Unilever’s HR boss on stitching the world of work back together

The coronavirus pandemic, remote working and digital revolution have all turned work on its head, leaving Unilever’s chief human resources officer Leena Nair with plenty to do

When Leena Nair told her father about her plan to switch from electronics and telecoms engineering to human resources, he made no attempt to hide his disappointment. “Who the hell cares about human resources?” he asked.

Fast forward nearly three decades and 51-year-old Nair has her answer: millions of us care, if not billions. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic, layered with the impact of digital revolution, have turned the world of work upside down and it is HR professionals like Nair who are tasked with stitching it back together.

Helping staff thrive

Despite the huge uncertainties ahead – Nair isn’t even sure when she’ll return to the office – Unilever’s London-based chief human resources officer remains remarkably upbeat. The company’s market dominance definitely helps. Unilever’s portfolio of global household brands – think Persil, Domestos, Hellmann’s, Dove and PG Tips, to name but a few – has shielded it from the worst of the pandemic’s woes.

The stride in Nair’s step also owes to Unilever’s new corporate strategy. Unveiled last May, the ten-year plan commits the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant to a three-pronged “purpose”, one of which is helping its 155,000 employees “thrive”.

Talk of thriving runs counter to the general sense of doom hanging over the future of work. After four years in the top job, Nair knows the spiel as well as anyone: “robots taking over your job”, “only data matters”, “your livelihood is going”, as she herself puts it.

Where she differs is her aversion to pessimism. Her philosophy in a nutshell: “You don’t have to have change done to you; you can embrace the change and feel in control of your own story.”

It’s not just idle chatter either. In late-January, Unilever unveiled a slew of work-related commitments aimed at making good such talk. The list includes a pledge to skill up its entire workforce, pioneer new employment models and provide skills training for ten million young people worldwide. 

Commenting on the targets, Nair observes that big business remains decidedly quiet about its social role, especially when compared to the buzz around the green agenda. A rebalancing is needed. She says: “I’m really hoping that the social side also has its Greta Thunberg moment.”

Purpose: pushing the P-word

Most projections for global employment are pretty bleak, so is Nair’s upbeat optimism misplaced? Possibly. But she believes Unilever’s focus on purpose will be important to attracting and retaining top talent.

Nair is by no means the first to trumpet the P-word and its virtues. Businesses nowadays are tripping over themselves to breathe purpose into who they are and what they do. Yet the current buzzword has no more vocal fan than this one-time engineer.

Her zeal derives, in part, from her earlier point about change. As she elaborates: “If you work in the areas that you are fully passionate and purposeful about, you feel more in control of the change that’s happening to you.”

Rare among enthusiasts, Nair also has a profoundly pragmatic streak. Leaving people to stumble on their purpose is, she judges, ill-advised. Naturally, she has her own purpose nailed – “igniting the human spark” – but she knows most of us are happy just to muddle through.

To that end, Unilever is rolling out workshops across its global operations to help employees pinpoint their personal purpose and map out a plan for delivering it. The intention is to cover everyone on the company’s payroll over the next four years, from the C-suite to the factory floor.

If it sounds all very hippy-dippy, then Nair has hard numbers to suggest otherwise. More than nine in ten (92 per cent) of workshop participants, for example, say they now expend greater “discretionary effort” at work and are less likely to jump ship.

Layer this on top of Unilever’s strong sense of corporate purpose, namely “to make sustainable living commonplace”, and you have a powerful mix. Enough, at any rate, to make it the top employer of choice in 54 of the 75 markets where it operates.

“In truth, I don’t have to work very hard at attracting people to Unilever because they believe this is a force-for-good company,” says Nair.

Skilling up: battling the robots

Purpose is all well and good, but it won’t stop you losing your job to a robot. This salient truth is not lost on Nair, who returns to Unilever’s pledge to upskill its entire workforce by 2025.

Much of this training will be offered online. The company’s own elearning platform has in excess of two million curated courses covering “every subject under the sun”. Under a recently introduced flexible-working scheme, employees also have the option to take career breaks for further study.

Interestingly, Unilever’s “future-fit” vision for the world of work extends beyond its own immediate ranks. Without a major skills upgrade, Nair argues, a huge cohort of tomorrow’s workforce face exclusion from our evermore digitalised economy.

Benevolent as such actions may be, there’s also a hard-edged logic to them. Ten million well-paid workers equals ten million more consumers who are ready and able to buy a multipack of Signal toothpaste, say, or a tub of Wall’s ice cream.   

The same twin reasons underlie Unilever’s recent call for a global living wage, which it expects all its suppliers to be paying by 2030 at the latest. For its part, Nair says Unilever is committed to spending €2 billion a year on firms owned by women and other diverse suppliers to support better-paid work for all.

Like so many companies, Unilever finds itself in the curious position of using digital tech to resolve problems of digitalisation’s own making. Its youth training pledge, for instance, will be met in large part through a web platform packed with webinars, elearning courses and links to internships.

Flexibility with security

So what kind of working patterns await the swathes of purpose-driven, upskilled workers Nair hopes soon to have in her employ? 

One thing is for sure, they won’t be heading into the office for five days a week, 52 weeks a year. Working from home may be starting to wear thin, but that doesn’t mean office workers want a complete return to the way things were.

Again, the disruptions of COVID-19 are serving to accelerate pre-existing trends, says Nair: “COVID has shown us that we have to reinvent the way we work; every single one of us has yearned to break some of the traditional norms.”

Unilever’s package of solutions goes a step beyond the usual flexi-work arrangement of a day or two at home. It’s not just the shape of the working week that’s up for grabs – Unilever’s operations in New Zealand are piloting a four-day week, for instance – but contract models are also in line for an overhaul.

Take its Flex platform. Pitched as an “internal marketplace” for short-term projects, the service alerts employees to temporary tasks across the business. Nair imagined uptake might hit 2,000 placements a year; current numbers are running at five times that figure. 

More radical is U-Work, a recently introduced model that allows employees and contractors to work on a retainer basis. Unilever guarantees between six weeks and six months work a year, with the remaining time left to the individual to fill as they please.

Nair is quick to rebut the comparison to gig-economy contracts, insisting that payment terms and benefits are proportionally equivalent to those of full-time workers.

“In all the options we are creating, we are combining flexibility with security, so people are able to balance their life and work in a way that’s meaningful to them,” she says.

Flexibility, security, balance, meaning: think you don’t care about human resources, then think again.