When it comes to the future of a company, IT is often the first department to have an inkling of what is to come, in that sweeping changes often need to be planned out well in advance of implementation, whether that’s an expansion or contraction of the workforce, major changes to the building or job site, or even the closing down of the entire company.
Twelve years ago, during the height of the US economic housing crisis, I was enjoying making steady improvements at a multinational firm in San Francisco. I had been hired several months earlier as a combination end-user support and system administration role, and had worked to streamline processes, clear out the help desk ticket backlog, and start helping the company keep tabs on which department was using the most IT resources on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis. Our team was small—four of us and a manager—but we managed to support users on four continents at all hours. By all accounts the department was more productive than it had ever been.
Late one Friday afternoon our manager—himself a more recent hire than even I was—called over myself and the senior system engineer, asking us to be in at 6am on Monday. Without further explanation, he left for the weekend. The two of us looked at each other, confused. If he was going to fire us, could we at least be spared having to drive into the City so early in the morning? It wasn’t a very stress-free weekend, fearing what this mysterious Monday morning meeting could all be about.
Regardless we both arrived as requested, neither knowing what fate lay before us. Our manager met us inside and directed us to one of the more secluded conference rooms. “There are going to be some layoffs today,” he began, and both of our hearts sank. “This has to be done very carefully, surgically. Here is the plan,” he continued, seemingly ignorant of our distress.
He revealed a large whiteboard with a good 40 names on it. For a 100-person company, that was a lot of names. “Here are the people being let go today,” he gestured, “and when they’re meeting with their managers. We have a short window to lock everything down while they’re in that meeting.”
It became clear that we weren’t being fired, we were the technical resources making sure there were no opportunities for retaliation as people were let go. The names were broken into 15-minute windows, from 8:30 on through the day, and we noticed every organizational group was effected—even the other two members of our IT team were being let go. We were told, under no uncertain terms, to reveal what was happening, only that people with questions should speak to their managers.
At 8:30 each department head called in the first member being laid off, and the two of us started removing those people’s access to key systems as soon as they were up from their desk. “What are you doing on their computer?” a colleague asked, to which we gave the canned answer. This process continued every 15 minutes. It was difficult to keep a neutral face when the person asking was slated for termination, as often happened.
Even our two coworkers asked what we were up to, as they strolled in at their usual 9:00 late-start. “Projects for the boss” was really all we could mumble as our fingers flew across the keyboard, changing server passwords and setting up email forwards, then I manually disconnecting their PC from the network, WiFi, and changing the computer admin login, in case the employee had learned it.
After the first hour there was no question in anyone’s mind what was going on, and everyone saw our approach as the ill-fated steps of the Grim Reaper itself. By mid-afternoon everyone’s nerves were frazzled, but the layoffs were done.
I later learned that a global top 100 company was looking at buying our (not so) small internet startup and the bosses were not only ensuring that our overhead numbers looked good, but also used the opportunity to remove people who were fairly toxic in the office environment, even if they hadn’t strictly broken any rules. One member of our IT group fell soundly within that category, in fact.
Though several months later our team pulled a hellish 34-hour work weekend migrating data centers (sandwiched between two full 40-hour work weeks), that single day of layoffs was the most stressed I had ever been to that point in my professional life.
I learned a lot in my time working in the City, one floor beneath where Twitter was just starting to hit the mainstream, and much of it was about managing people, managing expectations, and what effects a culture and environment could have for a team.
There’s a lot to be learned from any given situation, and I’m happy to be able to look back and reflect on how that grueling day widened my perspectives and helped me become a better supervisor, manager, and business owner down the road; lessons I still benefit from today.
Header image from Pixabay.com, a great resource for royalty-free stock photos