Leading after layoffs

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Original article published here.

How I lead my team after the layoffs at SoundCloud

Workforce reductions are quite common in the startup world, and it is a process that is hard for everyone involved. Although the unemployment rate in the tech industry is very low, layoffs are part of it. For managers, layoffs are one of the most difficult situations to handle, often bringing morale to the bottom.

This is a story about how I managed my team after the layoffs at SoundCloud.

On July 6th, only 2 months after I became an Engineering Manager of the Discovery iOS Team and 32 months after working here, 173 colleagues of mine were laid off from SoundCloud.

It was devastating for everyone, for the people that had to go and for the people that were staying.

The bad news was announced at a company All Hands meeting on Thursday. I was sick, so I saw it from home. Being away helped me avoid a feeling of panic and to distance myself from all the negative emotions present in the office.

I immediately sent an email to my team, two women and four men, asking to stay together. I also made myself available for a call. It was a long hour. Every update I got on the process and their employment status, I shared in the same moment with them. It was a relief to know that we were all staying.

On Monday morning, instead of a sprint planning, we used the time to share how we felt. It is very important to hear how everyone feels, but without influencing their feelings. Everyone goes through the change at a different pace. Some of us had a positive perspective, which was inspiring for the others to look at the situation from a different angle.

Then, I shared all the information I had about the reorganization and how that will affect the team. It was very important to be transparent and to remove any speculation.

In such moments, it is also very crucial to reveal why they were not laid off.

My goal was to stay positive and open and to make the team feel safe and have trust in me.

On Monday afternoon, we had a retrospective meeting and I chose to do a gratitude retro. It was thrilling to give and receive gratitude while showing appreciation towards the others.

The notes I received from my team.

The week after the layoffs happened to be one of the warmest weeks in Berlin so far this year, so I proposed to my team that we take an afternoon off to spend time at one of the beautiful lakes in Berlin together. The team was very excited to get out of the office, enjoy the weather, and have some space to process all that had happened in the last week.

On Wednesday, we took blankets, drinks, snacks, M&M’s, swimming suits and we headed with the train to Schlachtensee. A few of us went swimming; others were just relaxing by the side of the lake.

Afterwards we played a game that helped us get to know each other better. In that very intimate setup, we were answering questions like:

  • What is your favorite book or movie?
  • What is your favorite food?
  • Favorite way to revive yourself during the workday?
  • What is a life goal you are working on?
  • One stressful thing about your job you wish you could improve?

It was such a nice way to connect and learn about each other a bit more. I went home relaxed, feeling happy to work with such good and kind people.

After this, the week went quite fast, and already on Monday we got the news about new investments. That was encouraging, but we were still missing a direction and a vision about the company.

It was a great moment for the team to mostly work on technical initiatives, to experiment, to try out new patterns, to learn and to fail. This really kept them motivated and focused.

On each of my 1:1’s I was emphasizing to use the time to learn and grow. And they all did!

On one of the next retros, as an icebreaker, I asked them, `Why should someone hire you?`. I was blown away by their answers. This reflection exercise helps by stopping for a moment to see who we are and acknowledge why we are good at what we do.

As the days were passing and things were improving at work, the team was getting better.

Now, I’m proud to say that I work with a healthy and fully functional team, which is based on trust and respect.

With the right mindset and support, difficult times are a great growth and learning opportunity for everyone. It is a time to reconsider things we took for granted and to think about new things that matter to us.

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