Last year, at this time, I published a piece with password protection that discussed the concept of organic downsizing in the workplace. This morning, I decided to open up that post to public viewing and write this second piece to continue the discussion.
Organic downsizing is a concept that I have been using to denote the ways in which corporations downsize through heavy workplace constraints that make it nearly impossible for the majority of workers to stay employed by the company. By putting hiring freezes in place for long periods of time, companies are able to squeeze workers until they break. CEOs may defend themselves by saying that pushing people to the point of frustration is not their intention and that they are merely trying to do what is best for the company by ‘cutting back’ for short periods of time, but the outcome of a streamlined workforce is looked upon as positive from the perspective of the C-level folks.
Natural Attrition + Pressure = Organic Downsizing
Organic downsizing may seem like natural attrition, but I would argue that natural attrition is what organic downsizing wants to be. Natural attrition occurs when there is no obvious pressure on workers to leave. They leave for better opportunities, for family or personal reasons, or they retire. With organic downsizing, workers are put under pressure for periods of time, causing them high levels of stress and/or anxiety. People who oversee, but do not do, the daily work, put policies in place that the workforce cannot handle and, over time, the stress of increased productivity with fewer resources becomes a strain on the workforce. At a certain point, individuals find it to be too much and they leave. When this occurs, they are not replaced by new employees.
Using the term organic may seem like it lets the C-level people off the hook because it seems natural for the attrition to proceed, but in this sense, organic merely means there is no direct downsizing through employee cuts. The pressure that is applied, through hiring freezes, is enough to force lower workforce numbers over time. Eventually – this falls apart though – because the people who stick around are more overwhelmed than any of the workers who left were. Honestly – when put that way – it sounds like organic downsizing is merely a means to an end. That end being the eventual closure of the business.
In the current climate of a pandemic and recession, the company that I work for has decided to furlough part of the workforce, cut pay for the remaining staff by 20-40%, put bonuses on hold, and temporarily stop contributing to our 401K match, all in the name of the bottom line. It is understandable that the company would have to shift to account for the losses, but these cuts shine a brighter light on issues we were already facing prior to this current state of the world. The company that I work for, within the universe of op-cos that the parent company owns, has been struggling with staffing for years. We have been going through natural attrition, as any company does, but for 2 years we have also been under a hiring freeze which has meant that the current workforce is covering work for approximately 3-5 employees each.
Voila! Organic Downsizing
Example: I am a Project Manager by trade. In 2017, I was managing internal projects and implementations for my employer. In order to streamline the process, the C-levels decided to combine the PM position with Business Analysis, so I became a PM/BA. Eventually this title morphed into CSM (Client Success Manager) which was more of a kitchen sink term and fitting for what was to come. As a CSM, I was still mainly focused on PM/BA tasks, but slowly other parts of the business started to creep in. When a new release came out, we would be tasked with an ‘all hands on deck’ for testing, directive. Add QA to the list. The trainer quit. Add training to the list. The mailing specialist quit. Add mailings to the list. The documentation specialist was downsized (inorganically) to save money. Add documentation to the list. At last count, my CSM job now includes 7 full-time positions that I complete work for within a 40 hour per week schedule. I REFUSE to work overtime as I am a salaried employee. So – I complete what work I can in 40 hours (and, of course, I have significantly increased my output over time because that is what one must do when tasked with 7 jobs – I am not a slacker, after all) and hope that someday we will be able to hire a trainer and a documentation specialist and a mailing specialist and a quality assurance technician and additional account managers and a manager for the account managers and on and on and on, until I crack. And this was all PRE pandemic. With the current cuts, CSMs have also picked up the work of other CSMs and AMs who have been furloughed, essentially doing even more work for reduced pay. GOOD TIMES.
My company relies on the fact that I am a hard worker. They rely on the fact that I was raised by hard workers who encourage me to stick it out. They rely on the fact that I need a paycheck and therefore will continue doing ALL THE THINGS until they no longer need me to and, at that time, they will downsize me. They rely on the fact that I will most likely hang on to the bitter end because I have no choice. But – I do have choices. I have 3 upper-level degrees (2 BAs and an MLIS) that gave me knowledge beyond any of the current jobs that I am ‘filling in for’ and even for the job I was hired to do (who can even remember what the fuck that was anymore?!) So – perhaps I will be part of the organic downsizing. Perhaps I will find something new and move on – not through natural attrition.
What’s Wrong With Organic Downsizing?
There are myriad problems with this method of streamlining, but now I would like to focus on three key issues with organic downsizing, for your consideration.
1 – Humans
What most C-level folks seem to forget is that the workforce is made up of human beings. Workers are not just numbers on a spreadsheet or bots (robots don’t code, yet) to be shifted around here and there until the numbers work. Workers are human beings. Organic downsizing is an inhumane way to lower your expenses. Outright cuts to the workforce may seem harsh, but they are actually more inhumane than cutting back a little at a time and squeezing people until they can no longer be safe and healthy. Pushing people to the edge and hoping that they jump, for the bottom line, is egregious behavior.
2 – Environment
The workplace environment will erode as people leave and are not replaced. It is in the air and in the lack of resources to maintain the workspace. The animosity that is caused by workers having to pick up the slack for those who have left is devastating for morale. Workers are also often pitted against each other in these environments because some people end up taking on more of the workload than others and this can cause high levels of strife among workers. It seeps into the environment and poisons the shared spaces. And yes – those shared spaces can also be virtual – you don’t have to sit in a meeting room next to someone to know that they are pissed at you for not taking on more of the load.
3 – Ignorance
From above and below. Ignorance is everywhere in a downsized environment. There are workers that take on responsibilities for work they have never done before and do not have the support or training they need to succeed. Upper management is often ignorant of the processes and procedures in place prior to hiring freezes and downsizing events and therefore they are not equipped to handle challenges that occur with a reduced workforce. Workers who leave take knowledge with them that others may not have learned. This is especially true when individuals are forced out. If one is working in a stressful environment it is doubtful that they will be willing to document their personal processes for the greater good.
Bonus – Lip Service
Recognition is nice, but what many C-level folks don’t seem to understand is that a ‘pat on the back’ or a ‘free lunch’ doesn’t solve the day to day struggle that workers on the ground have to deal with. Yes – it is nice to have recognition, but it shouldn’t be trotted out only when there is strife in the workplace. It should be a feature, not a bug fix. Friday BBQs in the summer should be standard, not as a reward for doing extra work. Early out days before holidays should be a nice perk that is extended to staff in good times and in bad.
Many CEOs think that by talking through all the ways in which the company will support and grow the workforce is enough. But we see you. We see through your rhetoric of asking us to do ALL THE THINGS now. And we know that, in the end, things will go back to the way they were. Without support and without training and without perks. The way it was before wasn’t that great to begin with, so maybe the way forward is to ACTUALLY follow through with promises. When we get out of this slump – and we will – the people that remain should be treated with respect by the C-level and the promises made during a difficult time should actually come to fruition. If the C-level folks don’t want to do that, then perhaps the workers need to rise up and walk. I mean, in the end, collective action seems to be the only way to wake these owners up. We really only have each other, so we need to have each other’s backs as well. UNIONS FTW!