The Age of Agility

A few years ago global consumer products corporation Unilever realized it needed to expand while cutting costs and carbon output. Now, Unilever employees can work whenever they like, wherever they like, as long as their work gets done.

Unilever calls this “agile working,” and it shifts the emphasis from time and attendance to specific targets and goals, creating a location-independent concept of work. “The idea was to really transform the culture around working at Unilever so the company could be more competitive as a global entity in a very competitive global marketplace,” said Chris Raia, vice president of organizational effectiveness and leader of the company’s agile working program.

But Unilever had to figure out how to unite a workforce spread across nearly every time zone in a way that was convenient for everyone. “Unilever’s business model is one where much of the innovation that the company brings to market is generated by global teams and then implemented in operating companies around the world,” Raia said.

The company had to look for ways to help people work more effectively on global teams using technology while simultaneously reducing real estate costs and becoming more environmentally sustainable.

Unilever leaders realized that while promoting efficiency and sustainability, they could also create a place that made employees’ lives better despite increasing pressure to be more productive.

“Business conditions have never been more competitive,” Raia said. “We weren’t facing any really acute issues with people. There was just a general awareness on behalf of the HR function and senior leaders of the company that people are feeling stretched, that we have to help people work differently, more flexibly and in more balanced ways; to remove what we call the ‘artificial barriers’ to productivity, to help them not only be better at their work but also have a better quality of life.”

The Agile Worker Model
Raia refers to his colleague Jacobina Plummer, a global change and communications manager in London, as the model agile worker. She may not come to the office for two weeks, but she has not missed a day of work.

“There is no real ‘typical day’ for me,” Plummer said. “I choose where I need to be for the activity that I need to do that day. … If I want to talk to my boss, Chris, we will have a Skype conversation, and I can do that from the office, but it’s often easier to just do that from home. We’ll often work on documents using Skype, so we’ll spend up to two hours a day doing desk sharing on Skype together.”

Plummer said the key to staying focused in a boundary-less position is clear communication about not only the goals she’s expected to achieve but the availability of each team member. “We’re not focusing on working nine to five. I sometimes work at seven in the morning, I sometimes work until 11 at night, and I’ll go for a run at lunch time or I’ll have the evening off. Sometimes I’ll work really long hours, and sometimes I won’t,” Plummer said.

It’s all about having performance-based targets rather than focusing on time and attendance, she said, and leveraging technology and flexible work arrangements to support them. “I’ve got four main goals for the year, and every week we go through where we’re at with everything.”

Plummer said that since she started with the company, the shift to the agile model has improved her quality of life and even her feelings of productivity. “My first job at Unilever, my boss expected to see me every day from 8:45 in the morning until six at night. He was looking at his watch to see how long you took for your lunch break. Now, Chris doesn’t see me and I don’t really need to go into the office … as long as he can get a hold of me, and he sees the work being done.”

Unilever identified three pillars to promote its agile concept: workplaces, technology and work practices (Figure 1).

First, the company scrapped conventional ideas of what an office should be and started from scratch. “Offices used to be traditionally individually assigned offices and cubes. We’ve gotten rid of that in most of our locations,” Raia said.

Unilever workspaces now have different zones for each employee need. “Rather than building our offices around people, we build our offices around activities,” Raia said. For example, in “focus zones” workers have their pick of several individual work stations arranged cafe style, meaning users come and go, and there is no ownership.

“Connect zones” serve as spaces for virtual and physical meeting. They come in many sizes but are all loaded with the communication technologies. “Refresh zones” are stocked with amenities such as food and gyms to keep employees active and inspired.

Second, Unilever invested heavily in technology. “We’ve implemented a lot of new technologies in two categories: the first category we call advanced mobility, which means the ability to get your data from anywhere. We give people great laptops, smartphone devices, we have applications like SharePoint, we’re getting into cloud computing … the ability to access the data and the applications from anywhere and get your job done,” Raia said.

“The second technology group is called virtual collaboration technology, which is things like Microsoft Lync, Skype, Communicator, Live Meeting, telepresence — it’s the technologies that allow people to communicate virtually from distributed sites.”

The final piece was training to create the desired environment. Raia said this involved breaking down the cultural barriers to how work is done.

“The expectation that you have to be in the office during certain hours, the expectation or cultural norm that meeting with someone in person is more valuable than meeting with them through a phone call or telepresence interface [is gone]. The idea that it’s not OK to take an hour in the middle of the day to go exercise or to go take care of a personal errand [is gone]. Flexibility is the key. We said to people, ‘You can work wherever and whenever you want, as long as the job gets done.’ No more tracking time, no more time and attendance. None of that.”

Unexpected Challenges and Cultural Training
Several challenges arose when implementing this enterprise-wide change. Many centered around the need to train employees to use technologies. Some required a deeper examination of cultural norms.

“We have some leaders that are very progressive, very enlightened around flexible working. They may understand that ‘that’s the way kids work today’ — the people that are coming into the workforce, the younger workers that we’re getting — and they totally buy in,” Raia said.

But not everyone has been so easy to convince. “We do have some leaders still in the business that think it’s unprofessional. When you go to work you show up to work. We’re really trying to change those mindsets, and that’s really been a program of influence and cultural change, trying to demonstrate the value [of agile working] to those resisters.”

One issue related to technology implementation centered on a lack of access across the global workforce.

“People don’t have access to broadband connections,” Raia said. “They have smaller personal living quarters where they can’t necessarily work from home. There are some very different cultures around hierarchy and around how work gets done in other parts of the world that we’ve had to address.”

Many workers also report experiencing difficulty unplugging from work in their free form schedule. Training helps people to negotiate with their co-workers and be courteous and offers lessons around work etiquette to minimize problems.

“When teams adopt the agile model, we actually sit down with them and have a working discussion, and we talk about things like time zones,” Raia said. “We talk about work overload, we talk about setting boundaries, we talk about explicitly checking once in a while with members of the team to see that everybody’s OK.”

Despite the challenges, Raia said overall the change has been positive, and the company’s image has improved. “We also feel that it makes us better able to attract good talent in the marketplace.”

It hasn’t always been easy, but the shift to the agile model has paid off, Plummer said. “It does take more discipline than a traditional job, both on the manager and the person who reports to them I think, just to make sure that it’s a win for the business and a win for the employee as well. It’s a very fine balance.”