Welcome to remote layoffs, where workers are let go from the living room

Layoffs often conjure up visions of workers marching out of the office carrying a cardboard box stuffed with trinkets. But in a remote work world, it might just mean rolling out of bed to find an email that you never need to return to the office and then simply going back to sleep.

That’s been the case for thousands of workers who have been put on the chopping block within the past year; as layoffs continue to roll through the workplace due to rocketing interest rates, recession fears, and overhiring during the pandemic, more companies are encouraging people to work from home when they announce job cuts.

PepsiCo reportedly did as much when it conducted a round of layoffs last year. Google took the same route in January when letting go of 12,000 employees over email, encouraging workers to work from home to “absorb this difficult news.” And earlier this week, McDonald’s told its U.S. and some of its international corporate staff to work from home for three days so it can deliver layoff messages remotely. 

Welcome to the era of remote layoffs, in which bosses who are sometimes hell-bent on having their workers in office at least part of the time are happy with letting them work from home when they need to let them go. It may sound like a tactic to save face or avoid an awkward march out, but UPenn Wharton School management professor Peter Cappelli says it might actually be the better move.

“If you’re a remote worker anyway, the idea that we’re gonna call you into the office just to lay you off is kind of cruel,” he tells Fortune

Remote layoffs can also help workers privately process the news and all the complicated emotions that come with it. While the stigma surrounding layoffs is eroding, some workers still associate it with shame as they walk out with that cardboard box. Dealing with the impact from home can help alleviate some of that. 

“It used to be that folks would be called into a conference room with the windows papered over and then have to walk back to their desk to get their things and leave with their heads down,” a source familiar with the decision behind Mcdonald’s remote layoffs told Fortune. “I think the goal here is really to provide dignity, confidentiality, and comfort to the impacted colleagues.”

Still, though, the idea of being laid off over Zoom or email can sound harsh—especially when workers are immediately cut off from accessing their computer. But it’s all part of the evolution of layoffs, which Cappelli says used to be temporary and focused on unionized and contracted blue-collar employees. The permanent layoffs that we’re familiar with today—like those we’ve been seeing rock the white-collar workforce in industries like tech and finance—have actually only been around have since the 1980s.

Conducting these in person has been considered the professional standard for a while, often believed to be the more humane approach for the worker who has put time and effort into the company. But as the growing number of remote layoffs prove, the landscape has changed since then.

From voicemail to the office to Zoom

While Zoom layoffs might sound like a new thing, they’re not necessarily a wild transformation to the way people are let go. Workers used to be laid off via voicemail (remember voicemail?) a generation ago, Cappelli points out. It wasn’t received well and considered to be bad practice.

So, face-to-face layoffs were encouraged as a way to provide greater support in ensuring the employee would be okay, such as offering assistance and answer questions. But Cappelli believes the intentions behind this were more about accountability than anything. 

A lot of the idea behind doing it face-to-face as the right thing “was more about not being chicken as leaders,” he says, adding that the reality is that leaders have always delegated layoffs rather than telling employees themselves to pack their bags.

And, Cappelli says, companies cut down on offboarding after the Great Recession and have come to rely on their corporate lawyers’ advice. It’s made in-office layoffs more cold than what they originated as, he adds, often involving escorting workers out of the building. 

“It’s just really contractual, and really impersonal,” Cappelli says. “And if you’re going to do that, it’s surely better to let people take the news someplace where they don’t have the public embarrassment of walking out of this office and having to keep their emotions under control in front of their boss or somebody else.”

The idea that remote layoffs aren’t in “best practice” are therefore rooted in old assumptions of the assistance that bosses and HR used to provide, Cappelli says. With these resources gone, it seems like the need for in-office layoffs has faded. At that point, “Why is it better to do it in public?” he asks.

Regardless, there really is no good kind of layoff in the eyes of workers, considering that it means they’re out of the job—and that it’s typically the result of management gone wrong. But tone and execution when the news is delivered matters, experts recently told Fortune’s Megan Leonhardt.

So too, it seems, does the location. McDonald’s bringing everyone in wouldn’t necessarily bring about a more pleasant scenario, as many would just be in the office waiting for the foot to drop. Calling typically remote workers into the office simply to be laid off, Cappelli says, would be humiliating.

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