Unemployment is at its highest point since the Great Depression. Every day, major companies are announcing layoffs or furloughs as the coronavirus-induced economic crash worsens. There is no end in sight. It's hard to even keep count of the number of layoffs in the tech industry, so much so that people are compiling their own lists of companies that have laid people off.
Being employed in media, a precarious industry during the best of times, means working under the near-constant possibility of today being The Day. I've been laid off twice in my nine years in journalism, but neither of those times was a surprise, and I was prepared with backups of my work and contacts to take with me on my way out the door, which helped me as I became a freelancer or moved on to a new job.
Hopefully, you will never get laid off or suddenly lose your job. But now that so many industries are in precarious situations, everyone should at least be prepared in case your Day comes. Not needing to begin again from scratch because you lost all your contacts and files as a freelancer, independent contractor, or at a new job can make getting back on your feet faster and less stressful—and that's why today, you're going to take 10 minutes to get your digital work affairs in order, with backups of everything you've worked hard to build.
Most employers aren't required to give workers any notice for when they're planning to lay people off, Edgar Ndjatou, Executive Director for Workplace Fairness, told me. It's a good idea to check your employment contract or any NDAs you signed before you do any of these steps, he said.
"When in doubt, if the information will help you land a new job, you should take it"
Proprietary information—data and documents pertaining to the operation of the business, and a slew of other items, outlined in detail here—should not be taken with you. This includes things like client or customer lists, budgets, traffic numbers, methodologies, business plans, basically anything you can foresee your workplace's lawyers being pissed that you took. Be careful about what you back up, lest you get smacked with a cease and desist or lawsuit for stealing the secret sauce recipe.
Lewis Maltby, head of the National Workrights Institute, told me that the general rule is that you own your skills and knowledge, and your employer owns the "trade secrets." "This includes any information developed by the employer, which is not generally known to people in the industry, that gives it some competitive advantage over other companies," Maltby said. "Classic examples include the design of a device or the formula for a product. If you’re a design engineer for GM, your skill designing cars belongs to you; the design for the GM cars you worked on belongs to them."
Some contracts forbid employees from taking work contacts with them, and even if specifics about downloading data aren't mentioned, many include language about how you can use contacts built during the course of your employment after you've left. These stipulations in work contracts are overbearing; nothing in this article should be considered legal advice, but presuming you want to stay in the same industry you’re working in currently, you should at least consider keeping a list of emails, phone numbers, and business cards you’ve collected over the years.
This advice applies mainly to people working desk jobs, where data like emails, contacts, and files are stored in a company cloud server or client like Google or Outlook.
These tips are catered toward a workplace that runs primarily on Google's G Suite and/or Outlook, but the steps and planning around them apply to any workplace, even if the specific measures might look different. They also shouldn't be taken as legal advice—all workplaces are different, all employment contracts are different, and your tolerance for risk will differ, so use your own discretion and your best judgment.
Decide where you'll keep everything
By the time you're through this process, you might have a lot of data on your hands—and if you're working from home, not a lot of drive space to store it on a personal computer. Decide ahead of time whether you can save it all locally, and if not, whether you can back it up to a specific USB drive designated for work data, or download and upload to a personal cloud service such as Google Drive or Dropbox.
Back-up your contacts
"The information most employees want to take with them is their contact list," Maltby said. "Unless it’s a list of your employer’s customers, it belongs to you."
Email addresses and phone numbers of your professional contacts, such as people you met at a conference or sources you've built relationships with, are usually okay to take with you.
On Google, you can export all of your contacts at once, or pick and choose whose information you want to save. If you're concerned about your company tracking this, go to Google Contacts and hit "export," which downloads everything into a .CSV file and opens as an Excel sheet. The data is organized with a ton of useless columns, including a dozen versions of names and things like Hobby and Mileage, but you can delete all of those and keep just the contacts' names, addresses, and phone numbers. If you are extremely paranoid, you can login to your contacts list and take photos of them with your non-work cell phone and collate them later.
The process using Outlook is similar: The software has a built-in exporting function. The main difference is in where you save the .CSV file, which Microsoft recommends doing in the Contacts folder under your personal account on a PC.
Let contacts know you're leaving (if there's time)
If you set up automatic mail forwarding to your personal account from your work email, it’ll probably be turned off by your (now former) company very quickly. But if you want to go that route anyway, Google and Outlook each have instructions for this. Depending on your company's email client settings, it might not be possible to forward emails from your work account to another account—and trying to set it up could tip off the administrator that you're trying to leave with company information.
Ndjatou said a better alternative is to schedule an away message for your last day that contains your personal contact info and how best to reach you in the future. But again, this applies to people you've made professional and personal relationships with in your job, and not whole client lists or customers that you obtained through working there. And this might not work if your company shuts off your email address entirely and without warning. If you think your old email will be turned off, you can choose to selectively contact your most important connections to let them know you're likely facing a layoff or furlough, and how to reach you (this also works if you're leaving your job under happier circumstances, like if you're leaving for a new job).
If you decide to try to negotiate access to your email with the company, note that this step in particular benefits both you and the people left working there: If you include instructions for how to contact the company in your absence, it could save the survivors some work and help them retain the connections you worked for.
Grab everything else
Depending on what you feel comfortably able to download on your way out, Google's Takeout service can do the rest. You probably won't want to download everything included in your G Suite that's available at this stage—a lot of it could be proprietary information, and it's also just a ton of company-specific data, documents, and spreadsheets —and based on your administrator's settings, you might not be able to anyway. But items like Drive contents (including Docs and Sheets), Photos, Groups, and Hangouts messages could be valuable later. Depending on how much you're downloading, this could take hours or more than a day to compile and download—plan ahead.
If you don't want to wait for Takeout, or don't work in G Suite or use Drive, you can still comb through your documents from the last few years of employment and decide what's important enough to be saved. Maybe that list of important industry events should come with you, but the 2016 Q2 KPI metrics can go to hell. It's up to you what's worthy of copying over to your new life.
You should also check what's on your computer's hard drive—maybe you have notes or contacts or ideas saved there. Now would be a good time to organize things into folders, rename files to more helpful terms, and back up the backups on a USB or personal cloud service. Sorting through all of this later, once you've completely forgotten what all of it meant, would not be fun.
Do a clean sweep
So you know your layoff date, or you just got an email that your access will be revoked within the day, or hour, or next five minutes. Now that you have everything you needed backed up safely, it's time to calmly shut it down. Knowing exactly how to do that will make acting quickly that much less panic-inducing.
Go through your applications and log out of and delete any apps you used for personal reasons or that you wouldn't want people to snoop around in later (Google Hangouts, Slack, iMessage). Delete unsent drafts and notes you don't want. Log out of all of your applications. If you use a browser-based password manager like LastPass or a chat client like Hangouts, log out of that, too.
If you're using a company computer and have admin privileges, wipe it clean and get it ready to return to the IT department. Here's a good primer on how to get that done (except you're not recycling the device at the end, of course). If you don't have that kind of access, you can at least take steps to delete your internet history, locally-saved files, and all your browser's saved passwords and auto-fill forms. You don't have to, and probably shouldn't, delete company property like signed contracts, files, spreadsheets, etc. But you should get rid of any personal passwords and documents and other things from your personal life that may have ended up on your work computer over years of using a device. Almost every mainstream browser, such as Chrome, Firefox, and Safari, have this option in some version of "manage passwords" settings, where you can wipe them all.
Some final words of wisdom
Since many of us are working from home now, we're likely mixing work and personal devices more than ever. Avoid doing that as much as you can, Ndjatou said.
Especially if you're using a company-owned device, it's smart to behave as if everything you do is visible to a manager, because it might be. Don’t use personal iMessage on a work computer if you can avoid it, for example. It's easier to fly under the radar on some of these backups when you're working from home, away from the watchful eyes of a supervisor or on a shared internet connection. Spreading some of these tasks out across a week or two could raise fewer suspicions from your IT department, which usually can see what you're up to on company accounts if they happen to be watching.
"IT can check your email and see you've taken documents," Ndjatou said. "Most companies now have ways of going into their systems and seeing who took what." If you feel comfortable going to your manager or HR ahead of time, it's better to ask for permission to save things like files and correspondence.
And outside of your digital life, it's a good idea to document (or try to remember, if you haven't been in the office in a while) what's physically at your desk or workspace. Sometimes, you won't get the chance to pack up your belongings, and the company will say they'll arrange for it to be shipped. You'll want records of those items, to make sure they're all returned to you. Or, you can just avoid keeping personal valuables at your desk, altogether.
At the end of the day, workers don't have much power during a layoff—short of organizing and supporting your union, which you should absolutely do as a matter of necessity in these times. It's a bleak reality of many industries that either the economy, a global pandemic, some rich scumlord, or a combination of all these can come along and astroturf years of work. But whatever's to blame in the end, you're a little more ready now.
"When in doubt, if the information will help you land a new job, you should take it," Maltby said. "Unless it’s a secret formula, the harm of not getting a new job is worse that anything your employer is likely to do if you take the information."
When you're ready to start a new job or begin freelancing, the digital hygiene work you've done here will be invaluable. Some of it could even help you re-establish connections with people while you're in-between jobs, that could lead to new opportunities. Almost everyone is in the same boat now, and sending a message to that person you met in your past work-life, just to say 'I didn't forget about you,' can go a long way.