Give and Take

One multinational is proving that flexibility doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game between management and workers

September 27, 2021
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Unilever House in London: Mauritius Images GMBH/Alamy Stock Photo

“Traditional employer-employee dynamics are no longer fit for either individuals or businesses,” says Unilever on its Future Work website. It’s a radical statement from the consumer giant whose products range from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to Dove soap, and which employs roughly 150, 000 people around the world, 6,000 of them in Britain.

Throughout this special report on “making jobs work,” “flexibility” and “security” are recurrent themes. But both terms can have very different—and contested—meanings between managers and workers. It is therefore interesting to find a multinational going with the grain of its employee demands, by developing a remarkable new scheme called U-work. Fifty British staff piloted the scheme, in which they were paid a monthly retainer in return for a commitment to work a minimum number of hours for Unilever a year, whenever they wanted, on projects they chose. With a suite of benefits including pension contributions and holidays, to a millennial employee like myself, it sounds like an ideal arrangement. But what’s in it for an employer?

Morag Lynagh is the woman in charge and has the intriguing job title of global future of work director: “So, for us looking at the future of work is thinking around a number of areas,” she said, “changing the skills that employees require, and jobs that there will be in the future.” The “driver behind the concept” of U-work was initially the ageing demographic of the workforce, with scores of skilled older workers looking to phase into retirement. This wasn’t the demographic of beneficiaries I was expecting to hear about when terms like freelance, zero-hours and gig-economy are of a very millennial zeitgeist.

However, as Lynagh explains, “we had a hypothesis as we went into our first pilot, that actually, it isn’t only those people in that generation who want to work more flexibly.” And as the scheme has taken off and total enquiries build to 250—a nontrivial proportion of UK staff—she has been proven to be correct. The scheme is of interest to people at all stages of life, including those looking to travel, work for other organisations, or spend time with their families. As Lynagh says, “new work appears to be attractive to people from across all generations.”

Unilever has started rolling out the scheme to places across the world including South Africa, Argentina, Malaysia and the Philippines. It’s easy to see what employees like about it. “We give them a benefits package,” Lynagh explains, “a different benefit package to the one we give to our regular employees. But it includes a pension, life insurance, access to health care, access to a learning budget, as well as ongoing access to our online learning. People work on assignments, so they obviously get the assignment rate as well.” There is no qualifying period of service needed to access the U-work scheme—theoretically, anyone working at Unilever in the UK could be eligible for the scheme—so long as they have the skills and talents that are in demand.

Indeed, the employees enlisted so far include Susanna, a senior member of the legal team, but also Roy who had a long shop-floor career in one of Unilever’s factories. Susanna joined the U-work scheme as she wanted to spend more time with her family, and help out part-time at a friend’s legal firm, and says that “U-work gives me some security of income and keeps me connected to Unilever.” Roy was facing retirement, but Lynagh says Unilever didn’t want to lose his know-how from the factory floor, so he is doing some mentoring for them via the U-work scheme.

It all sounds great for employees, but what’s in for Unilever? Lynagh says it’s about having ongoing access to talent and also crucially, individuals who understand the assignment. With prior knowledge of Unilever’s culture and processes, according to Lynagh, employees on the U-work scheme find it easier to hit the ground running on projects. “It’s allowing us to keep people who have got good skills and experience” she says, explaining that talent retention is a big motivation. But also, “a U-work employee comes with their networks and knows how to get things done and that’s a real advantage to us.”

Unilever, in other words, rejects a trade-off between employers’ and employees’ flexibility and security, as things to be pitted against each other. The idea is that the U-work scheme offers both to both. “It’s a bit of both to both in our view,” Lynagh says. For individual employees, they have the benefit of “an ongoing employment relationship with Unilever and the flexibility to do the things that they want to do in their life... From our perspective, we have a resource that we can use in a more agile way.”

Unilever stresses that a scheme like U-work might not be an option for many smaller businesses who may not have the same resources and multinational scale. However, it certainly agrees that businesses of all shapes and sizes could benefit from thinking flexibly about working arrangements to attract and retain their best staff. As it says on its website: “U-Work works for Unilever too.” Employers everywhere should pay close attention, and so should the rest of us, as we consider what we can ask of employers to make jobs work.