Survive layoff era

Employees can remain motivated — even as companies downsize

I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area at the end of 2000, as the dot-com boom started to bust. I got four job offers in one month, started working and immediately became familiar with the L word: Layoffs.

For three years, I watched colleagues and friends stripped of their badges and escorted out of buildings. Sometimes they simply disappeared, quietly and unexpectedly. Like a scene from some sort of dark communist-era film.

I survived about 10 rounds of layoffs and six different bosses at a mid-sized high-tech company.

As a senior marketing manager, I was expected to remain creative, cut costs and do more with a lot less — at a time when I felt angry at the situation and the company I worked for.

Today, my training as a creativity and transition coach has given me a better understanding of what transpires during layoffs, and I can now share some suggestions to help corporations and their employees be more creative and productive despite challenging times.

What happens during layoffs?

Our brains are designed to interpret any type of change as a threat to our very existence. When change is introduced to us, the amygdala — the part of our primordial brains responsible for the flight or fight response — kicks in, and fear takes over.

During layoffs, most employees are overcome with fear of losing their jobs.

And even if they’re not afraid of unemployment, employees may feel resistance to performing creatively because they are dealing with huge changes within the organization.

While I performed well during layoff times, I wasn’t highly motivated. I felt traumatized by the way my company handled layoffs, the loss of close colleagues and the little value the company seemed to place on remaining employees.

While our workloads continued to increase, our voices seemed to grow smaller.

Creating a supportive environment

Some of the things I mention below may seem obvious, but might serve as reminders for some organizations. Providing support, creating a communicative work environment and encouraging fun and appreciation among employees are all ways to circumvent fear, so organizational creativity can flow once again.

Offer support

for laid-off employees

Knowing that former employees receive respect and support provides relief to remaining staff members.

Is it necessary to supervise workers while they clean out their cubicles and then escort them out of the building?

Whatever your standard procedure may be, make sure to think through how it will affect your remaining employees

Even if your company can’t afford outplacement services, providing an information package explaining where laid-off employees can find coaching, résumé writing and career placement support is greatly appreciated.

Offer support for existing employees

Acknowledge that the changes remaining employees are facing are big, real and stressful.

Gregory Berns, a neuro economist who conducted Skinner-like brain-imaging experiments to better understand decision-making, noted in his New York Times article “When Fear Takes Over Our Brains,” that “for many people, the wait was worse than the shock.”

In other words, the effects of not knowing whether you’ll be laid off can be scarier than being laid off.

To help your remaining employees through this fear, offer a list of coaching or counseling professionals they can turn to. If possible, consider expanding your employee assistance programs to fully or partially subsidize these services.

Lighten up the work environment

Fun, laughter and play encourage creativity. Create a corporate play initiative.

Invest in creativity workshops for different departments.

Or simply ask department heads to dedicate a few minutes in their team meetings to discuss small ways to make work more fun. How can each employee make his or her work more playful?

Ask questions, listen to the answers

According to Dr. Robert Mauer, author of “The Kaizen Way” and associate clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine, the way to bypass fear is to break goals down into tiny manageable actions.

Employees want to take an active role in making a big impact on the company, but you don’t want to overwhelm them even more by requiring them to solve large, ambiguous challenges.

Instead, ask for small specific solutions: “Can you think of a very small step you might take to improve the processes in your department?”

Remember that a very small idea can result in great changes, so listen carefully to employee responses.

Rita Farin, a 20-year marketing professional and entrepreneur, founded Flying Motion Creative. She is a certified creativity coach, consultant and facilitator, helping individuals effectively manage change and transition and organizations foster creativity in the workplace to improve business productivity.