How to Keep Employees Engaged During a Merger or Acquisition

Going through a merger? Read this article to learn how to keep your employees engaged.

You’ve worked at your company for the past 10 years.

You’ve moved up the ranks of your HR department, so you understand what makes the people eat your company tick.

You also understand the importance of employee engagement, and you’ve prioritized cultivating it during your career.

Now, you’ve got a new challenge on the horizon.

Your organization is about to go through a merger.

Your leadership team has made it clear how important it is to limit disruption to your workforce during this transition.

It’s your people who’ve allowed you to get to this point. And you’ll need them when the merger is done to meet your new goals.

At the same time, you’re feeling anxious. As someone who’s worked in HR for a long time, you’ve heard the horror stories of failed corporate marriages.

And unhappy employees played a key role in draining productivity and earnings.

So now that you know this merger is on the horizon, you’ve got a singular mission: to keep your employees engaged throughout.

You know that mergers can take anywhere from several months to several years and that keeping your employees happy during this uncertainty and change is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.

As a result, you’re committed to keeping your finger on the pulse of your employees’ sentiments, so you can spot issues before they become big problems and keep your employees excited about the future.

Here’s how you’re going to make that happen.

Be transparent throughout the process

Mergers are a stressful time for employees. Too much change with too little information leaves employees anxious about their future.

When people are anxious about the future, they look for ways to take control. One way an employee might do that is by looking for other jobs. It doesn’t matter that they’re valuable to the company and that they were never at risk of losing their job – they don’t know that, so they go for a sure thing.

Before and during a merger, it’s best to communicate as much and as often as possible.

If not, you run the risk of letting the rumour mill serve as your communications strategy.

While your senior management team will make the announcement, it’s team managers who will receive the most questions, so give them enough information to deliver a clear, consistent message to their people.

Consider hosting a town hall when it’s time to announce the merger.

This allows employees to hear directly from their CEO and other senior leaders.

It’s also a more engaging delivery method than a blog article, an email, or a short video.

This town hall makes the announcement more dynamic by giving employees a chance to ask questions to their senior leaders directly.

If that’s not possible, consider hosting a panel discussion that goes through the details of the merger, why this is exciting, and what this means for employees and why they should be enthusiastic about the new change.

One of the biggest things your employees will want to know is: what will the new roles, responsibilities, and expectations be after this merger?

Typically, companies will trim down departments where there’ll be significant redundancies, such as payroll.

On the other hand, they might evaluate employees from the acquired company and see if they bring any special skills to the table that they want to keep.

If this happens, it’s important to keep your employees in the loop, so they know how retention decisions are made.

This is an important part of your engagement strategy.

If your employees see their colleagues being let go, but there’s no clear communication about why people are being let go, what the process is, and when you expect layoffs to stop, it’ll put your employees into survival mode.

They’re more likely to spend time updating their resume and putting feelers out for a new job than helping with post-merger integrations.

Once you’ve respectfully parted ways with employees and kept those who remain up to speed, make it clear what the new goals and expectations will be.

After an acquisition, it’s important to craft an updated, singular strategy that serves as a compass for the entire, new organization and prevents an “our goals” versus “their goals” mentality.

Creating a new strategy, and incorporating members from both prior companies in the decision-making process and implementation serves as fresh ground upon which to build this new, merged organization.

Once this strategy has been developed, filter it down to the rest of the company in the form of clear goals for each department or team.

A clear strategy from the top inspires confidence and excitement in teams.

This gives managers and team leads a more clear idea of what they need from their teams. It allows them to set clear goals and objectives for their individual contributors and for their teams overall.

WEX, a financial technology services company, has grown through acquisition. During one year, it acquired a whopping four companies.

Their chief human resources officer says that having the HR team involved in the due diligence process from the very start means that people and culture are properly considered throughout the acquisition.

A key part of WEX’s acquisition strategy is communication with employees in the acquiring company, and they open those lines of communication early.

Their chief human resources officer explains that communication is critical and that if there isn’t good communication, people will make up their own story about what’s happening with the acquisition.

During the communication process, the WEX team focuses on:

  • Sharing the history of WEX
  • Why WEX is pursuing an acquisition of the target company
  • The exciting future that can be possible with these companies working together

One of the things WEX does is send its leaders to the acquired companies where they have open-door sessions and town hall meetings. This way, employees have a chance to ask their burning questions and get meaningful answers.

Design a measurement approach

To keep your finger on the pulse of engagement, you need a two-way communication channel.

It’s not enough to simply send emails, host town halls, or record videos of your CEO explaining why this merger is exciting.

You need to know how your employees feel about the new state of affairs one month in, three months in, six months in, or a year in.

Pulse surveys can help you keep track of how engaged your workforce is during the merger.

More specifically, it can help you identify key enablers or barriers to your merger.

This pulse survey consists of a short series of weighted questions.

Each question asks employees to rank their level of agreement with a statement (e.g., Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree or a scale from 1 to 5).

By asking employees the same questions at regular intervals (e.g. every month, every quarter), companies can start to gather trend data and see if their post-M&A integration is improving or declining over time.

Your survey can cover questions like:

  • Are employees excited about the opportunities
  • Do employees trust in your organization’s ability to make the transition successful?
  • Are employees feeling secure in their current position
  • How is the workload following the merger
  • Do employees feel welcome in the merged organization

Your post-merger survey might confirm your earlier assumptions or uncover issues you hadn’t anticipated. You might find that:

  • Your employees feel like they’ve lost the power they had before the merger and are not happy with this perceived “demotion” or lack of authority
  • There’s a sense of “lost identity” within the company as it struggles to reconcile its past culture with its new culture
  • Your people feel confused about who’s responsible for what and feel a sense of directionless or lack of leadership
  • Employees don’t feel like there’s no longer effective communication and coordination between different business units, making it difficult to do their jobs

With a clear understanding of the issues your employees face, you can focus your energies in the right place.

If your employees feel like they no longer recognize the company culture or identity, it’s a sign that your organization is not communicating the new vision correctly.

Your HR or marketing team can work together to develop a communications campaign that shares the new mission and values.

If your people feel like they don’t know what their jobs are or who’s responsible for what, you may need to revisit your org chart and ensure that the new structure is clear.

Once you start to track the progress of your post-merger work environment, you can manage and protect it.

Make sure your employees’ voices are heard

Designing and distributing a pulse survey is only the first step.

Your M&A employee engagement pulse survey helps you gather your employees’ feedback.

But once you have it, you have to do more than just bank it – you need to act on it. Otherwise, your employees won’t take your survey or your M&A engagement efforts seriously.

Prioritize having a short feedback-to-action cycle.

To do this, you’ll need to set aside enough time to actually go through the data.

When survey results come in, they can be overwhelming. You’re looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of responses, that you have to sort through. Here’s what you can do to shorten your feedback-to-action cycle.

Block off time in your calendar

Avoid quickly skimming through the survey results, passing them off to an inexperienced employee, or looking at them while you’re on a call.

Dedicate time to reviewing your survey results. In fact, you’ll probably need to block off an entire day and lock yourself in a conference room with a few members of your team.

If you want to do something meaningful with your surveys, then you’ll need to meaningfully engage with the results.

Write down what your pre-survey questions were

You likely went into this survey with assumptions about what issues are plaguing your company and where you’re experiencing success. Write these down. Your survey results will either confirm or deny your assumptions.

Filter your results

Are there specific subgroups of your company that you’re most interested in learning about?

Perhaps your salesforce is absolutely essential to the success of this merger.

Filter your survey results to focus on these groups first. This will help you prioritize your efforts if you’re pressed for time.

By filtering your results, you might notice important insights about your sales team that require immediate attention.

For instance, you might find that your sales team feels uncertain about their future at this company and considering opportunities elsewhere.

On the contrary, you want to grow your salesforce, not get rid of anyone on the existing team. So you know that you need to ramp up your communication efforts to this segment of your company.

You might also learn that the sales team is worried that their compensation structure will change. Bad news since bonuses are a huge motivating force for your sales team. You need to make sure you let your sales teams and their managers know that there won’t be any significant changes to their compensation structure.

Pull out key insights and benchmark your survey data

Look for themes and pull out key insights from your survey results.

If you’ve already done a few merger surveys, use your previous survey results as a benchmark for how well you’re doing.

Over time, you’ll have trend data that allows you to see how engaged your employees are throughout the merger, and whether that engagement is rising or falling.

Make a note of any significant decreases or increases and file them away as either improvement opportunities or opportunities to celebrate progress through your PR or internal marketing.

Turn insights into recommended actions and rank them

Once you have these key insights, you’ll need to come up with recommended actions. Then, based on the weight these items carried in your survey responses, you’ll need to rank them in priority order.

Do your employees seem more concerned about promotions or organizational structure or training opportunities?

Your M&A engagement survey will help you determine where to focus your efforts and to decide what comes first.

Ideally, you’ll conduct an M&A engagement survey before the merger and after the merger, depending on the rules around when you can announce.

If you can give your employees a proper heads up, you can distribute a pre-merger survey that asks employees what they’re most concerned about. Once you have these survey results, sort through them, pull out the major concerns, and come up with solutions.

One of the concerns may be a lack of information around job security. While you can’t guarantee jobs, you can make it clear how employees who may no longer work with the company will be taken care of.

Your pre-merger results can reveal the key points you’ll need to clearly share in your communications plan.

Once the merger is complete, you can distribute a post-merger survey that checks in on employee engagement.

Involve employees in decision making

Including employees in your decision-making demonstrates that you trust them.

Plus, it gives employees a sense of control during the uncertainty of an acquisition.

Once you’ve gathered your survey results and pulled out key insights, find a way to include your employees in the process of making changes.

In other words, you want to do more than just tell them what’ll be changing. You want to help them play a role in that change.

You can start by hosting workshops where employees from all levels within the organization can brainstorm solutions for resolving specific challenges related to the merger or acquisition.

Loop your senior leaders into these workshops to signal that the suggestions that come from them will be taken seriously.

If you need assistance making this happen, you can rely on technology to sort it out.

Sparkbay’s focus group feature provides a way for employees to give anonymous suggestions for making a merger most successful.

The system then automatically pushes the most popular suggestions to the top through pairwise comparisons.

The end result is a report that presents all of the suggestions ranked from most popular to least popular.

This tool gives your employees the ability to speak freely but anonymously while also giving your organization a streamlined way to conduct focus groups.

Find and empower champions

Every organization has influential employees. Identify them and turn them into change agents that can serve as promoters and communicators for your upcoming merger.

Of course, this is not as simple as asking them to “hype up” a merger.

Instead, it’s about providing them with the information they’ll need to answer frequently asked questions within your organization.

Since they are already social and influential people within your organization, they’ll already be a key person that people turn to for guidance, so it’s useful to ensure they have the right information.

They can also be your eyes and ears to help you understand the overall mood of the company and give you feedback on how people are feeling about the upcoming changes.

A merger or acquisition can be a stressful time for employees, so keeping your employees engaged is a smart strategy to ensure a successful change.

Learn more about how Sparkbay can help you navigate your future merger.

Sparkbay’s employee engagement tool makes it easy to measure and manage your post-integration culture at scale.Click here for a demo.