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Protecting lives and livelihoods in a pandemic


Neil Robertson works with speed and agility alongside colleagues

Unilever Hero Neil Robertson, looking to camera

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Life is never routine for Neil Robertson. As Unilever’s Group Head of Security, he constantly scans the horizon for events that might present a security risk. They include unrest or even conflict in our markets, theft, extreme weather events and wildfires. Risk comes in many forms, and some risks are highly unpredictable, like the Beirut explosion of August 2020.

On 27 January 2020, as cases of Covid-19 rose in Asia, Neil led the first crisis meeting at a global level, with a clear sense of mission to protect lives and livelihoods. Unilever people travel frequently across the region and it was essential to ensure they were not carrying the virus with them. One of the first steps was to track travel plans and put precautionary measures in place.

Virus protection and prevention

Further action was equally swift. Working in collaboration with leaders in Occupational Health, Supply Chain and other functions, Neil and his team developed preventative measures to cover cleaning regimes, social distancing, travel management and more. “Then we built these protocols into a tier management system and shared them with the wider business,” says Neil. “Our first formal guidance on resilience planning was sent to the markets in early February 2020.”

It was crucial to stay ahead of the game. While LATAM was among the last parts of the world to be affected, colleagues in the region had to prepare for the virus and learn lessons from those who had gained early experience of Covid.

“We were working at the heart of a network of crisis management, with local incident management teams established as the risk migrated,” Neil explains.

Screenshot of Incident Management and Disaster Resilience webpage of Inside Unilever

Military mindset

Before joining Unilever, Neil served in the military and led training for the Royal Marines. “The military builds personal and collective resilience and gave me valuable insights that I could apply and share with team members,” says Neil.

The need to identify, respond and act, which are key to successful military engagement, were equally important in the fight against coronavirus. Building a shared understanding of the risk was crucial, and our understanding was dependent on good data.

“Our understanding of the pandemic grew as colleagues built a tool to predict the progress of the disease,” adds Neil. “That data allowed us to talk to Unilever leaders in countries with growing risk. Going forward, the use of data – especially data compiled at a hyper-local level – could certainly be used in other risk and security scenarios.”

COVID Awareness Situation Intelligence (CASI) tool used to project infection rates
The Covid Awareness Situation Intelligence (CASI) tool has evolved to project Covid infection rates at a district level up to 30 days ahead
Unilever employees observing safety protocols and wearing masks
Many protocols were developed to keep people safe, including the technical requirements for temperature screening

A long-lasting pandemic

“Managing the response to the crisis in the later stages is harder as early concepts solidify and you need to find new ways to drive change. Teams are also fatigued,” says Neil. “It is important to find ways to protect that energetic, entrepreneurial spirit.”

He goes on to say, “We are also incredibly proud of the market teams that had to manage a concurrent crisis, while running their business. The Philippines team has responded to successive typhoons and Turkey responded to an earthquake during the crisis. The explosion in Beirut in August was devastating.

“It is a privilege to work with such outstanding and resilient people across the world.”

The light is at the end of the tunnel, Neil feels, with a Covid vaccine being rolled out in numerous countries around the world. “We are so pleased to see the arrival of vaccines to guide us out of the crisis, but we must maintain our safety protocols to protect each other for some time yet,” he concludes.

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