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Success Story

Unilever embraces the digital revolution and enhances the employee experience

A success story from HR 4.0: Shaping People Strategies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Future of Work|Inclusion and Diversity|Talent|Total Rewards
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April 29, 2020

In response to global and local business and human capital challenges, Unilever uses imperatives 2, 3, 4 and 6 from the HR 4.0 framework to generate and sustain employability and accelerate growth.

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About HR 4.0

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is blurring lines between people and technology – changing the ways people work and businesses produce value. A white paper, published by the World Economic Forum, presents HR 4.0, a framework for shaping people strategies in the 4IR, and examines the role of the HR function as a key driver in defining how work is done and how the workforce evolves.

Unilever, a large multinational consumer goods company headquartered in Europe, responds to global and local business and human capital challenges as market forces shape the competitive landscape. Their top priority is accelerating growth. This depends largely on their power to attract and retain the best and diverse talent.

Enhancing the employee experience through technology

To deliver on strategic growth opportunities, Unilever has worked to release capacity in their workforce while simplifying the existing employee experience. Their research indicated that employees spend a disproportionate amount of time on navigating internal services, losing almost a day of productivity a week on non-value-added activities, including changing tools, processes and policies. Coupled with the increasing pressure for employers to digitalize the employee environment, Unilever opted for a digital solution to optimize administration and engage employees. Using an integrated, single point of entry, employees can access information with ease, replacing generic query handling while still customizing responses based on employee profiles. Complex queries are resolved using a digital artificial intelligence chat bot through natural language conversation. Unilever complements technology with a front facing People Experience role to support employees end-to-end. The capacity unlocked through technology and automation is reinvested into human support which provides employees with a human touch for their day-to-day needs, redirecting focused support where it really matters to the individual. This has resulted in over 1 million interactions and searches, translating to an estimated 300,000 hours freed up annually for employees and HR. Employee satisfaction scores have increased, and there is a quicker query resolution turnaround time. Employees have more capacity to focus on more productive activities, learning, wellbeing or finding their purpose.

Unilever complements technology with a front facing People Experience role to support employees end-to-end.

Building strategic talent pools to support a diversity and inclusion (D&I) workforce

Unilever is ensuring alignment between human and financial capital so that the organization is more effective at driving sustained performance. In response to market changes to “buy local” and “hyper personalization”, Unilever has undergone a transformation process to shift strategic decision-making processes from a global level to a local level. Decision-making power is being distributed to those who are closest to the consumer to ensure that local talent and expertise can have greater business impact. As a large multinational, Unilever uses ‘cells’ to help balance the global and local approach, and each are at the intersection of local versus global, or divisions or product category versus market. Their Talent First model identifies and focuses on roles that deliver the highest amounts of value for each cell depending on its individual strategic direction. Key talent is identified using non-hierarchal, data-driven methodologies to drive return on investment for the organization. They also highlight talent investment opportunities for strategic development interventions. Their goal is to build breadth and depth of strategic talent pools to support a diverse and inclusive workforce. Supporting this initiative is a customized internal talent platform that connects talent with flexible project opportunities. Their Talent First Strategy has ensured full coverage of C-level roles and General Managers, where GM talent have broad future fit experience and meet high standards of leadership. It has also resulted in a gender-balanced management team. They strive to further their D&I initiatives and enable a high performing culture by becoming the employer of choice for people with disabilities, aiming for 5% by 2025. They’ve also developed the Unilever Future Leaders programme to keep prime access to early-career top talent and continue to build a leadership powerhouse. Specific to digital talent, Unilever focuses on recruiting and retaining a critical mass.

Decision-making power is being distributed to those who are closest to the consumer to ensure that local talent and expertise can have greater business impact.

Investing in the livelihood of displaced employees by partnering with government to ensure their continued relevance

Changes in local markets and automation has prompted Unilever to find solutions which protect the wellbeing and livelihood of their workforce. When deploying technology, they identify those affected and how, and explore solutions with local government bodies and non-governmental agencies. For example, their efforts in future-proofing tea-plantations in Kenya required a business transformation. Operational and mechanization trends were identified, and an analysis was carried out on how it would impact low-skilled workers and their immediate and distant family members who depend on them. Their current skill levels were analysed, and numerous agricultural opportunities were identified for individual workers and which would also have a positive impact on the Kenyan community. Reskilling initiatives were deployed, along with funding programmes for those who became entrepreneurs. There were over 2,000 retrenched employees who are now in alternative sustainable employment, translating into over 10,000 sustained livelihoods. There were also over 1,200 impacted employees enrolled in artisanal trade projects, mainly in hand woven craft and homemade detergents on a small scale. Trade unions and social partners have indicated the positive social impact the initiative has had in the community.

When deploying technology, they identify those affected and how, and explore solutions with local government bodies and non-governmental agencies.

Unilever’s Framework for the Future of Work: accelerating business transformation through lifelong learning

Unilever’s strategy is ‘Purpose led, Future Fit’. They aim to prove that purpose-led brands, businesses and people deliver improved financial and societal impact by ensuring all their brands have a deeper and authentic societal and environmental purpose. Unilever strives to be a company that delivers on the trust consumers have in them and are building a sustainable and responsible future of work. Organizations are operating in a world of extensive disruption brought on by the 4IR. The Consumer Goods industry, which employs about 20% of the world’s workforce, is no different. They are seeing growth slow down across all sectors and markets as the traditional value-creation model falters, driven by the rise of digital intimacy, rapidly shifting patterns of consumption, increased activism, changes in generational norms and expectations, and geopolitical shifts. Simultaneously, the world of work is also changing for the reasons explored in this paper. Unilever has thus developed a system anchored in the commitment that the organization has a responsibility to generate and sustain employability, has a need to accelerate its own capabilities, and will meet these through increased investment and commitment to lifelong learning and by pioneering radical new forms of employment. This set of activities is called ‘The Framework for the Future of Work’ (see Figure 1 in the downloadable PDF). The framework aims to deliver a purpose-driven, future-fit social contract of work for employees in a time of significant change, and to do so in a way that simultaneously enables business transformation. Implementation of the Framework aims to:

  1. 01

    Ignite lifelong learning.

    Unilever will proactively ensure all employees have a ‘My Future Plan’ and are deliberately building their future employability for new roles within Unilever or externally. In an era of continuous change, ensuring their workforce is equipped to thrive is a fundamental piece to employee wellbeing. Each employee must identify one or more future pathways for themselves among four options, varying from upskilling or reskilling within Unilever, reskilling for a role outside of Unilever, or transitioning to a new model of employment.

  2. 02

    Change the way they change.

    Procedural and process-driven change approaches often require consensus and can be slow. Since 80% of Unilever’s units are unionized, there is a risk of strikes, negotiations and protests undermining their purpose-led agenda publicly. They aim to work with employees and union representatives to build awareness, facilitate dialogue and proactively co-create employee plans.

  3. 03

    Redefine the Unilever system of work.

    Unilever will develop new forms of employment within the organization, whereby employees have the option to move between fixed and flex employment. Pilot schemes are underway in the UK and include initiatives to ‘pool’ people to share with other organizations.


This success story was published by the World Economic Forum in December 2019 and has been reproduced with permission.

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