When Teams Shrink

Coping With Layoffs, and Moving on

When Teams Shrink - Coping with Layoffs, and Moving On

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Small teams still have big potential.

You breathe a big sigh of relief. Your company has just gone through a heavy round of layoffs, and you're one of the lucky ones. You still have a job.

Many of your co-workers, however, don't. You and the other survivors watch sadly as they clean out their offices, and walk slowly out of the building, carrying boxes of personal possessions.

Now, the rest of you are experiencing a range of emotions ranging from guilt to relief, anger, and depression. And most of you are anxious and worried – after all, how do you know you won't be next?

If you've had to watch team members lose their jobs, then you know how hard it can be. But coping, and succeeding, in the aftermath can be difficult. There are several impacts, both practical and emotional, that can result from company layoffs.

In this article, we'll look at what you can expect to experience when members of your team lose their jobs. And we'll show you how to handle the ups and downs of dealing with a reduced team – including the loss of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs).

The Practical Impact of Layoffs

When co-workers are laid off, the obvious question is, who's going to do all of their work? Of course, the things they did may no longer be needed – the work may have been automated, or a slump in sales may mean that there is less customer service work to be done. In situations where work is shared by a team – such as a pool of legal secretaries in a law office – there may be as much to do as ever. But do those who are left have the KSAs, and the capacity, to do the work that needs to be done?

Getting yourself, and your team, trained and ready to take on new responsibilities can definitely be challenging, especially as your people are probably not going to be paid extra for it.

If you're a team leader, you will need to redistribute and reprioritize the work that each of your team members is to be responsible for. For instance, servicing customers is usually a top priority for companies, but a brochure redesign project could probably be put on the back burner, if people are overloaded.


If you're losing people with important skills, but there's time before they actually leave, ask if they'd be willing to train other staff members in their daily tasks. You'll need to find a way of engaging them, though – otherwise their motivation to help might not be particularly high!

You can find out more on reprioritizing team activities in our article on Rationalizing Team Activities.

Tips for Dealing With the Practical Impact

  • Avoid preaching to your team that they're lucky to have a job – Yes, they might feel lucky. But they're also likely to be stressed, overworked, and demoralized. Make an effort to talk to each of your people daily. This can really make a difference to their attitude and productivity.
  • Look for low-cost or no-cost ways to train the surviving team – For example, online classes or training courses may be a good option.
  • Communicate the positive aspects of taking on new work – Remind yourself, and your team that, although taking on all of this extra work may not be fun, it might pay off later on. After all, you're learning valuable new skills, as well as proving to your company that you can handle extra responsibilities. Your added workload may open the door to new opportunities.
  • Manage expectations – Make sure your boss, or your client, knows in advance that some things are not now going to get done, or may not be done as quickly as they used to be.

It's always worth having written procedures in place for important tasks that are done regularly. They're particularly valuable, however, when individuals have suddenly been removed from your team, and when those who are left need to know how to do something they haven't done before.

The Emotional Impact of Layoffs

Even though you're not the one who lost a job, chances are you'll still experience a "grieving period" for your former colleagues. And with that grieving will probably come a range of emotions.

Psychologists call this survivor's guilt, and it's common after traumatic events like accidents. You can recognize survivor's guilt when you start wondering why your team members got laid off and you didn't (and you feel bad about this).

Some people might even feel survivor's envy. This is when you think you might have been better off if you'd gotten laid off too, and you're envious of those who were.

Both reactions are completely normal.

Here are some other emotions that you might also experience:

  • Anger.
  • Fear.
  • Sadness.
  • Frustration.
  • Relief.
  • Anxiety.
  • Hopelessness.
  • Resentment.
  • Cynicism.

It's important to realize that you, and the rest of your team, will need time to process these emotions and move on.

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Layoffs, and survivor's guilt, can quickly lower morale, increase absenteeism, and even increase staff turnover. Communication is key to moving yourself, and your team, through the grieving process.

Tips for Dealing With the Emotional Impact

  • Communicate with remaining staff. Make sure you communicate with your people about what's happening with the organization. The less everyone knows, the more anxious they're likely to be – so make sure they know as much as possible. Clearly this is difficult if the future's bleak, however you need to talk as openly as you can about what the future holds.
  • Reach out to those who were laid off. It's easy for layoffs to destroy team relationships. But try not to ostracize your colleagues who've been laid off. Yes, you might feel awkward talking to them when you have a job and they don't, but you'll all feel better if you make the effort to reach out, even if it's just to see how they're doing. See if you can help them find a new job through your own connections, and don't forget to use social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook.
  • Acknowledge the emotional impact and then move on. It can also be helpful to have a "survivor" meeting soon after the layoffs. Use this opportunity to acknowledge the team members who were laid off, and give those remaining the opportunity to talk about their feelings.

    However, as team leader, you also need to make clear that the team has to move on, and a good way to do this is to move into a "working" session, perhaps to reprioritize tasks and responsibilities as a group. Working like this can help reestablish team bonds and improve morale.

Our article Life After Job Loss has more information on the five stages of grief that people can go through after being laid off. And our article on Toffler's Stability Zones can help you find peace during the pre and post-layoff period of disruption at work.

Key Points

Being one of the ones who are left after a round of layoffs can be hard. Remaining team members often feel "survivor's guilt," yet they also need to find the motivation to take on new responsibilities and higher volumes of work, whilst dealing with these difficult emotions.

To help yourself and your team move on, give your team as much information as you can about their job situation and allow some time to "grieve" for lost colleagues. However, you then need to move on by focusing on your priorities, rebalancing people's workloads, and managing the expectations of internal or external clients.

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Comments (3)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi JamesDavis676,

    Time and patience, as well as due care to the impact on those remaining, are important strategies. Thank you for your comment.
  • Over a month ago JamesDavis676 wrote
    you have to take time to put your team back in order
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Lay-offs are usually part of a bigger restructuring which will result in a varieyt of changes - not only in the number of people doing the job. Keeping focused on what you have to do and still keeping your Work/Life balance under control may be crucial for you to keep your stress levels manageable (see our article called "The Wheel of Life" at http://www.mindtools.com/community/page ... HTE_93.php ).