminar. It was late, out of touch with our staff, and provided a message that boiled down to, "This is a terrible time to be looking for a job". Those left in the office were demoralized. In addition, a handful of folks that were associated with the spinoff effort were busy excitedly discussing that effort and making the moves necessary to help it be a success. This was happening in front of a lot of people that were not part of that effort, and it only served to further dishearten them. One other factor that was irritating the engineers: why were they not going to be compensated for the full sixty days when others were guaranteed that pay? Some folks were asked to leave and given the full pay for sixty days, but an engineer who found a job would not receive the same benefit. The argument was that by allowing engineers to continue to come to the office and receive the benefit of the mini job fairs and career services that this offset the benefit of a cash payout. Some found it extremely unfair, and it caused tension.

Week three was more of the downhill slide. Only a handful of people were coming to the office. The recruiting rush was over, and no one but those involved in the spinoff were interested in working on the product. Some of the engineers who had found new work were hoping to quietly disappear and "double-dip" their income for the remainder of the sixty days. I had received my first offer at this point, and decided to just be honest. The offical policy was reiterated that I should either not start on the new position until after March 31st (the end of the 60 days) or start earlier and submit my resignation. I turned down that offer, so it wasn't an issue, but another engineer in the same position accepted his. He did not want to resign, but the forms were drawn up for him anyway. Towards the end of the week the press releases regarding the spinoff were starting to trickle out. One press release noted the spinoff date as March 16th. That got folks thinking that the original closing date of March 31st might not be good anymore.

By the end of the first month, the general consensus among the few folks still coming to the office was that the office should close early. For those seeking a job, coming to the office was providing no real benefit. An inventory audit had been performed. Some of the equipment had been boxed up for use by the spinoff, some sold off at a discount, and a bit was still in use. All of the personality and life of the office was gone as everyone had taken their knick-knacks and personal items home. The office was like a mortally wounded animal looking for a comfortable place to lie down and die. I made a count around lunch time that Friday, and there were 11 people in the building.

Week five was more of the same. In the middle of week six the announcement was made that the office would be closing two weeks early. A rep from the home office arrived to answer any final questions. We turned in our badges and keys and said goodbye to our office, our employer, and our technology for good.

If you are a business that is facing a site closure, I have some advice for you. Based on my experience with this layoff, I recommend the following:
  • Act quickly, and decisively
One thing I appreciated about this layoff was that there was no period of waffling, trying to decide how to approach the layoff (as either an across the board RIF, site closure, furlough, or something else). The decision was made and put into action quickly and effectively.
  • Don't make different conditions for different groups
Giving some folks the full sixty days pay plus severance and forcing others to come to work to receive pay caused a lot of unnecessary strife. If you are going to send people home, send them all home. If you are going to ask people to stay, ask them all to stay. It is understandable that some folks, such as the facilities and IT folks, will need to be incentivized to stay at the office to manage the transition, but don't create unnecessary differences in how people are let go.
  • Close quickly
I did appreciate the opportunity to visit with recruiters the first two weeks after the announcement, but I think that could have been handled in such a way that all employees were sent home immediately. Aside from time spent with recruiters, nothing was getting done in the office, and there was really no need for the majority of people to be there. It only provided the opportunity for already edgy people to feed off of the negativity of others. That isn't good for anybody. If you are going to perform a mass layoff, get those affected out of the office ASAP.
  • Expect nothing
This goes for both the employer and the employee. For the employer, don't delude yourself into thinking that the people you just let go are going to continue working on anything. For the employee, beware of thinking that the employer owes you anything.
  • Don't burn bridges
The easy thing to do for the employer or the employee would be to make some statement to the effect of, "I didn't need them anyway". Worse, for the layoff victim, it would be tempting to jump on some social media service like facebook or twitter and start bashing the employer. Don't do it. It might make you feel better for a few minutes, but you might not ever be able to take those words back, and you never know how that can come back to bite you.

So what happened to me? Fortunately, I found a great job with a new employer in such time that I never had an interruption in pay. It wasn't how I wanted to start my year, but I must say that I think everything has worked out fairly well in my case.


D-nice said...

I watched Office Space last night and thought of your post! I could just picture a group of guys from you office after week one taking that fax machine to some random field and killing it!

Jade Mason