December 6, 2022
1,000 layoffs at Microsoft.
2,500 more at Salesforce.
Another 7,500 at Twitter.
10,000 at Google.
And a whopping 11,000 redundancies at Meta.
The working world is quaking under the weight of gruesome financial projections, a cost of living crisis, an international war, the “great resignation” and the rise of “quiet-quitting”. So much so, that the Bank of England states that the UK faces its longest-ever recession since records began.
Morale is at an all-time low, motivation is even lower, and the day-to-day reality for employees and employers looks immeasurably darker than it did before. A feat, given that this time last year we were only just resurfacing from a two-year global pandemic.
So, where do we go from here?
While the papers have formally announced we’re in the end times, rumblings of something much, much different have begun to surface. Businesses are realising the necessity for sustainability and purpose. Workers are reclaiming their time and denying toxic environments of their talents. And many economists state that the market is correcting itself in light of unsustainable growth in recent years, which resulted in record-breaking valuations for businesses.
But where does this leave employers and their employees? Who will scale the downturn? What actions can employers take to protect their people? And which practices are becoming outdated?
As the world watches and waits, Twitter has taken centre stage, not least for its shocking loss of staff, but for its unusual approach to employee morale, motivation, and well-being. Perhaps unusual is a kind term. Interestingly, however, ongoing events at Twitter speak to a larger problem in the working world; a disconnect between the C-Suite and its staff, an archaic grip on outdated working practices, and a myopic approach to worker well-being.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and renowned entrepreneur, bought Twitter this year for $44 billion. However, the deal was anything but smooth sailing, with an attempted back-out, a legally enforced “back-in”, and an ensuing stream of headline-worthy events.
Let’s explore a brief but eventful timeline of events.
On October 28th, Musk tweeted “the bird is freed” and then proceeded to gut the executive board, firing the CFO, the CTO and the Head of Legal Policy, Trust, and Safety.
On November 4th, Musk continued gutting, with the announcement of 7,500 layoffs for the social media site, via email. And, while this approach - though brash - was accepted in much of the US, it disregarded European employment laws, triggering an ongoing legal case in the process. This was in addition to Musk letting go of swathes of employees dedicated to the fight against misinformation online.
On November 9th, in response to Twitter losing a staggering amount of advertisers, Musk launched “Twitter Blue”, an $8 subscription service designed to address “imposters” and secure much needed cashflow for the business.
The reality, however, was a week of chaos, with some accounts being locked into ill-fitting personas, insulin provider Eli Lilly losing billions as a result of a fake post, and Musk facing yet another public hurdle to scale.
On November 10th, Musk scrapped Twitter’s work-from-home policy, stating the team faced “difficult times ahead”. This came in stark contrast to Twitter’s March announcement, where it was one of the first global enterprises to allow Twitter employees to work remotely “forever”. Days later, software developers - many of whom had already relocated further afield - were asked to fly to San Francisco with just a few hours' notice for an in-person office meeting.
As days rolled by, Twitter engineers began to publicly express concerns around the takeover, from worries about the loss of crucial infrastructure to concerns around Twitter’s ability to keep up with strict data protection laws.
In response, Musk fired engineers that expressed public concerns, directly contradicting Twitter’s ethos to “seek diverse perspectives”.
On November 16th, Musk continued his eventful takeover, this time sending out a company-wide email that asked employees to go “extremely hardcore”, and work “long hours at high intensity”, insisting that “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade”.
The email closes with the line,
“If you are part of the new Twitter, please click yes on the link below. Anyone who has not done so by 5 pm ET tomorrow will receive three months of severance.”
At the time of Elon’s email, Twitter had an estimated 2,900 remaining employees, as a result of 7 thousand-plus layoffs that had happened weeks prior. Following Musk’s loyalty bid for his new era of Twitter, the entrepreneur woke to a significantly different reality on November 17th. Rather than experiencing a wave of commitment, the pledge sparked a series of resignations that sent shockwaves through the business. So much so - in direct contrast to Musk’s earlier mandate - the entrepreneur shuttered the doors of Twitter’s office, with many reports indicating it was consequent of an inability to track who was, and who wasn’t fired. Why? The social media site was now grappling with a dramatically pared-down HR department, that days later on the 28th of November, would struggle to even make payroll for the remaining “tweeps”.
So, why is this headline-worthy?
Have we not always been witness to “bad bosses”, mismanaged firms, and toxic working environments?
Absolutely. However, we’ve rarely seen such a public fall from grace, for an entrepreneur that was once described as having “an army of fans more suited to a pop star than a tech billionaire”. Similarly, we’ve rarely seen such a rapid succession of case-study-worthy flouting of international employment laws, employee morale, and sustainable culture-building practices.
So much so, that the fall of the Twitter empire - and its once-adored Julius Caesar - has increasingly gained traction as a symbol of the failures of the old way of working, and the power of employees to insist upon a new era.
Having lost the intellectual engines that keep Twitter whirring, many hypothesise that the social media site is on borrowed time. Now grappling with a skeleton staff, Musk faces a phenomenal challenge, having failed to honour the culture, promises, and rights of many of his employees. As a result, the business is haemorrhaging money, has lost half of its top 100 advertisers, and, perhaps most importantly, the faith of many of the people that remain.
While Musk’s strategy has been described as a “cost-cutting” measure for the betterment of the business, it would seem he’s done more than “cut the fat” and has cut straight through the bone. As businesses hunker down to prepare for an economically challenging few months, they would do well to learn from Twitter’s eventful few weeks.
The events at Twitter seem like a farce - were it not for the tragic reality that underpins each job loss. But the damages run deeper than a few headlines.
While Musk had his dissenters prior to the Twitter takeover, voices of dissent have grown. Within his own business, Musk has cut off his nose to spite his face, by silencing employees once motivated to speak up for the betterment of the business. As a result, Musk now moves blindly in many respects through a business that relies on him for its survival.
Amidst his mandate for “hardcore” work, Musk has shredded the morale of people heading into an already challenging few months. For those staying at Twitter, whether that’s those protected by European employment laws that don’t acknowledge his demands, staff bound to the business by their Visa, or true believers in Musk’s mandate, the road ahead has been marred by a morale-hammering few weeks. While Musk’s efforts have surely come from a sincere belief in his strategy - and its ability to haul Twitter through challenging times - it’s far more likely that it has left his team emotionally depleted.
With Twitter’s operations now pared down to its bare bones, and staff confronted with the prospect of “12-hour shifts, seven days a week - equivalent to 84 hours a week”, it’s fair to say that motivation to scale challenging times is likely to be at an all-time low. Not only is an 84-hour week illegal in many European countries, but it also harks back to a mode of working synonymous with employee burnout and a revolving door of staff.
We don’t need to tell you that this is a PR crisis. However, the ripple effects of this PR catastrophe are set to impact the very people forced under these 80+ hour weeks. Now tasked with drastically improving the revenue of a business that has lost much of its cash flow, teams not only have a financial noose around their neck - they also are housed within a business that’s being shamed on the public stage. In simple terms, a challenging time to feel proud of the company you work for.
Somebody had to say it. Twitter’s actions on the global stage are not just a logistical nightmare - they’re a legal one. International employment laws have been disregarded, in addition to many US state laws being infringed upon. The result? A swathe of lawsuits, mounting by the day.
Further, Twitter has lost much of the team responsible for its data protection obligations, including the loss of Lea Kissner, the company's Chief Information Security Officer. As Twitter scrambles to recover its losses, the data protection world watches closely, for fear of a looming security breach at the cost of Twitter’s user base.
As new features continue to roll out on the platform - absent of many of the people required to review it - concerns have also arisen around Twitter’s ability to meet with the Federal Trade Commission consent decree. In the FTC’s own words,
“We are tracking recent developments at Twitter with deep concern. No CEO or company is above the law, and companies must follow our consent decrees. Our revised consent order gives us new tools to ensure compliance, and we are prepared to use them.”
From regulatory failures and data protection breaches to looming employment law tribunals, one thing is clear: the road ahead for Twitter is more challenging than most, recession, or no recession.
Twitter acts as a cautionary tale. And while its events seem almost implausible, many of Musk’s errors have been made time and time again in the working world. In fear, companies have cut more than they can afford. In stress, boards have inadvertently corroded morale. And in strain, employees have left companies scrambling without their greatest asset - their people.
So, what companies are getting it right? What can you do to not only scale the crisis but to thrive through it?
Starting point? Don’t be like Twitter.