Aron Ain is a face-to-face kind of leader.
The CEO of HR and workforce management software company UKG likes to be in the same room with people, connecting in that way only handshakes and hugs can accomplish.
So COVID has been a challenge for him. Especially because 2020 turned out to be the year his former company, Kronos, merged with Ultimate Software to create UKG.
We spoke with Aron to hear about his journey merging the two cultures – while remote and during a pandemic. His story left us with five key takeaways.
Read on for the full story of how this empathetic leader focused on culture as well as the bottom-line health of the company.
How leaders can manage company culture during mergers
- Be ready to communicate with employees one-to-one and make it your priority
- Show vulnerability – it’s OK to say you don’t have all the answers and that the process can get messy
- Listen to what employees care about keeping in their culture – an employee survey with analysis functionality is a great way to do this
- Communicate how you promise to live up to employees’ requests and continue company culture strengths from each company
Remote M&A success
Using virtual meetings to integrate the two companies, with a combined 13,000 employees worldwide, was not Aron’s preferred method. But he and his newly merged leadership team at UKG pulled it off anyway, unveiling the company’s new name and brand identity in August, hiring roughly 1,200 additional employees and exceeding revised revenue targets.
UKG leaders relied heavily on the high-trust, caring cultures both Kronos and Ultimate had already established, as well as near-constant communication.
In that sense, COVID came with a silver lining for Aron and his team. By sending out “aron@work” videos shot by his wife on an iPhone roughly once a week, Aron revealed his humanity and vulnerability. And that in turn helped win over new employees even as it helped them cope with challenging times.
In a video published April 17, 2020, for example, Aron sat with his dog Sammy, admitted his own stress amid the pandemic, and urged employees to do what they needed to take care of themselves.
“I’m not having as much fun as I normally do. I feel a lot of anxiety at times….I’m not sure I’m really doing everything I can to look after my own needs, and my own care and my own self-care,” he said in the video.
“I think it’s important that we take care of ourselves. I think it’s important that we have balance. So you have my permission in the middle of the day to go take a nap. You have my permission in the middle of the day to go play a video game. You have my permission in the middle of the day to go read a book…I trust you to get your work done. I want you to have balance in your life.”
Caring computes for the Best in tech
Given Aron’s trust in and compassion for employees during a difficult year, it’s not surprising that UKG earned a place on the 2021 ranking of the Fortune Best Workplaces in Technology™. Great Place to Work® produced the list based on anonymous survey data representing nearly 122,000 employees working in the tech industry in the United States.
In the large-company category of the Best Workplaces in Technology, Cisco ranked first, followed by Salesforce and UKG. In the small-and-medium company category, work management software firm Asana took the top spot, followed by security technology company Expel and information technology staffing firm Peterson Technology Partners.
The Best Workplaces in Technology stand out for taking care of their people amid the challenges of COVID, the related recession, the racial reckoning and other crises of the past 12 months.
Caring leaders at the Best Workplaces in Technology have been preparing their companies to thrive as the business world emerges from the COVID downturn.
A remote work productivity study and analysis of employees’ experience during the pandemic by Great Place to Work was revealing. There is a strong tie between employee productivity and adaptability and leadership that is honest and understanding.
Communication keeps Aron Ain busy amid a stay-at-home merger
Aron took pains to demonstrate honesty and understanding to Ultimate Software employees from the beginning of the merger. In February, 2020, Aron visited Ultimate’s headquarters in Weston, Florida, to announce the planned combination of companies. He invited all employees to contact him with any questions.
They took him up on it.
About 2,000 messages flooded Aron’s inbox. He answered each one.
“I was working seven days a week to keep up,” he said.
Once the pandemic hit, most employees at the merging companies were sent home to work remotely and stay safe. But the questions kept coming. A major concern was layoffs.
“People were really scared that they were going to lose their jobs,” Aron said.
He and other leaders said they wouldn’t cut positions due to the pandemic, and they lived up to that pledge. In fact, they ended up hiring 1,200 new people in the past year, in addition to the roughly 6,000 each that came from Kronos and Ultimate.
Still, employees wondered how the new organization would take shape. Aron was peppered with questions about reorganizations and where people would land. If he didn’t know, he would say. If he knew and could announce it, he would. Sometimes a third option was necessary.
“I always tell the truth,” he said. “It might be: ‘I know but I can’t tell you, yet.’”
One piece of good news Aron shared at the outset of the merger had to do with benefits. Ultimate employees were used to their company paying 100 percent of health insurance premiums for families. As Aron met Ultimate folks on his February visit to Florida, he heard again and again how important that perk was. On the spot, he pledged to retain the 100 percent coverage.
“I always tell the truth. It might be: ‘I know but I can’t tell you, yet.’”
That led to extending the same benefit to Kronos employees and their family members. All told, when Aron and his team recalibrated benefits across both companies, a more generous package emerged. UKG’s suite of benefits represents a $35 million increase compared with the combined spend of the separate companies.
On the horizon: a merged company to meet in person
Currently, the vast majority of UKG employees are working from home. But as the pandemic fades, Aron expects many employees to return to the company facilities, including UKG’s twin headquarters in Lowell, Mass., and Weston, Fla.
That’s partly because Aron believes that employees working in the same physical location collaborate and innovate more effectively. But it also reflects what employees are telling Aron—they are itching to return to the office at least some of the time.
“There’s a lot more people who want to get back than people appreciate,” he says.
In the meantime, Aron will continue communicating with his staff in virtual ways.
It isn’t easy for him. “The most difficult thing is not being able to be with each other,” he said. “I have 6,000 employees from Ultimate who don’t, like, know me.”
In months ahead, he’ll get to meet more and more of his people the way he likes best: face-to-face.
Company culture is critical to M&A success
Has your company managed a merger or other challenge in a high-trust way? Apply to get on one of our lists.
If you want a comprehensive view of how employees are experiencing your merger and how you can maintain their trust, ask us about our employee survey and culture management platform – the same tool that helps UKG become a great place to work.