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Unleashing the Workforce

Unilever is taking worker agility to a whole new level by enabling staff to come and go as they please. As a result, executives at the company say, the multinational firm is reaping significant benefits, including huge cost savings and greater worker productivity.

Monday, November 5, 2012
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By Will Bunch

It sounded radical, maybe even a bit daft, a couple of years ago when top executives at Unilever -- the global consumer-products giant behind such iconic brands as Ben and Jerry's ice cream, Lipton tea and Dove soap -- unveiled the final details of their plan called Agile Working. After all, the plan would allow its office-based employees to surrender their cubicles and work any hours, and anywhere, they wanted to.

The Unilever program is essentially flex-time on steroids, and maybe human growth hormone to boot. And, today, employees -- such as those at the firm's main U.S. headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. -- say they have a hard time imagining ever taking another job without Agile Working.

That includes Christopher Raia, the global Agile Working leader, who finds -- on most days -- he prefers working from his home in southern Connecticut and connecting with employees over Skype or the Internet instead of fighting the traffic on the George Washington Bridge during a one-hour, one-way commute to reach the office. "I've been able to get 10 hours a week -- plus -- of my life back," says Raia, who re-invests some of that time back into his work and some of it into attending his kids' sporting events. He said he went from putting 24,000 miles a year on his car to just 6,000 last year. "Some weeks, it never leaves the garage," he says.

It includes Kerry Atlas, Unilever's North America director of internal communications, who finds it perfectly agreeable to get up at 6 in the morning to teleconference with her colleagues in London because the trade-off is all the afternoons that the mother of three can be there when her 7½-year-old twins get home from school. "There's no average day, really," she says.

And it includes Jeffrey Graubard, a Unilever media-relations manager who laughs when he relates how, on some Fridays, he starts out working from his home not far from the Englewood Cliffs office, but actually comes in to the facility to take a lunch break so he can catch up with his colleagues.

Just a couple of years into the Agile Working program, now up and running at 37 different Unilever workplaces around the globe and used by 80 percent of salaried employees, enthusiastic company executives believe they have achieved nothing short of re-inventing the office for the 21st century. The initiative included demolishing the cubicle farm and replacing it with collaborative workspaces with small shared working pods, sharply cutting travel and sinking the savings into teleconferencing, and increasing worker productivity while also reducing turnover because employees love the flexibility.

"In five to 10 years, this will not be Agile Working -- it will just be work," says Fiona Laird, the London-based senior vice president of human resources of Unilever N.V., who was a leader in creating the cutting-edge program when she worked at Englewood Cliffs. She says the main impetus for the unique program was a directive from Paul Polman, Unilever's CEO since 2009, to double the company's growth while cutting its environmental footprint in half; executives realized that was doable only by changing the fundamental way employees did their jobs.

Ironically, Laird spoke on a recent visit back to Englewood Cliffs from a corner office with a large window -- exactly the type of workspace that was once a motivational perk for rising executives but which Agile Working now seeks to obliterate. Downstairs, on the first floor, in a former cubicle space for Unilever's technology group, which was completely remodeled to become the firm's very first Agile work area, about 30 workers move about in a beehive of activity, plugged in at three-person workstations or chatting with co-workers in Europe in one of several ultra-modern teleconference rooms along the perimeter. Two of the employees are scanning computer monitors at what the company calls "touch-down stations," where workers can check their emails for a couple of minutes between tasks.

This first Agile Working room -- which either has been or is being replicated in a number of office areas across the suburban campus in North Jersey -- has a sleek, retro-modern feel with a high-end coffee bar crafted in glossy teakwood. Such wood is also used in the rounded row of lockers off to the corner where workers might keep a computer mouse, a keyboard, or maybe a digital picture frame of family photos they might plop down wherever they're working.

"It's a clean-desk policy," says Raia, as he strolls through the area, painted in bright, modern hues. "They're expected to clean it up [when they leave a desk]."

In the far corner, a large, high-definition TV is silently running commercials for Dove and other Unilever products, although the Agile Working chief admits it might be switched to a New York Yankees game in the heat of a pennant race. The new work areas are designed with as much focus on relaxation -- or "vitality zones," as they're known in the new Agile nomenclature, from the stray foosball table to treadmills where employees can also plug in an iPad while exercising -- as they would be able to in more conventional work.

Unilever's all-in approach to workplace flexibility comes as the first wave of variable schedules and telecommuting opportunities becomes standard HR practice across corporate America. Last year, the Society for Human Resource Management reported that, for the first time, more than half of all U.S. companies -- 53 percent -- offered employees the opportunity to work flexible hours or in programs such as job sharing.

Reed Deshler, a principal at Louisville, Ky.-based organization-design consultancy AlignOrg Solutions, agrees such flexibility -- particularly at the scope and scale of Unilever's -- has the potential to boost the company's productivity and its potential, but he also offers a few caveats. Most importantly, he says, the benefits of a flexible workforce need to go beyond just increased employee satisfaction; the changing work routines in the program -- such as increased teleconferencing -- need to align with the strategic goals of boosting its consumer-products lines.

"There are a lot of things that employees might love, such as higher pay or increased benefits," Deshler says, "but has the organization put in a program that aligns with what it is trying to do," such as persuading consumers to purchase Unilever products?

Deshler also says companies need to be aware of what he calls a "ripple effect" from such aggressive flexible-working programs, because changes such as employees working from home or at odd hours will surely have other unanticipated effects on the work flow.

That said, many HR executives have come to see flex-time, or increased telecommuting, as a key way to boost engagement and morale at a time when the sluggish economy has made it harder to offer pay raises as a traditional retention tool.

At first, such programs targeted parents, who saw flex-time as the ideal way to continue working amid the increased challenges of raising a child.

But, in recent years, technology companies such as Google and other Silicon Valley stalwarts also started experimenting with granting their wired employees -- mostly younger workers who tended to be early adopters of the latest technologies, from laptops to smartphones to social networking -- freedom to work from home or their local coffee house, as long as they completed their necessary tasks.

One advantage of these so-called "unleashed workers" in the tech industry is a reduction in office space amid sky-high real-estate costs. In the mid-2000s, the Richfield, Minn.-based consumer-electronics giant Best Buy switched its office and sales work to an 100-percent flex-time program called the "results-only work environment," or ROWE, which evaluates worker performance on their output and not the hours that were put in.

Birth of a Good Idea

But until now, no one had really attempted such an ambitious -- and mandatory -- flexible-working schedule at a company quite like Unilever, a food and cosmetics powerhouse with main headquarters in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and London and with more than 171,000 employees operating in more than 100 countries across the globe.

Laird says the idea for Agile Working came to company leaders about five years ago, during a two-week, once-a-decade company retreat for 30 senior company executives below the board-member level. It was there that University of Michigan business-strategy guru C.K. Prahalad urged the Unilever managers to re-think the core concepts of work. When Polman arrived as CEO with his emphasis on environmental conservation, Laird and a few associates began seriously thinking about ways to leverage new technology into a different kind of work environment.

Laird says the initial ideas were too piecemeal. "We had the technical people coming to me and saying, 'Well, we're printing on both sides of the paper.' Everybody was doing something, but nobody was working holistically." The technology staffers -- most aware of the changes at IT-oriented companies -- were the first ones to be pitched the Agile Working program but, Laird recalls, even they harbored serious doubts.

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"I still remember standing at a 'town hall' [meeting] in the cafeteria with several hundred IT people looking at me, tapping their fingers rapidly, asking, 'What do you want? You're going to take our cubicles away and our offices away?' " Not surprisingly, Laird says, some of the biggest resistance to change came from a few veteran senior managers at the company, who equated solid work performance with long hours at the office. Laird says a few concerned higher-ups complained to her that "you're taking the work out of working."

There were other concerns, including security, with so much communication moving to the web, and particularly what Laird and others at Unilever called "boundary issues." In other words, would the ability to work from home and at any hour of the day or night mean that stressed-out employees would feel they were always on the clock?

But Unilever officials say the immediate benefits of the move have been clear. One of the most obvious has been the ability to sharply reduce the company's investment in real estate. "You know, we build these huge buildings, these big offices, for people," says Raia, "and they're empty all the time. It's kind of a waste of real estate, a waste of money." Unilever believes that, by consolidating offices, Agile Working will allow the firm to reduce its real-estate footprint by 40 percent over time.

But for the European-led firm, other environmental savings are just as important, if not more so. Company executives say the reductions in travel are the result of both telecommuting from home and curtailed corporate travel, especially overseas, thanks to the big increase in teleconferencing. Unilever reports that just its state-of-the-art Telepresence video-conferencing technology, alone, has eliminated the need for 38,202 short and long-haul flights, and 113,507 tons of carbon dioxide, threby cutting its travel costs by more than $50 million.

The program is also helping Unilever meet its diversity goals, since the ability to work so frequently from home is not only a boon to keeping working mothers on the job, but also makes it easier to employ workers with disabilities.

That does not mean there aren't challenges -- especially when trying to carry out the program across so many continents. "People in Asia are very culturally different than North America," Raia says. "It's more hierarchical, and people are expected to be in the office."

Unilever officials note that, in Asia, Africa and other parts of the world, workers may live in small apartments that are not set up for broadband, and may not even be air-conditioned -- making it hard to encourage employees to work at home.

Nevertheless, Laird says, any downside is usually outweighed by the benefits of flexibility -- which is different for almost every individual. She says she realized Agile Working was paying off when a valued co-worker in London said his Italian wife was determined to return home for the birth of their first child. "I told him, 'You're going to be in Italy for three months, you're going to be with your wife. I just need you to be present -- I don't need you strolling the halls [here in the London office]. You're part of a global marketing organization."

When senior managers appeared reluctant to adopt the program, Laird says, she told them they already trusted their sales staffers to work outside the office, as long as they made their targets; they could now establish metrics to make sure other types of workers are fully productive. One of the executives, she says, told her, "I like seeing people in the office, because I know that they're working,"

"I said, 'Do you know they're working?' He said, 'Gee, I think that they're working.' "

Officials such as Tom Navarra, director of human resources at Englewood Cliffs, say flexibility has meant that, while, initially, only about 50 percent of the workers thought Agile Working was good idea, now about 95 percent of workers support it. "It's just the openness" of the new workspace [that works so well], he says. "I can breathe. I can see the light. I can see a window. I can see people. If the reason to come to work is collaboration, it's in your face, as opposed to down the hall and around 14 corners to get there."

Not far from where Navarra spoke, a former suite of top corporate offices has seen all the walls knocked down -- but the hulking desks once occupied by senior executives are still there. Sometimes, young Unilever workers plop down on them with their laptops, doing their work on what is, already, an artifact from the 20th century.

 

 

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