You’ve Heard of Quiet Quitting. Now Companies Are Quiet Cutting.
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You’ve Heard of Quiet Quitting. Now Companies Are Quiet Cutting.

Layoffs are down, but employers are still finding ways to cut jobs

By RAY A. SMITH
Tue, Aug 29, 2023 8:39amGrey Clock 4 min

Workers are waking up to emails and team-meeting requests with a jarring message: They aren’t fired, but their jobs are gone.

People on the receiving end of these memos describe running through a range of emotions, from relief that they’re still employed to a sense of dread that their bosses secretly want them to leave. They are also facing a labor market that isn’t as robust as a year ago, leaving many to believe that the best option is to stay put and hunt internally for a better fit.

Adidas, Adobe, IBM and Salesforce, among others, have reassigned employees as part of corporate restructurings. Mentions of reassignment, or similar terms, during company earnings calls more than tripled between last August and this month, according to data from AlphaSense, a financial-research platform.

“Reassigning is definitely a huge part of the dynamic right now,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm.

For companies that spent several years—and significant money—to hire top talent, reassigning workers to new roles can be a way to fill jobs vital to future plans while trimming costs associated with old strategies, say human-resources executives.

It can also be a waiting game. Employees to whom it would be costly to pay severance or months of unemployment benefits might decide to leave on their own if they feel stuck in a job they don’t want, executive coaches say.

U.S.-based companies announced 42% fewer job cuts in July than they did in June, Challenger said. July job cuts were also 8% lower than the prior-year period, marking the first time this year that monthly job cuts were lower than in 2022.

In interviews and online forums, many workers said they worried whether their reassignment meant they would eventually be pushed out the door. They also wondered how to work their way out of job purgatory and back into a position they actually want.

“I got the sense that it was like: ‘We appreciate everything you did so we didn’t lay you off, so you can either make the best of this or go find another job somewhere else,’ ” said Matt Conrad, a 34-year-old senior sales-enablement specialist at IBM who went through two reassignments in two years before landing his current role last fall.

In Conrad’s first reassignment in 2021, a manager scheduled a call to notify him that his manager role was eliminated. He was given a new job selling software he had no experience with, a move he said took a toll on his mental health.

Later that year, Conrad found a new job at IBM through a former manager that was better suited to his skill set. Then, in January 2022, that team was eliminated and he was reassigned again. Conrad asked the HR department to help him to find his remote, senior sales-coach role, a process that took six months.

Not quitting when he was reassigned was a matter of principle, he said: “I wouldn’t give in because I was a top performer and it just wasn’t fair.”

IBM didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Getting caught up in a reorganisation can create anxiety for workers, but it’s sometimes a genuine move on the company’s part to avoid letting people go, said Roberta Matuson, an executive coach and adviser to businesses including General Motors and Microsoft on human-resources issues.

“They’re basically signalling to you: ‘Look, this is the only way for me to have a job here for you, I need to reassign you, so wink, wink, if I were you, I would take the assignment,’ ” she said.

Other times, workers are purposefully pushed into jobs management knows they will be miserable in, prompting them to quit.

“They could be putting you out to pasture,” Matuson said.

Signals to look for include reassignment to a job that is far below the pay or skill level you currently have, Matuson said. Other warning signs: Being offered a role that requires relocating when your boss knows moving isn’t a viable option for you, or being reassigned to a division that’s rumoured to be on the chopping block.

Employees suspicious or nervous about a reassignment should ask their managers why, specifically, it’s happening and what the reassignment means for their career path, said Naomi Sutherland, a global lead of talent development with Korn Ferry, a consulting firm. The answers could reveal whether a job transfer is personal.

Without good information, “people are going to fill a void of information with whatever story they’re going to tell themselves,” she said.

Most of the time, there is little legal recourse for workers if their company reassigns them, employment lawyers say.

One exception is when a worker can demonstrate the reassignment was retaliatory, said Angela L. Walker, an employment attorney with Blanchard & Walker in Ann Arbor, Mich. The bar is high, she added. The employee would have to show prior evidence of discriminatory treatment or that they were unfairly singled out.

“I’ve seen lots of examples in my practice where employees are told they’re being let go in a ‘restructuring’ and it turns out that they’re the only one affected, or they’re the only one affected in their group,” Walker said.

Grant Gurewitz, 32, said it took time to adjust to a new role in Seattle earlier this year when his software company eliminated his position as head of growth marketing for employee experience in North America. He was given 24 hours to make a choice between two other jobs, or leave. He picked a global head of growth marketing role that came with more responsibilities but without a pay increase.

He chose to look on the bright side, because a global role probably would’ve been the next position he wanted and it builds on his existing skill set.

“There’s still a lot of runway for me to learn and grow and develop in this role, which is the glass-half-full approach to all of this that’s happened,” he said.



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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