Acquisitions are intimidating for employees. Along with fears of restructuring, there’s anxiety that office culture -- that unique organizational fabric consisting of personalities, environment, policy and je ne sais quoi -- will be out the door, hot on the heels of shortened Friday hours and redundant middle management.
And that anxiety is not unfounded: A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted that Jet.com had to give up its in-office happy hours after Walmart acquired the company. (Before long, morale dipped, and Walmart relaxed its rules.) Sure, things turned around, but a dent in team spirit can sometimes cause irreversible damage. That’s why I held the preservation of Audiobooks.com company culture at the forefront during our recent acquisition by RBmedia. Culture is a living, breathing entity that requires constant investment from everybody. Through acquisition and beyond, retaining a healthy company culture will give you your best chances of fostering low turnover, high employee engagement, better productivity and strengthened recruitment.
1. Get parent company buy-in.
When I was having conversations with RBmedia management during the acquisition process about what made Audiobooks.com different, we always jumped to the people we have on board (before we even got into the numbers). Our staff is a dedicated, fun-loving, culture-first team, so discussing the preservation of some important policy-based pillars of the Audiobooks.com culture was an important part of the deal. Casual dress code, flexible working hours and unlimited paid vacation all remained because our new management team respected that we had a good thing going on and agreed, as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
We also discussed my budget allocation for “other employee costs,” and RBmedia was supportive of investing in culture by funding monthly socials, healthy breakfasts and a great holiday party. It’s no secret that employees will care about their work if they feel that their work cares about them. Plus, turnover is expensive in a niche industry. Between the job posting fees and the loss of productivity while someone is being trained, each new hire costs the company a significant amount of money. By retaining the hallmarks of the Audiobooks.com culture and making an effort to show staff that we care, we retained 100 percent of our pre-acquisition talent into the post-acquisition period; that’s a number I take pride in.
2. Offer a robust and dynamic program.
One of our core value statements is “we are a fun community” because we want the office to be a great place for people to spend their time. We often like to say that our employees aren’t chained to their desks: We encourage frequent breaks to play games, e.g. bocce ball when the Canadian weather cooperates, not only because it makes people happier, but because it stimulates creativity and encourages employee bonding. By setting that precedent, initiatives like an office book club and ping-pong league recently sprang up organically, without management introducing them, and at no company cost. I think it’s the sense of community these activities foster that carried our company culture through the acquisition.
As a tech company, we hire a lot of millennials who have expectations as to what a workplace should offer in 2017: free food, flexibility, an aesthetically-pleasing space, fun activities, etc. As I am a firm believer in these priorities, we host an in-house masseuse once a month (our benefits cover massages), and we recently introduced bi-weekly yoga and mindfulness classes in an unused boardroom. Offering competitive perks and office programs can make all the difference for attracting top talent in today’s market, and can encourage that talent to stick around and stay engaged even through the uncertainty of an acquisition.
3. Develop a sense of employee ownership.
We frequently initiate formal employee engagement surveys as well as informal conversations with HR to check in on how everyone is feeling. It was crucial to ramp up this practice throughout the acquisition process to keep close tabs on the office climate, and tweak our approach as necessary. In response to a post-acquisition survey, for example, we made changes to how inter-departmental projects are managed. Having a dynamic approach to what we offer in the workplace and how we organize our workflow keeps us efficient and in tune with employee needs. This adaptability and understanding of shifting employee needs is likely a key reason why our engagement score rings in at high numbers time and again.
Our monthly performance reviews also focus on how each individual contributes to company objectives, to keep people feeling connected to the big picture. We encourage ownership and autonomy and in turn, we have a culture of self-starters who are committed to the business and its performance. We also deliberately touch base on people’s personal lives during these meetings, so that we can keep work/life balance in check and find ways to support our employees during good and bad times. We’ve fostered an environment in which every employee feels important and invested in the company’s success, and the business results speak for themselves.
I believe that you can’t change company culture without impacting the bottom line, and I wonder if Walmart finally accepted Jet.com’s approach because it was starting to see some negative effects. On the contrary, I’m proud that Audiobooks.com’s new parent company RBmedia shared my vision that we’re successful because of our office culture -- not in spite of it -- and I’m confident that our staff retention, engagement and recruitment will continue to benefit because of it.
There will be change post-acquisition. Processes will get updated and operations will be altered, along with some other inevitabilities. But, by recognizing that culture has value, investing in it and nurturing it, it doesn’t need to be a casualty of a good acquisition -- it can be the hallmark of a great one.