Leading Your Technology Organization After a Layoff

Having survived the 2000 and 2008 tech downturns, Brian is sharing what helped him deal and strengthen his teams.

Leading Your Technology Organization After a Layoff

It’s no secret that layoffs are widespread in the tech sector. One quick look at the news or this layoff tracker will give you all the evidence you need to understand the scope and magnitude of the change in the industry. Whether you attribute it to years of aggressive and speculative growth, irresponsible management, Covid, the fed, or something else, a market correction was bound to happen sooner or later, much like it did in 2000 and 2008. History is doomed to repeat itself, and here we are.

Having survived both the 2000 and 2008 tech downturns, I thought it would make sense to discuss some of the things that have helped me in dealing with these situations in the past that ultimately led to stronger teams and companies, acknowledging that in the short-term, things were *not* better.

I’ve been in both unfortunate positions of having to lay people off and also have been laid off myself. It’s an incredibly gut-wrenching experience on both sides of the table. 

(Sidenote: If you’re new here and are wondering "Who the heck is this Brian guy?" or about my work prior to starting OpenContext, read my Q&A article here.)

Much has been written about what to do if *your* position was eliminated, but I don’t find much out there aimed at coping for the survivors. This post is from the manager's perspective faced with a reduction of their team(s). We’ll discuss things you can do as a manager to help everyone involved.

8 Things Good Leaders Do After a Layoff

In tough times, the focus must remain on the people. It’s bad out there, and companies are making significant cuts. We’re seeing it across large swaths of companies. 

Keep your focus on the people. Those people who remain now have a much harder job to do.

1. Support your departing employees

While this isn't the primary focus of the article, it is number one because people are number one. Always. 

This isn’t just HR’s job. In fact, in my experience, this is where HR typically shines in the “protect the company at all costs” mode for most organizations. I’ve worked with some fantastic HR teams, but I’ve also worked with some completely horrible ones. I have no idea what you’re working with here but be aware, you may well be the only good contact at the company to the person or people who have been laid off.

There's a great chance that many of the impacted folks are people you recruited into the organization. These people didn’t just “work for you”; they trusted you enough to take the job in the first place. It’s important to honor that trust and help and support them as much as possible.

Acknowledge their emotions. It’s *extremely* hard on people going through a layoff. I’ve been there. Many folks will draw the conclusion that they weren’t good enough, that this reflects on them as a person, and it’s a huge hit emotionally. Throw in the financial impact of supporting themselves and their families, and it’s a whirlwind of emotions that can cut profoundly.

Use your network and be a reference to help them find new jobs. Ask your network for support in finding ideal positions for folks. Proactively write letters of recommendation on LinkedIn.

Check-in, offer to take them to coffee. Be a sympathetic ear, and help with resume edits.

Understand and accept that it may take time before they readily accept any kind of support you’re offering… this is normal, and some people will never want to speak to you again, do not take it personally.

2. Support the survivors

This isn't just hard on the people leaving. This will be a difficult and emotional time for everyone involved, including your surviving team. Acknowledge that people will need space and time to process. Also, acknowledge that these factors and others will be weighing on them:

  • Increased workload
  • Friends are gone
  • Fear, uncertainty, and doubt about their own jobs set in.
  • Questions about company stability
  • Uncertainty around workplace satisfaction/enjoyment
  •  Loss of engagement

Also, know that some may consider leaving as well, and some may “check out”

3. Identify in-flight work that needs to land safely.

This is a very important and tactical step. In the short term, you’re playing air-traffic-controller. You must identify all the planes in the air and get them to ground safely. In the longer term, you’re attempting to do the right thing for the team and the business.

Do you have a good idea of all the projects and initiatives that are underway in your organization? Key questions must be answered about them and a plan needs to be constructed for each one:

  • Who is in charge of this project?
  • Is it still important to the business?
  • Do we have capacity in light of staffing changes?
  • Who is depending on the project? Are they still?
  • What is the impact of a delay?
  • Is this a critical business process that will harm the company if it doesn't get done?

Enough about projects though, let’s talk about the people. For each impacted individual, you need to know what they were working on and responsible for. This is critical. We find that folks have fingerprints on things all over the company. Many of which are not assigned to them. People love to help, and the business is, more often than not, reliant on these undocumented, underground activities that aren't well known. 

I can't possibly enumerate all the considerations here but you get the idea. You’ve got projects and activities that were conceived prior to the significant change to your organization. Business processes that rely on people that may no longer be here. You must reevaluate and respond to the situation.

4. Catalog all your code components, services, and activities

In a perfect world, you’d understand all the aspects of your business from top to bottom. Code, People, Teams, Services, Infrastructure, Security, etc… but today our systems are far too complex to be able to know all of this off-hand. We must rely on documentation, diagrams, architecture, organizational knowledge, etc.

Not only must we know about “all the things” we must also know about how they interact with each other, who supports them, where is the documentation, which products they support, etc. All of this is crucial context required to support the environment.

Cataloging all of these aspects manually is an incredibly daunting task, but services like OpenContext can integrate with your code repositories and cloud providers to do this automatically. Building out the relationship graph between the assets and allowing you to understand how the environment works together. Identify all the critical dependencies across teams and discover key contributions across the organization.

This is ultimately why we built OpenContext. Getting a complete view of the environment from Infrastructure, Code, People, Teams, and Security. An under-the-hood view of the shape of the organization.

5. Keep tabs on engagement. Identify and support your most critical contributors

In my experience, engagement is a top indicator of team morale. Most managers I talk with believe they understand what makes their people tick and they have a good understanding of what a strong baseline of engagement looks like. But do they really? How do you quantify engagement?

I’ve worked with a number of organizations where “the loudest voice wins” or “those who show up get to make the decisions”. These memes are laced with dysfunction and miss out on the fact that incredible amounts of engagement happen under the hood without direct visibility to management. A lot of managers would assume that a pullback in this type of engagement means something is wrong but does it?

In tough situations like layoffs, it can be incredibly difficult for survivors to trust the safety of the organization. You will often see a pullback in what I’d call “extroverted engagement” but if you look under the hood, you’ll still see an increase in activity. How do you measure this?

You can’t latch on to one specific metric here. I’ve seen managers try to hang their hats on one or two things and it always ends badly. You have to look at the complete context of the situation. Oftentimes we find people contributing to projects and code outside of their formally assigned responsibilities. This is a product of the important relationships between people in your company. There’s a very good chance that key projects and responsibilities have been or are being supported by more people than you realize.

I can’t tell you exactly which metrics make sense for your teams, but I can caution you to choose your metrics very carefully. For me and my teams, DORA metrics are fantastic. We measure Deployment Frequency, Mean Lead Time for Changes, Mean Time to Recover, and Change Failure Rate.

6. Rationalize your focus

Has the vision of the company changed? How are you shifting focus? What really matters in the new environment? Are you reprioritizing based on different business fundamentals?

Be sure your focus is clear going forward. That you’re able to keep the team together and united behind it. This will empower decision-making in a time of change—removing yourself as a bottleneck. 

7. Rationalize your team structures

Based on the new focus, what does an ideal team look like for your company?

If you did layoffs greater than 20%, there’s an extremely good chance you need to realign your teams and ownership. Your organization doesn't need more watered-down teams, it needs strength. There’s strength in strong teams.

8. Support yourself

The urgency and magnitude of the situations often require us as leaders to be solid, steadfast, and always available. We must continue to inspire and lead our teams, but there’s a reason they tell you to put your oxygen mask on before you help others.

This is hard on you too. Seek out help if it’s emotionally draining. There’s no shame and many benefits in acknowledging the situation. I’ve seen managers bottle up emotions only to have them come flooding back at precisely the wrong time. 

Layoffs suck. 

There are no mincing words here. It’s a lousy situation across the board. As leaders, it’s how we react that matters.

Working in a business after significant staffing changes is hard. The number one thing right now is rationalizing how your organization serves its mission in the broader business.

Tools like OpenContext can help you understand the shape of your technology organization and product pipeline. Mapping people, teams, code, infrastructure, and products through GitHub auto-discovery can be hugely beneficial. 

We can help! Try OpenContext for free for 30 days, and let us show you the benefits of shared context across teams.

Bring all components of your business together with the last tool you’ll need to grow your product.

OpenContext was built to automatically catalog everything from coding, infrastructure, security/threats, people, teams, and more by integrating with all of your code repositories.

What could shared context mean for your SDLC?

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