ELM Learning Updates

Zirtual Reality: A Zirtual Employee’s (Short) Trip Back to the Workforce

Welcome Courtney to ELM!

Not with a bang but a whimper: That’s how things ended at Zirtual last Monday, when the virtual assisting service closed its doors without fanfare–or warning. Four hundred employees were immediately laid off without notice. The company was being acquired by Startups.co, the unceremonious email said after 24 hours of shutting it doors. Effective immediately, Zirtual was shutting its doors. And just like that, 400 talented professionals–some of whom had been at Zirtual for years–were hitting the pavement and looking for employment.

Lots of things go through someone’s head when they get the news that they no longer have a job; not least, “What am I going to do now?” Those thoughts must have happened swiftly over only a couple hours this past Monday. Despite its once-pristine four-star Glassdoor.com reviews, Zirtual’s method for laying off its entire workforce has been met with sharp criticism from employees and clients alike. Though it can seem like the chips are down, some Zirtual employees are taking the blow in stride, using what they know about workplace culture to find employment that better aligns with their ideals.

Courtney Barnes was one of those employees. She’d been working as a Zirtual pod manager and excited to be leading and growing her own team. Up until last Friday before the ominous email, it was positive vibes only at Zirtual as the teams went through training and onboarded new employees without any sign of a corporate implosion. So what happened? Somehow, over the weekend and into the early hours of last Monday, the company fell apart. Courtney received an email on Monday morning stating that she was out of work, along with 400+ of her colleagues.

At the time, there was no explanation. On Tuesday, Zirtual CEO Maren Kate Donovan wrote a Medium.com post admitting that the company was simply burning through money and growing too fast to sustain operations. Now-former Zirtual employees finally received a second email late Tuesday night explaining that they would have the opportunity to reapply for their jobs (or new positions with Startups.co) and that premiums paid for benefits would be refunded. Other than that, Zirtual’s entire workforce was on their own.

While once a place employees were proud to work, Zirtual had become an environment that lacked transparency, empathy, and honesty: Three keystones of any company culture. Though Zirtual touted transparency in a recent Fortune article, it seems like a case of preaching, but not practicing, especially for employees who are still nursing fresh wounds this week.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

What could have been devastating for a group of 400 now-unemployed professionals quickly become a unique opportunity and a testament to the caliber of people working for Zirtual. Within hours, former employees had set up both a Slack Channel and Facebook page to gather together virtually to support each other. After all, what better way for a virtual-based company to heal, lean on each other, and come back stronger than ever? Employees took matters into their own hands and began reaching out to former clients looking for work. Courtney’s connections (and tenacity) quickly paid off: Within 24 hours, Courtney got a part-time job offer from ELM.

For our part, we here at ELM are happy to have Courtney back. Once our Zirtual assistant back in 2014, she excelled in her role, and continued to get promoted within the Zirtual infrastructure. We were sad to see her go, but understood that her company valued her expertise and work ethic just as much as we did. That being said, we are happy to have her back, and the team loves her. At ELM, we focus on a strong positive workplace culture and seek to back up those claims through concrete action. What may have been a negative experience with a previous employer can lead to new opportunities for those willing to put in the work and demonstrate the ELM ideal of productivity with a personal element: Within hours, Courtney had myself and our President, Simon Casuto on the phone to share the news and to discuss next steps. We offered her a job that afternoon.

We’re proud of the way ELM is able to combine transparency, honesty, and empathy as actions–not just nice ideas outlined in a blog post. Zirtual’s loss is our gain, and we’re excited to welcome back Courtney as the latest asset to our company culture.