An agile working revolution

Unilever scooped not only one but two awards at this year’s Top Employer Awards. The consumer products company won Innovation in Flexible Working and overall Top Employer. The judges praised its innovative approach to agile working and the global scope of what it was doing.

agile working


The awards crown a year of worldwide activity by the multinational consumer goods company to spread the message to its staff about the benefits agile working can bring.

Unilever launched its agile working programme in 2008. “We recognised the way the world of work was changing,” explains Fiona Laird, senior vice president, HR.

“Technologies now allow us to work anywhere, any time. Which means the reasons we come into the office today are very different.”

The new way of work focuses on results and performance and not the traditional measure of success: time and attendance.

The programme is endorsed at the most senior level, with sponsorship from the Chief HR Officer with broad business support: Finance, IT and Workplace are all represented on the leadership team.

The company was also clear that to successfully implement a change in work culture, it had to appeal to everyone – the business, employees and the environment.

So it has focused on delivering a broad range of benefits, such as improving business capabilities, talent attraction and retention, employee engagement, cost and sustainability savings.

And with Unilever’s ambition to double the size of its business and halve its environmental impact over the next decade, those broad benefits have made the programme central to its global business strategy.

Agile working is already contributing to this: the use of premium video conferencing has saved 40 million and 113,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions through travel avoidance in 2011 alone, increased staff retention [73% of staff say they are more likely to stay with the company as a result of its new ways of working] and boosted productivity [80% says their productivity has increased].


Technology has been key to the transformation. Employees use virtual collaboration tools such as video conferencing to keep in touch and cut down on travel.

Most managers have laptops. And while Unilever isn’t a technology company, Laird says the company addressed gaps in company tools by allowing employees to use consumer technology such as Skype and to use their own smart phones for work.

“There are a lot of consumer solutions out there,” says Laird.

Part of the agile working changes involve transforming the workplace. Offices are designed around activities – the focus zone [an open plan desk area for individual work]; the connect zone [where they collaborate]; and the vitality zone which can include a gym, staff shop and other facilities such as a swimming pool, hair salon or even a spa – all designed to engage employees with the company’s brands.

But these redesigned workplaces are also typically 30% cost and 40% energy-efficient, as technology enables staff to work more remotely.

“In the old days people came to the office because the tools they required to work were there. Now they come to collaborate, feel part of a team and experience our brands. So our workplaces now reflect that, and are really dynamic, great places to work,” says Laird.

So far 20 head offices around the world, from Sao Paolo to Singapore, have become fully agile workplaces and 28 more are in progress. In these offices less than 5% of people will typically come into the office every day. And those who do might choose to work flexible hours and will desk-share – moving around the building based on their activity.


The company’s approach is policy-light – with global principles offering a framework for line managers, stating that any Unilever employee can be agile, as long as the needs of the business can be met.

To change the culture, Unilever has invested in line manager, HR and employee training.

So far over 10,000 employees have chosen to participate in Agile Workshops, which include working with virtual teams, and practical IT sessions to improve the use of technology.

According to Fiona, one typical issue is helping line managers trust their people when they can’t physically see them every day. “We teach them how to use technology to have visibility of their teams in ways that were never possible before,” she says.

In reality, she adds that the challenges are quite the opposite. “Overwork is always a risk if you blur the lines between work and personal life and don’t help people make the adjustment,” she says.

“We are training managers to understand that agile working is about making people more productive and giving them freedom and choice around when and where they work.

It’s not about making them work all the time. It has to be a win for employees and the business to be a successful proposition.”

Critical to the programme’s success is its ability to adapt to cultural differences and local legislation.

In Moscow, for instance, staff did not like the idea of working from home so they came up with another idea – they linked up to a wifi map and started organising meetings in places like local libraries or having team ‘away days’ in a community centre.

“People come up with very innovative ways of bringing agile working to life,” says Laird.

The workshops were complemented by an internal marketing campaign and information events at local offices. The campaign is still rolling out globally and has reached 50 countries and more than 25,000 employees so far.

It involves a lot of positive branding around agile working, including posters showing stories of real employees. “It’s about promoting the benefits at a personal level,” says Laird.

“We use local people and their stories to make it locally relevant and credible. Having these very visible messages about how flexibility can benefit the business and employees challenges those managers who perhaps have more old fashioned views.”

She adds that the education campaign has transformed attitudes. “At first there were some employees or leaders who didn’t get it. Now most of our employees and leaders really champion it and use it to their advantage – and drive productivity at the same time.

That includes a lot of working mums who have been able to continue to progress their career as well as spend time with their families as a result of agile working.”

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