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Preparing people to adapt and thrive in changing times


As Unilever unveils three major work-related commitments, we talk with Unilever Chief Human Resources Officer, Leena Nair about her vision for a new social contract of work.

Young woman in lab coat and goggles. Unilever is committed to upskilling young people for ‘future fit’ job opportunities

We have announced a wide-ranging set of commitments and actions to raise living standards across our value chain, create opportunities through inclusivity and prepare people for the future of work. In the area of the future of work, we are making three commitments:

  • To reskill or upskill all employees to ensure that by 2025 they will all have a future-fit skill set.
  • To pioneer employment models to provide all our people with access to *flexible employment options by 2030.
  • To help equip 10 million young people with essential skills to prepare them for job opportunities by 2030.

Leena shares her thoughts about the challenges and opportunities for the future of work – and how Unilever is proactively responding.

What’s the thinking behind these new commitments?

It’s no huge revelation that Covid-19 has upturned the way we all work. Millions of us are now working in ways we couldn’t have imagined a year or so ago. Yet many of these changes were well underway before the pandemic hit.

Just look at the dramatic impact automation and digitalisation have been having on manufacturing and services. Across all industries, people are having to learn to adapt and even reinvent themselves. Our commitments are about us getting ahead of this curve.

Every process of change needs a vision: what’s yours for the world of work?

In a nutshell, it’s about helping people thrive. The best way we can help people do that is by assisting them in identifying their purpose and equipping them with the skills to pursue it.

This is about individuals proactively defining their future rather than having the future defined for them. Our new commitments are geared towards making that vision a reality, both for our people and for millions of others.

Why is the idea of helping people find their purpose so important?

Being guided by your purpose is so important! We know it can be overwhelming knowing where to start when it comes to learning new skills. Your purpose is the starting point and it’s your ticket to helping you thrive. It’s about motivation as well. We don’t just want to equip people with skills. We want them to have the will to develop their skills in the first place. What better motivation is there to learn than having a personal purpose to aim for?

Are these commitments a response to the changing expectations of employees?

Definitely, 100%. I spend hours every day talking to people across our organisation. It’s one of the things about my job I love most. And what I’m hearing louder and louder is people’s desire for greater flexibility, as well as for personal and professional enrichment.

This announcement embraces this shift in expectations and provides clear steps on how to see them realised. I also love that we’ve been able to work together with our employee reps and unions on developing these principles. Obviously, preparing our people for the future of work is also vital to our continued success as a business.

This isn’t just about Unilever’s immediate workforce, right?

Yes, that’s right. We want to generate employability across our whole value chain. For me, this is about kickstarting a new social contract of work – one in which people use the power of purpose and lifelong learning to take control of their working lives. Empowering people in this way helps them thrive. And, as we all know, thriving individuals make for thriving businesses and thriving communities.

Turning to the commitments themselves, what does a “future-fit skill set” actually mean?

We use ‘future-fit’ to refer to whatever skills a person needs to excel in their chosen pathway. Everyone’s job is set to change in the future, even those who stay in the same function.

The truth of this hit home for me recently during a conversation with a senior colleague. While she was on maternity leave, a friend asked her for help with developing a digital marketing plan.

Now, this colleague had spent years building a career in marketing. There’s nothing about brand architecture and strategy she doesn’t know. Yet, the ins and outs of digital marketing turned out to be a mystery to her. In a digital future, that’s a big gap and with these commitments, we can proactively help people build the skills they need.

Reskilling and upskilling every Unilever employee is a big undertaking. How do you plan to do it?

Fortunately, we already have a lot of internal training resources in place, from online courses to one-to-one mentoring. Our intention is to ramp these up even more.

One of my favourite examples is what we call our Flex Experience programme, which allows employees to spend up to 20% of their time in a different job function.

As it happens, this is what the colleague I just mentioned did. After returning from maternity, she took a number of courses on our Degreed learning platform and then joined the e-commerce team for a short spell each week. She loved it! So much, in fact, that she ended up switching over full-time. That’s the beauty of reskilling and upskilling: it opens doors you may never have previously thought to push.

Moving to the second commitment, why provide more flexible employment options?

Ah, now that one’s easy: because people are people, not widgets! Seriously, though, we know from our personal lives that we’re happiest when we can be ourselves. Well, work is no different. The more we can match people’s working patterns with their personal circumstances and aspirations, the happier and more productive they’ll be. Fortunately, today’s digital age offers lots of tools to help us do just this.

Could you give an example of the novel employment models you envision?

No problem. In fact, let me splash out and give you two. The first is U-Work. This involves employees working on specific assignments of their choosing – usually with gaps in between – rather than having fixed roles. Picture a young person who wants additional flexibility to travel, for example, or an older worker who wants more time off but doesn’t want to retire for good.

With U-Work, everyone gets a basic retainer regardless as to whether they work or not. When on assignment, they are paid the rate for the job, plus associated benefits. Think of it as having freedom similar to a contractor with security akin to an employee. For us as a business, meanwhile, it helps us retain access to critical skills and experience.

And the second example?

Sure, the second example that jumped to mind is job-sharing. Not job-sharing in the usual sense of splitting one full-time role between two part-time people – although this is something we heartily endorse. What I mean here is sharing our employees with other businesses, and vice versa.

We had a recent opportunity to test this approach in Argentina, where demand at our main factory increased sharply during lockdown. In contrast, production at a nearby General Motors car factory slowed.

After discussions with General Motors, we agreed to take on 15 of its workers on fixed-term or temporary contracts, thus keeping them employed while resolving our momentary need for experienced workers.

Ten million sounds like a lot of young people to help prepare for future work opportunities. What’s your plan?

You’re absolutely right: 10 million people is an awfully big number. But then so are the challenges facing young people. I’m with Saadia Zahidi on this one. She’s Managing Director at the World Economic Forum. As she rightly points out, today’s youth are facing massive disruptions to their education on top of a fast-changing job market. Her verdict is that we need to “double-down on reskilling and upskilling initiatives”. I fully back that idea, which is why we wanted to be ambitious and set the bar really high.

This is echoed by Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s Executive Director: “By helping young people gain access to training, volunteering and work experience opportunities, Unilever is showing that businesses have an important role to play in ensuring that young people are not deprived of the opportunities of tomorrow.”

As to our plan, it’s to work with our partners to provide young jobseekers with a free online platform that will support them in finding their individual purpose and then matching it with opportunities for accredited training, volunteering and work experiences.

We’re currently piloting the platform in South Africa and will roll it out gradually around the world in the months and years ahead.

Collage of photos of young South African job seekers taking part in the LevelUp upskilling programme

LevelUp digital hub was created by Unilever, Microsoft South Africa, Pearson, LinkedIn and Google to help young South Africans access all the skills they need to get job-ready.

Fast forward to 2030, what impact do you hope this third commitment will make?

Gosh, what a tough question to end on! If it’s not cheating, can I share something from someone I deeply respect? This is what Kathleen Hogan, Chief People Officer at Microsoft Corporation, said about our 10 million commitment: “This kind of intervention – where industry partners work together to create a systemic difference – is not only vital to the future of jobseekers, but also to the success of the global economy.”

My sincere hope is we can deliver on both – helping people thrive in an economy that’s thriving.

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