As Covid-19 pandemic is inflicting pain to the economy, many companies are experiencing uncertainties and have started to lay off their employees. 

Tech companies who do not have a large cash cushion or are still in growth mode are forced to make the cuts as well, in addition to those in more severely impacted sectors like travel.

Airbnb, Uber, Tripadvisor, Bird – the list goes on and is captured by this voluntary database: http://layoffs.fyi/.  Close to home, Careem, Oyo, Zilingo, Klook, Traveloka, Oriente – and of course many others who have not made it to the press. 

Layoffs are handled differently, while people complain how Zilingo did it, it is probably still far better than what happened at Bird. Companies like Tripadvisor and Airbnb, whose business is all but decimated in the pandemic but who still sit on a comfortable cash cushion, do things in a much better (and definitely humane) way. Even you have more intriguing stories like that of GetYourGuide, which now feels fortunate to be an European company. 

DIY layoffs 

Without judging who is right who is wrong from the headlines, I would like to share some of my personal experiences … executing (implementing) layoffs, a few of them.  

The first happened about five years ago, when I was managing an operations team of a Rocket Internet company in Singapore. For whatever reason we were having a tough time and had no choice but to lay off about 40% of the staff. 

Truth be told, none of us had the experience of doing that – and we were not in a position to hire expensive consultants like George Clooney. Like everything in a series A+ startup, you do it DIY. 

So we sat down, with a number (of total payroll cost post layoff) and the list of names on hand. I have to admit that no matter how strong you pretend in front of your bosses, direct reports and investors, this is NOT easy. 

Because you know every single person and you know that they are all committed and have been working with you through many (smaller) challenges before. You go out for lunch together, and you get drunk at company gatherings together. 

I suppose that is why bigger companies choose consultants – they have no emotional attachments to the people and can execute these better, theoretically. But they are also human beings – again watch George Clooney in Up in the Air. 

I also suppose the recent debate about doctors deciding who to give the limited ventilators to is similar in spirit (but of course very different in emotional burden and responsibility). 

We spent a few hours working out the list, and that few hours felt like ages – because we were all exhausted after this. But the more daunting task was ahead – communicating to the people who were affected directly, and people who would stay (and of course also emotionally affected). 

So the process, town hall, individual meetings. It took an entire day even if only 25 people were affected. Some cried, some were angry (at us) – I had to pretend that I was calm in all these. I am sure a few other colleagues who were executing this with their respective teams felt the same. 

Getting easier the next time?

Unfortunately, in startups the nature of the risk determined that was NOT my last layoff. I have done it three more times since then, the latest being in September 2019. 

I suppose it is the same for big companies – it is just they do not do it that frequently. 

A few times, the layoffs happened in satellite offices outside Singapore, where we flew in to spend a few days to work with the local management and the team to go through the process. 

I can tell you emotionally – it DOES NOT get easier the more you do it. You only get better at executing more efficiently, handling potential issues, and not getting too drunk afterwards. 

In the one in September 2019, when the town hall was held, people started sighing, and some girls bursted in tears. 

At that point in time – I turned and looked at the Director standing next to me, I knew he was trying to hold back his emotions as well and frankly speaking, he couldn’t bring himself to announce this to everyone. 

I was one of them to conduct the one to one session with my fellow colleagues, discussing either pay cuts or severance. There were times where I was at the verge of breaking down – looking at them cry, and some were even upset and some even angry (yes just like the first time). 

I was struggling so hard to handle my own emotions because I knew I had to be professional to earn their faith and trust that we will help them through this difficult period. The hardest part, you know what, is you can’t guarantee that things will be better after this round, because circumstances were beyond your control. 

Colleagues, alumni, friends 

I remain friends with some of the people who were laid off (by me) five years ago. We even gather for a meal every half a year or so, talking about old days, updating each other, and (trying to) advise each other. 

I suppose, that is the best outcome for everyone, and for me – knowing that the experience we had together was cherished, and everyone is in a better place compared to what they had before our experience working together. 

In my last layoff, we had a last meal (overlooking a pool in a boutique restaurant), and spent the whole afternoon in the office together. Someone picked up a guitar, and people started singing along – those who would stay and those who would leave. 

I just wanted to tell all of you – being upset with a layoff is normal, but don’t close yourself off. You will realise this is a phase and a challenge and it will be over soon. Layoffs are traumatic, but once it settles, you will see that there’s positives to take from these experiences.

Lastly, I wish everyone the best and we will overcome this together! 

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at hello@mworks.asia.