Layoffs: Will Remote Workers Be the First to Go?

As firms cut back more, eight in ten workers worry that remote staffers could lose their jobs first, a new survey says. How leaders should make such decisions.  

The manager needed to cut his team’s labor budget by 15%. He considered the performance and productivity of individual staffers, but a nagging thought kept popping into his mind: He came into the office every day. So did most of his team. But a few people did not. Should they be the first to be let go? 

Amid an impending recession, many firms are making cuts, creating some recent fretting among remote or hybrid workers. In a recent survey, 78% of employees said that they were concerned that remote workers would lose their jobs first. Some of these worries may not be justified, because HR leaders weigh numerous factors besides geographic location. But as experts point out, individual managers are the ones making cuts, and they may be tempted to look first at remote employees, who can be laid off over the phone instead of face-to-face. “Proximity bias is real,” says Kristi Drew, global account leader in the Financial Services practice at Korn Ferry. 

The deck is stacked against remote employees because their work is often invisible. Newer remote hires also lack deep-rooted face-to-face relationships with managers and leadership. And of course, people naturally favor those whom they see regularly, says Drew. Meanwhile, many managers continue to argue that culture is best bred in-office and erodes when employees work remotely. Other leaders continue to suspect that at-home employees are less productive, despite inconclusive research on the topic. 

But experts worry that companies may be hurting themselves by overweighting location and underweighting performance in evaluating employees. “At the end of the day, retention is a goal,” says Peter McDermott, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations practice. 

The optics of laying off out-of-office employees can also backfire tremendously. “You don’t want to axe remote employees without the right messaging behind it,” says McDermott. For example, letting remote employees go might unintentionally communicate low support for certain populations (potentially caregivers or workers with health conditions), not to mention a willingness to lay off high performers. It might also contradict formal policies about remote work.  

When considering whom to let go, Ron Porter, senior client partner in the Global Human Resources Center of Excellence at Korn Ferry, suggests that managers be quite conscious of their instincts to favor in-person workers. “Managers can challenge themselves to make sure that they’re not making the easy decision, versus the one that’s best for the business,” he says. This includes asking oneself about biases against remote employees, and being honest about one’s own feelings about in-office time, he says. Employees can also take responsibility here by scheduling time with their managers for “that honest check-in about whether working remotely still works,” he says.  

Experts say that companies can also revisit their in-office guidelines. McDermott encourages firms to include diverse groups of decision makers when reconsidering remote policies in order to ensure that policies accommodate workers in a variety of circumstances. And if managers do decide to insist on substantial in-office time, he encourages long timelines, because support systems take months to build. For example, many childcare arrangements are difficult (if not impossible) to change mid-semester or during labor. “It can’t just be an overnight announcement,” he says.