Key tips for supporting remaining employees after workforce reductions

How resilient organizations/leaders support survivors of employee reductions.

6-minute read

Layoffs, furloughs, and Reductions in Force are challenging experiences for everyone involved.  Those who survive cuts often find themselves experiencing a range of emotions, from relief to guilt, sadness to anger, and everything in between.  How they respond, recover, and move forward significantly depends on the quality of support they receive.  

The strongest, most resilient organizations and leaders proactively consider how to support those remaining to help them move through the loss and change process successfully.  

Using LifeLabs Learning’s CAMPS Model (the five key brain cravings that correlate with employee engagement and may be at risk during times of change), here are our most high-impact tactics to support remaining employees after workforce reductions.  We suggest holding a strategy session with key stakeholders to choose which tools to implement and to make a plan for doing so.

Increase remaining employees’ sense of certainty:

  • Hold an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session.  Transparently share with employees as much information as possible to help them feel increased clarity and security.  Welcome questions, record the session, send a summary of key points in writing, and offer a way to follow up with questions.  In the moment, people may not retain information shared or consider implications fully.
  • Make ‘know / don’t know / will know’ statements.  Leaders can provide statements that include, “Here is what we know, here is what we don’t know, and here is when we will know and provide an update.”  It’s okay if you don’t know the answer to a question, but name a time by which the next announcement will be made.
  • Double-down on rituals and routines.  People crave predictability in times of uncertainty.  Make sure not to cancel things people are used to, like all-hands or team meetings.  Encourage managers to schedule or maintain weekly 1-1s, daily or weekly team standups, celebrations, and regular coworking times. 
  • Provide consistent updates.  Consider sending out a company-wide communication at the same time weekly with new information and updates.  Use it to celebrate successes, too, and to remind people how they can ask additional questions.  
  • Clearly communicate priorities. Given the reduction in employees, reset org-level, team-level, and individual priorities and definitions of role success so employees feel clear on what they are working toward.

Increase remaining employees’ sense of autonomy:

  • Conduct listening tours, and follow up.  Hold office hours and proactively meet with key stakeholders to hear how they and their direct reports are feeling about the changes and the current state of affairs.  Invite co-creation of solutions to challenges, and share how you intend to follow up.  Then, make sure to follow up to show how you took even a small part of people’s ideas or feedback on board. 
  • Offer choice.  Reduce the sense of fear and uncertainty people feel by offering choices (e.g., hours, projects, goals).  Added autonomy helps people feel a sense of control, which can be useful for coping.  
  • Clarify people’s autonomy in remaining and moving forward together.  At the very least, make salient people’s choice to stay by saying, “We need the group that’s here more than ever.  We hope you choose to stay.”

Increase remaining employees’ sense of meaning:

  • Communicate the meaning and impact of people’s work.  Clearly and frequently communicate how employees’ responsibilities link up to important company or team objectives, so that people are aligned and feel the value and meaning in the work they are doing.
  • Balance loss and hope statements.  Acknowledge the sadness of the situation, including your own, but also make space for looking forward, without invalidating the loss.  For example: “This is very much a time of loss. It is also a time to unite around our cause.”
  • Validate the role of leaders and managers.  Help them connect with the meaning and value of supporting people during a time of need.  Communicate the importance of successful people management to the overall success of the organization.  

Increase remaining employees’ sense of progress:

  • Design consistent small wins.  Harvard Business School researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer have found that a sense of small, continued progress significantly increases employees’ levels of happiness, intrinsic motivation, and performance.  Balance disappointment and loss by giving employees something to celebrate soon and often.  Demarcate progress by breaking up projects and goals into very small increments.  
  • Celebrate new learning and adaptivity.  Feeling a sense of personal development correlates highly with employee engagement, but people don’t always recognize their own growth, especially amidst change.  Celebrate new skills learned, and commend people for taking on new work and for their adaptability to change.
  • Provide training to employees on new responsibilities.  If employees have to do more with less and take on new responsibilities, make sure you are setting them up to feel success and progress by offering the necessary training to handle their new responsibilities well.  
  • Extract the learning.  For projects or responsibilities that are being eliminated, hold a formal wrap-up retro so that team members can celebrate past wins, honor their hard work, and extract learnings to apply in the future.  One team we worked with even held mini-memorials for eliminated projects! 

Increase r

emaining employees’ s

ense of social connection and fairness:

  • Share the decision criteria.  Employees will want to know why some positions were eliminated or reduced and if they might be impacted in the future.  Help remaining employees feel increased trust and fairness by providing insight into the strategic decision process so they understand why this was an unavoidable last resort.  For an exemplary model, see AirBnb Co-Founder and CEO Brian Chesky’s message to employees on May 5, 2020.
  • Build morale by demonstrating sacrifice and solidarity.  Before or after cuts, or in conjunction with cutting wages for remaining employees, we’ve seen highly-compensated execs take pay cuts or give up bonuses.  To demonstrate care for those leaving, companies can also provide severance, extended health benefits, and outplacement support. 
  • Provide manager training to increase connection and engagement.  Research conducted by the Boston Consulting Group suggests that some of a company’s budget should be spent on learning and development during times of crisis.  When managers learn how to support their direct reports successfully, not only do they feel progress and meaning themselves, but they help their employees feel a greater sense of connection and engagement.  The result?  Morale, productivity, and retention increase company-wide.
  • Rebuild trust through listening, acknowledgement, and empathy.  Leaders should encourage employees to share their perspectives and feelings with their managers.  Managers can ask how their direct reports are doing, model reflective listening, validate and empathize with any challenging feelings, thank people for sharing, ask for feedback, and take ownership and accountability when warranted.

People need time to process and move through loss and change at their own pace and in different ways.  At the same time, companies can help employees who remain after workforce reductions to adapt more quickly.  Organizations that create and carry out a targeted strategy to support these employees using some of the above tactics will be much more likely to weather workforce reductions successfully and emerge stronger than before.

LifeLabs Learning is here to support you through this challenging time.  See our full program menu, including our workshops on Workforce Reductions and Adaptivity & Resilience, as well as our free People Leader Resilience Playbook.