The Future Is Here, and It’s Being Sent Home To Wait To Find Out if You’ve Lost Your Job

After pushing in-person work, McDonald's sent corporate employees home this week so the company could conduct layoffs remotely—a "new tactic" that could become common in the hybrid era, HR experts say.

Last week, the fast food chain McDonald’s told U.S. corporate employees that the company was temporarily shutting its headquarters down from Monday to Wednesday, and that workers should cancel all in-person meetings and plan to work from home during that period as a result. The reason, the company said, was so that leadership could perform layoffs remotely.


The layoffs themselves had been expected, part of a larger corporate rejiggering long in the making. But the temporary three-day work quarantine had not. Such a decision was an unusual choice—and a uniquely modern one at that. Prior to the pandemic, it would have been unthinkable for an organization the size of McDonald’s to tell its entire corporate workforce to stay home with only a few days notice, absent a natural disaster. 

But the pandemic has changed the nature of work, and now it appears that it’s changing the nature of layoffs, too. McDonald’s is the second brand name organization to close offices during staff reductions. After Twitter came under Elon Musk’s ownership last year, the social media company similarly told workers to stay away from the office as he took an ax to the company.

HR experts with direct experience in and around layoffs said the development was a modern one. Jenny Dearborn, a well-known HR expert and former chief talent officer at the enterprise software company SAP, told Motherboard she had never before heard of such an idea. Sandra Sucher, a Harvard Business School professor who studied layoffs, similarly said the companies were employing an entirely “new tactic” as far as she knew.

“It's pretty unusual,” agreed Sarah Rodehorst, the CEO of Onwards HR, a “separations” platform that helps companies with the layoff process. 

There has never been a good way to lay someone off, but the decisions show what the future of layoffs could look like, if it isn’t already here: sending workers home en masse to sit and wait for days on end for a ping, email, or call, after which time they learn of the terms of the separation, end communication, then stare at a screen as they ponder their future alone and in silence, with the workers who remain only finding out who got eliminated and who didn’t by watching to see which Slack icons never light up green again.


To some, the McDonald’s and Twitter decisions may come across as ironic. Twitter’s CEO, Elon Musk, has pushed aggressively for workers to return to the office since he took the reins last year, and McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski proclaimed the sanctity of the office as far back as July 2021. “We ultimately are an in-person business," he told Bloomberg TV then. "We're in-person in the restaurants. We're in-person in the office." 

But the hybrid work model remains a part of the modern workplace, which employment experts say make layoffs a more complicated affair. No longer can organizations expect workers to be in the office at one time, nor can they expect them to be online at home, like they were in the depths of the pandemic. As such, coming up with a reliable process and consistent communications plan that will reach all necessary employees can feel next to impossible. 

“As much as it would be ideal for these layoff messages to all be delivered in person, it may not be practical,” said  Eric Mochnacz, the director of operations at Red Clover HR, an HR consultancy.

Rodehorst, the Onwards CEO, said the fast food chain’s decision may be well-intentioned, but that the “untested” model presented a number of logistical challenges, including what to do with employees’ personal belongings and how to communicate transparently and quickly with remaining employees. Managers should also have conversations with affected employees, instead of relying on impersonal mass emails and cutting off access, she said. 


There can be benefits to undergoing mass layoffs remotely, according to Mochnacz of Red Clover HR. It can be “a more time-efficient way” to deliver a consistent message to both laid-off employees and those who remain, which is critical in such situations, Mochnacz said.

McDonald’s, for its part, suggested to workers that it had made the decision in part because so many people were planning to be away for personal reasons this week ahead of Easter and Passover. Additionally, the company said this would provide workers with “comfort and privacy,” according to CNBC, which reviewed McDonald’s email. (The company did not respond to a request for further information on the decision from Motherboard.)

“I don’t buy that argument,” said Sucher, the Harvard professor. Sucher said laying workers off in person showed a respect for the laid-off employee and a “willingness, expected of leaders at all levels, to be held accountable for their actions.”

Perhaps because I work in the media, where layoffs are commonplace, the stay-at-home layoff does not seem ideal for other reasons. Again, there has never been a good way to lay someone off, but there are good ways to send them off, and historically speaking, it does not involve isolation and silence. Coming together one final time, be it at a bar or a park, can make a bad decision just a smidgen better.

It is unfortunate that it could be lost. But it very well could be. “I have a feeling this might become a new trend,” said Amanda Augustine, a career expert at TopResume, a career services company. “Whether it's the right or wrong way to go about it, I think we will see.”