MERGERS and acquisitions (M&As) often look like a great idea on paper: One company builds its core competencies and market share, or two struggling companies find market strength and profitability by joining forces.

When companies undertake M&As, it is imperative to think beyond a one-off announcement, media release and half-day change workshop for staff. These activities alone will not address employee and market fears of corporate downsizing, redeployment and redundancies and the feelings that are associated with them.

It does not take long for uncertainty, mistrust and panic to escalate into low morale as employees speculate about their immediate future.

Leaders who dismiss these behaviours, attitudes and feelings may be alarmed to realise that the first people to leave an organisation, following an M&A, are the future stars of the organisation.

Seek staff opinion

Companies must plan to move forward before an M&A takes place by planning appropriately and adequately for people issues, including areas such as workforce deployment plans, an assessment of human capital, fair selection processes, legal compliance, communication, employee separation and post-acquisition recovery.

It may be necessary to bring in a consulting firm with expertise in corporate culture and employee engagement.

Organisations should consider it essential to seek employee reaction and opinion immediately following an organisational change.

Gauging employee reaction also sends a strong message that opinions and attitudes are important. Understanding workplace-related issues provides employers with the information needed to develop appropriate interventions that will make the remaining employees want to stay.

Audit the team

Organisational changes also cause gaps in job responsibility and skill sets. Executives need to audit their teams to see what jobs are duplicated and where talent can be reassigned.

When planning for a merger, other questions that need to be addressed include:

"What areas of corporate knowledge or expertise need to be protected?"

"What should be the timing of the changes? Who should be responsible for them?"

"How significant will the overall culture change be?"

Communicate clearly

Change creates uncertainty for employees, customers and suppliers.

A well-conceived, clear communication programme that begins in the early phases of any change event is one of the most effective ways to raise morale, as well as retain customers and key employees.

A thorough communication strategy should address the following questions:

* What are employees' main concerns?

* How can messages be formulated to address employee concerns?

* What media are most appropriate for various messages and target audiences?

* How can the negative effects of events such as transfers, staff reductions or demotions be reduced?

* How should internal communication programmes be orchestrated and coordinated with other activities?

Train managers

Managers leading employees through transition have a critical role in the organisation's success.

Middle managers are in the best position to generate employee participation and drive the change because they have a closer relationship with line staff.

In deciding management's role in the change-management process, executives should consider the following questions:

* How can managers use their knowledge of employee skills and goals to gain buy-in to the change?

* How will managers evaluate their employees' emotional health through the change process?

* Do managers have the skills to facilitate employees' progress through the change process?

Provide support

Regardless of the level of support given, some people will struggle with the transition and may be targeted for outplacement or prefer to leave.

By providing career transition support and assistance to employees who are losing their jobs, organisations accelerate their former employees' time to re-employment and minimise the trauma - both to those dismissed and to the organisation's workforce, image and focus.

Empower staff

Many view organisational change as a negative, but there are positives to be drawn as well.

Today, people may have to step sideways, backwards and make giant leaps upwards to achieve what they want and continue their development.

This notion means that traditional career "ladders" have become "lattices". So while it may feel disloyal, the departure of some staff can give the remaining staff a chance to shine.

With organisational change, the gaps in skills and experience will require the remaining staff to extend themselves beyond their current position.

This is an opportunity for employees to show they are capable of taking on extra responsibilities.

In doing so, it is vital to recognise and create appropriate levels of authority, accountability and remuneration.

Retain key employees

As turnover often increases during change, it is essential to retain key managers and staff after the change.

Here are some questions to consider when developing a retention strategy:

* How will the organisation address high performers' vulnerability to competitor poaching, their discomfort with the circumstances, and concern about the future of their job with the company?

* How will the retention strategy address the career needs of key staff?

Ultimately, you will not be able to keep all staff happy during organisational change. However, the number of resignations and extent of staff satisfaction can be managed by implementing these simple but essential techniques.

With careful planning, a people-focused approach and other transition strategies, change events can lead to an adaptable, productive and responsive organisation that is successful now and in the future.