The virtual water cooler: Honing collaboration platforms in M&A

watercoolerPosted by Danielle FeinblumAntonia PearsonTJ MossChelsey Ott on July 31, 2020.

Even before our world became more virtual, most organizations could share an example of how a piece of information “went viral” within the company on Slack, Microsoft Teams, Quip or another other collaboration tool. From quick requests for help on a project, to sharing feelings about a recent message from leadership, or even daycare recommendations, these platforms create a one-stop shop for quick and easy information sharing between employees. Which is why we see more companies take a deliberate approach to using these tools during major changes in the organization, including M&A.

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Organizations and individual employees can create “channels” for working teams, departments, the entire organization or employee networks to share announcements, ask questions and spotlight success stories for relevant audiences. These platforms enhance, but do not often replace, traditional communication methods like email, offering a rapid, real-time way to engage with employees across the globe.

Collaboration Platforms in M&A

Organizations that have been through M&A transactions (or any type of major organization change) know that water cooler gossip is amplified during the period when major decisions are still being determined and shared, and that information spreads faster than normal – and this was true even before the advent of collaboration platforms.

Now that most Buyers have their own collaboration tools, and Targets likely have either their own instance of the same or a separate collaboration tool, it is critical for organizations to proactively plan for how to manage these forums during a transaction.

The ambiguity around how long the virtual/remote work environment will continue as a result of COVID-19, combined with uncertainty around what the workplace will look like post-COVID, increases the urgency for organizations to proactively plan for how to leverage collaboration tools during an M&A transaction.

Organizations should consider the following three lessons learned from recent transactions as they develop their own plans for utilizing collaboration platforms in M&A.

  1. Control the Narrative

The first step is to create a dedicated forum (e.g., Slack channel, Teams site or Quip) for transaction news and updates (NewCo Updates, Better Together, One Team, etc.) and assign dedicated resources to post, monitor, and respond to inquiries. This allows the integration team to reduce the inevitable ‘rumor mills’ and keep a pulse on employee sentiment, while giving employees one place to look for credible and consistent deal-related updates and news. When selecting a person to monitor the forum, look for employees who have a deep understanding of both the integration and the broader organization. Additionally, consider employees who can provide a high-touch response, such an HR services or Communications team member. When thinking about the types of messages to communicate, organizations should remain consistent with how they have traditionally used (or not used) these platforms. For example, M&A updates that only apply to select groups may be better suited for communication via individual leaders. Likewise, lengthy messages that require an important action from the employee should be, at minimum, communicated via email in addition to a Slack channel Teams site, Quip or another collaboration tool.

What can go wrong if NOT controlling the narrative?

In a recent acquisition by a large technology organization, the integration team did not set up a channel, so an acquired employee took ownership to create one. Without monitoring by the integration team, it became a highly visible space for acquired employees to vent, heavily fueling the rumor mill. To address issues that surfaced on Slack, several members of the Buyer’s executive team had to dedicate many hours to respond.

 What does controlling the narrative look like in practice?

When a Fortune 500 company acquired a startup, the HR integration team established a dedicated integration channel/site and heavily monitored it. While there were still a few topics that spiraled, the organization was able to quickly defuse the situations by responding directly on the channel/site or privately discussing the matter with the vocal employee. In addition, because the integration channel/site was initiated by HR leadership, it added credibility and a level of employee awareness when rogue “authorities” responded to cases without the proper background.

  1. Empower Self-Service

Organizations must strike a fine balance between controlling all content on an integration forum and allowing employees room to take ownership and community building. Controlling the narrative is key but chiming in on every discussion only fuels the expectation that employees can get all their questions answered immediately in the forum. A benefit of a collaborative platform is that it empowers employees to respond to each other. Knowledgeable employees can chime in with answers, which can create a greater sense of ownership and involvement. It can also help increase the credibility of the information, as answers from a peer oftentimes hold more weight than those coming from a “faceless” integration mailbox (eg. – “Thank you for your inquiry, your question is answered below:”). Now keep in mind, enabling and encouraging “self-service” may lead to the risk of employees providing inaccurate information. This risk can be mitigated by selecting the right monitor and equipping employees with supplemental resources (e.g., FAQs) and “business as usual” support channels (e.g., IT ticketing site).

What can go wrong when NOT empowering through self-service?

A recent acquisition involved one firm with a culture of self-service acquiring another with a high-touch culture. The integration team launched a microsite to house all integration-related information, where employees could also log tickets to ask questions and receive answers within 1 business day. Employees continued to log tickets for each and every question, rather than searching the site for information or looking through prior communications for answers. One can see how this drastically increased the workload for the team monitoring the microsite and resulted in a negative employee experience when questions weren’t answered immediately or to the employees’ satisfaction.

What does empowering self-service look like in practice?

In this same acquisition, a Slack channel dedicated to the integration began to pick up speed. Employees soon started to answer one another’s questions and proactively offer information. Leading up to Day 1, the HR integration team compiled a checklist of critical tasks for employees to complete. The integration team launched the checklist on the microsite, but before they sent out a newsletter letting people know about the checklist, several employees posted a link to it in the Slack channel, offering it up as a useful resource. Over time, employees started to ask questions in the Slack channel before asking them in the microsite. The Slack channel ultimately became a “Tier 0” support center, saving valuable time and resources for the HR integration team.

  1. Keep it Light

Traditional communications such as emails can often come across as formal or impersonal if the sender does not carefully consider the tone of the message. While emails can certainly be lighthearted, the casual nature of collaboration platforms tends to enable a more “human” tone that resonates with employees. A popular function is the use of GIFs and emojis. While these can lighten the mood, it’s important to make sure the levity of the response matches the seriousness of the topic at hand. While emojis can work for most some employee questions, personal and sensitive issues demand a more formal approach.

What can go wrong when NOT keeping it light?

When a large company acquired a smaller start-up, the buyer leveraged a Slack channel to provide integration updates. The buyer tended to make lengthy, formal posts. The acquired employee population expressed that the posts felt “very corporate” and “impersonal.” The disconnect heightened the notion of “us vs. them,” which was detrimental to the efforts of becoming one company. 

 What does keeping it light look like in practice?

In a recent acquisition, it became apparent by numerous Slack posts that the acquired employee population was struggling with a transition from G-Suite to Office 365 as their email client. The integration’s Change Management team quickly reacted and scheduled a training session. To notify employees, they posted the following message to the integration Slack channel:

“Making the switch from G-Suite [google emoji] to Outlook [outlook emoji] can feel like a whole new world [world emoji], but we’re here to lend a hand [high five]. Join us for an Outlook Tips & Tricks session this Friday! [link to meeting]”

While the post didn’t eliminate the employees struggle, it addressed the concern with empathy and employees felt heard. Numerous employees reacted to the post with an applause, a thumbs up, and a wide range of positive reactions on Slack.

Collaboration tools are embedded into the fibers of a company’s culture. They become a platform for working together, and building community. When embarking on a deal, companies should think strategically about ways to leverage collaboration platforms to improve, and not detract from, the employee experience. Employee Experience/Change Management and/or Communications workstreams should own the collaboration forum, electing key HR and/or Communications personnel to monitor the channel and avoid letting the narrative spiral out of control. However, it is important not to dominate the conversation. Leaving room for employees to answer questions can help reduce strain on the integration team and encourage a culture of self-service. Finally, remember to keep it light! There are real people behind every integration, and collaboration platforms are the perfect channel to express that fact. Following these three tips can enable productive usage of collaboration platforms to help ensure a more positive employee experience across every deal.

Authors:

Danielle Feinblum is a principal in the M&A practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP, where she leads clients in the design and delivery of their people strategy during enterprise wide changes.

Antonia Pearson is a senior consultant in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s M&A practice, where she helps global organizations define and execute integration strategies.

TJ Moss is a senior consultant in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s M&A practice, focused on M&A day 1 activities, with extensive experience in rewards planning and optimization.

Chelsey Ott is a senior consultant in Deloitte Consulting’s Human Capital practice focusing on M&A Day 1 activities, including Organization Design and integration planning.

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