Steve Boese: Navigating mergers, acquisitions and coronavirus

By: | March 4, 2020 • 5 min read
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. Boese recently spoke at the HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas. He also writes an HR blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at sboese@lrp.com.

Back in November 2018, after a few high-profile M&A transactions in the HR-tech market (Ultimate Software acquiring PeopleDoc and Saba acquiring Lumesse and Halogen Software), I wrote a column about how HR leaders could protect their organizations’ interests moving forward—particularly if they were customers of one of the providers involved in the transactions.

With another round of recent M&A announcements in the HR-tech market (a merger of Kronos and Ultimate and the acquisition of Saba by Cornerstone OnDemand), I want to revisit the issues facing customers (and even potential customers) of an enterprise-technology provider that is a party to a major M&A transaction. In my previous column, I advised HR leaders to press the executives of the technology providers on their commitment to ongoing development and product roadmaps, to carefully monitor impacts to customer service and account management, and to develop HR-technology strategies that contain contingencies in case solutions are retired or sunsetted due to M&A activity. I think these basic recommendations are still valid, so I recommend checking out that piece for more details on how to navigate M&A activity with regard to HR technology.

Because honestly, even though HR tech is my beat and dominates my professional life, these major shake-ups are not what has been consuming my thinking recently. While “big” news, these transactions pale in comparison to what is happening in the broader world of work.

In a “normal” world, the above-mentioned M&A activity and subsequent fallout would dominate the HR and workplace conversation. But, as everyone is well aware, nothing about the last few weeks has been “normal.” As of right now, the most important issue impacting work, workplaces and people across the globe is the increasingly scary and spreading coronavirus, or COVID-19. I won’t bother to recap the current state of the crisis; even if I could, that information would be dated within minutes of my writing it down. Let’s just say that, while things are not looking encouraging at the moment, eventually—let’s hope—this global crisis will begin to come under control, and things like software companies buying other software companies will capture our interest again.

Read also: How should HR approach coronavirus in the workplace

So, even if we are in the beginning stages of this crisis, or somewhere toward the midpoint, I do think there are already some extremely important things we can learn from it, and that can, and perhaps should, be applied to the organization of work, the design of workplaces and the ways that employers engage with employees and their communities.

First, and the most apparent workplace implication from the spread of COVID-19, surrounds the importance of remote work and work-from-home policies, including how open and prepared organizations are to adopt these policies. It seems likely that, with the virus emanating from China, the country with the world’s largest workforce, we are now in the middle of the largest-ever experiment with remote working. For many readers, whose organizations are in the U.S. and not as yet subject to significant or direct impacts, the time is now (actually the time was probably weeks or months ago) to put in place a comprehensive protocol for remote work. Policies, technologies and methods of communication and engagement all are needed. One of the many enduring lessons from COVID-19 will be how it shifts remote work from a “nice-to-have” perk to an essential component of every enterprise’s business and operations strategy.

Next, this crisis has to remind us—and force us—to recognize the truly global nature of work. Even if we think we are a small organization in the middle of America without any international operations or customers, this outbreak, which developed in a medium-sized city on the other side of the world, now affects all of us. Even the smallest organizations can see disruption in procurement, for example, given the global nature of manufacturing of parts and supplies of all kinds. Or, a prolonged crisis might impair ability to secure financing, if a global financial recession makes access to capital more difficult. And let’s not forget about people issues. You may have an employee with a relative working or living in one of the areas of the world under the most direct threat from COVID-19. You could have employees who now are unwilling to go on business travel, even domestically, after seeing news reports about the spread of the virus, and the idea of being in crowded airports and airplanes seems a risk not worth taking. It is eye-opening to think about how so much of the world is connected. And we have to think about our organizations in that way from now on.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this global crisis has reminded us all about the importance of open, timely and transparent communication. When things are uncertain, when events unfold that are outside our expectations and experiences, and especially when a situation seems a little bit scary, HR and business leaders have to actually lead. A large part of leadership is helping people work their way through this uncertainty in a manner that is calm, sensible and honest. Even if your organization is not yet directly at risk from COVID-19, chances are that, as this situation continues, your business will be impacted. Whether it is a dramatic fall in your stock price (and your employees’ 401(k) balances), a loss of revenue from canceled customer orders or something worse, your obligation as a leader is to communicate with your people as frequently and openly as possible. Even if you are a little bit uncertain or scared yourself.

I hope that by the time I have to draft the next monthly Inside HR Tech column, how organizations are leveraging HR solutions to help them achieve their business and talent strategies will be top of mind again. Thanks for indulging your friendly Inside HR Tech writer and I hope that you, your organization and your employees remain safe and healthy.