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Not just another day in the office


Two years ago Unilever launched a transformation programme to ensure that workplaces were accessible, sustainable and ready to meet the needs of its hybrid workforce. We checked in for a progress report.

A group of people wearing masks jumping in the air in front of a Unilever office

From Switzerland to Singapore, and from Brazil to Bangladesh, big changes are happening in Unilever offices.

Whether it’s solar panels on rooftops or wheelchair-friendly floorplans, the Future of the Office (FOTO) transformation programme is making sure Unilever workplaces are accessible, sustainable and ready to support everyone, regardless of when they are in the office.

The importance of having offices that meet the needs of the people who use them was highlighted by Richard Sharp, Head of Unilever UK, during the breaking ground ceremony of the new Kingston offices last October.

“We have learnt over the past few years that there’s much more to an office than simply desks,” he said. “A workplace has the power to shape a company’s culture, to attract and retain talent and be an active part of the community.”

A workplace has the power to shape a company’s culture, to attract and retain talent and be an active part of the community.

Richard Sharp, Head of Unilever UK

Offices fit for the future

So far, Unilever’s Design, Experience and Projects (DXP) team’s big, bold designs have transformed over 30 workplaces. They have delivered an average 39% saving in space optimisation, paid back the investment in less than 2.8 years and achieved overhead savings of €21 million in operational and construction expenses, facilities management and leases.”

So how do they do it?

It’s all about creating a space that works for everyone. The DXP team assesses each workspace individually and then delivers a tailormade concept that flexes to the needs of the teams.

There is still much more to be done. Here are a few recent success stories and an indication of the benefits they are delivering for people and the planet.

  1. Accessible by design

    Tactile floor leading to reception desk at Unilever Sao Paulo, Brazil

    One of the main objectives of the FOTO programme is to ensure that Unilever places of work are inclusive and accessible by design. Working with the Business Disability Forum (BDF), the DXP team developed an internal checklist that audited elements of workplace accessibility, ranging from how much adjustable desking was available (there should be at least 30%) to the presence of braille signage. Of the 70 offices audited in 2019, 66% were compliant with Unilever’s internal workplace accessibility checklist.

    This rose to 74% in 2022, with Prague (Czech Republic) topping the list as Unilever’s first office that was 100% compliant with its internal checklist, followed by the Katowice office (Poland), which also achieved this milestone in 2022.

    Many offices are following in their footsteps. Unilever’s São Paulo offices in Brazil, for example, have seen internal workplace accessibility rating jump from 64% in 2021 to 90% in 2022. This is thanks to a renovation that included the introduction of braille maps on all levels, tactile floors (see image) to guide those with sight issues, and the introduction of see-through masks for receptionists to facilitate lip reading.

    Lorena Fernandes, a wheelchair-user who was part of the project team, says it was the team’s ability to listen to colleagues that really ensured the renovation worked for everyone.

    “As a person who uses a wheelchair, it was not possible for me to move properly on the floors before the renovation, as I could not reach the height of the badge readers to open the doors,” she remembers. “All door sensors were adjusted and today I can move freely through all spaces. This is just one of many positive examples. The squad’s active listening process was sensational. I am very proud to work at a place that genuinely cares about this topic.”

    The squad’s active listening process was sensational. I am very proud to work at a place that genuinely cares about this topic.

    Lorena Fernandes, São Paulo, Brazil
  2. Sustainable style

    Ariel view of Unilever Singapore campus

    A future-facing office must, by definition, be sustainable, and the transformation programme is ensuring Unilever properties are leading the way. The Unilever Campus in Singapore (pictured above), for example, was designed to the Platinum Greenmark Certification, a scheme that aims to evaluate a building’s environmental impact and performance, and was recently awarded the Gold Award for Most Innovative & Sustainable Office Design at the 2022 Employee Experience Awards.

    The new campus is equipped with energy-efficient fittings, recycled materials and automatic sensors to ensure meeting rooms power down when not in use. The entire common area is powered by rooftop solar panels, while a paperless campus culture and a ban on single-use plastics ensure that staff and visitors alike can contribute to the office’s sustainability.

    “It feels great to work in an office that reflects Unilever’s commitments literally from the ground up,” says Pauline Soh, who is based at the Unilever Campus in Singapore.

    “The transformation has made us all feel passionately conscious and committed to doing our part in protecting the planet by adopting simple habits like reducing waste, active recycling and upcycling where possible. The office’s new facilities make this even easier.”

    A similar story is behind the vibrant office makeover in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Inspired by employee input and powered by reuse and recycle principles, the redesign focused on reusing existing elements such as walls, glass partitions, ceilings and focus desks and ensuring that high-impact items such as carpets, desks and chairs were made from a high proportion of recycled materials and were recyclable themselves.

    The transformation has made us all feel passionately conscious and committed to doing our part in protecting the planet by adopting simple habits.

    Pauline Soh, Singapore
  3. Hybrid hubs

    Unilver Bangladesh offices

    At Unilever, we were already examining how to move to more balanced ways of working, even before Covid-19 sped up the shift to more flexible working. It is clear that future-fit offices have to be designed to accommodate a variety of employment models, ranging from full time in-office to off-site hybrid workers.

    The new-style Unilever buildings have been created to support the needs of all models, with workspaces designed for both individuals and teams, to provide a wide range of work-points and environments that cater for different working styles.

    In Bangladesh (pictured above), for example, the new corporate office at Shanta Forum in Dhaka has fewer fixed desks and more state-of-the-art meeting rooms, focus pods, open collaboration spaces and team project zones. In addition, there is a medical centre, a gym and a staff nursery.

    “The new offices are perfect for people like me who are hybrid workers and who therefore really value our time in the office as a way of connecting with colleagues, whether on a personal level or to collaborate on projects,” says Abdullah Farabi from the Bangladesh office. “Going there makes me feel connected to the company and my colleagues.”

    Going there makes me feel connected to the company and my colleagues.

    Abdullah Farabi

So what comes next?

A huge amount of change has happened in the last two years, but this is just the beginning. The FOTO programme is ongoing, with over 26 offices scheduled to get their DXP makeover in 2023/24.

“It has been fantastic seeing the feedback from our colleagues who are now working in our new offices,” says Aa Sahawatcharin, Global Head of People Experience.

“Having a space that meets the needs of all our colleagues remains the team’s focus. We are learning as we go, but our goal continues to be to have all our offices accessible and sustainable as part of Unilever’s purpose to make sustainable living commonplace.”

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