Here’s a welcome addition to the ‘new normal’ – Unilever’s flexible working programme has gained some extra flex. Beyond where you work and how you work, colleagues can now use, test or grow their skill sets, assisting on new projects around the business.

There’s no time wasted looking for placements suit to their CVs, either. Instead, the Flex Experiences platform uses AI to match the right people with the right project opportunities, fast.

HR Business Partner Yanpi Oliveros-Pascual has worked with Flex’s roll-out across 100+ countries to 60,000+ employees. “Unilever encourages all employees to create capability through lifelong learning. Flex allows our employees to work on projects for a small or large proportion of time, increase the depth of their current skills or build new skills and experiences in a flexible way. We believe that our people are much more than their job title. If our people thrive, we thrive as a business,” she says.

Flex has come into its own in the past three months when business agility became critical for business continuity. Covid-19 saw the world lock down. Unilever’s marketing plans, supply chain, logistics and product manufacture all needed to work at speed to respond to evolving consumer needs and expectations.

For Data Science Director Giles Pavey, that meant getting information and analytics (I&A) out to the front line to help teams respond to changes as the virus spread. “We wanted to look at internal data on sales, cash and supply chain and compare them to the external factors such as infection rate and changing consumer behaviour,” he says.

He turned to Flex to help him supercharge his team of data and analytic experts – building a Covid-19 I&A Squad. The start date was ASAP. “We were looking for people from a diverse set of backgrounds, experts from a variety of markets and with a variety of functional expertise,” he says. “We asked for data scientists, business analysts, project managers, Agile experts and user-experience designers.”

CVs came in quickly. “We know that Unilever has talent, but we were pleasantly surprised by the energy people displayed,” he says.

Putting existing skills to use, testing new ones

Port Sunlight-based David Southgate was one of the first to apply. “I’d seen many examples of people stepping up inside and outside work to tackle the pandemic. I wanted to do something to help. Putting my CV forward felt like the perfect opportunity. I could help the business by using skills I already had. I talked to my line manager and committed to giving the project two days a week alongside my day job.”

The project was set up across 12 workstreams with five priority pillars: demand, supply, cash flow, people and community. “I led the UK market insights workstream,” says David, “to provide answers and analytics to business questions on market performance.”

Being part of the Covid-19 I&A squad offered him more than an opportunity to help Unilever manage its response to the pandemic. “I’m currently undertaking a data fellowship programme to become a data scientist, and this project allowed me to get my hands dirty on new datasets and put my new skills to the test,” he says.

“More importantly,” he adds, “to really understand the data and the patterns, I have had to reach out to a number of colleagues in finance, supply chain and CMI and this has helped me gain a better understanding of the business outside my normal role, especially in the UKI market.”

A chance to employ fresh thinking

Ana Huerzeler, Category Food Manager at Unilever Food Solutions (UFS), put her name forward for a Flex opportunity to help develop a global marketing and PR plan for our newly acquired brand, The Vegetarian Butcher.

“I’ve been part of the Vegetarian Butcher global team at UFS since last October, working on general brand development, roll-out to different countries and innovations,” she explains. “I was really interested in finding out about the communications side and my category director, Frank Galestien, was really supportive in giving me time to work on this for a few months.”

For Ana, knowledge of both the consumer-facing and business-to-business sides of Unilever Foods & Refreshment allowed her to bring an understanding of the differences and similarities between the channels and markets to the project. “I’m enjoying the process of learning something new while building on the foundation of past experiences,” she says.

What began as a Flex assignment has moved forward, too. “In scoping out the project we started to understand that we needed more in-depth resource in branding and category,” says Frank. “It needed more time than the few months that we had had for the Flex project. We needed to onboard someone, and that someone was Ana.”

Both Ana and David are clear that their positive Flex experiences start with supportive line managers. “Frank understood how this opportunity could help use my skills, help me develop new ones and meet my own growth ambitions. It has been the perfect learning opportunity for me,” Ana says.

“Managing two roles can be challenging,” adds David, “so it’s important to come to an arrangement with your line manager to manage your time before applying.”

But both sides of the Flex equation – project leaders as well as the candidates – see the value Flex offers on a business and personal level. “We would not have been able to respond as fully without it,” says Giles. “It’s a great way of lining up I&A’s demand for quality resource and fulfilling candidates’ demand for new experiences in and exciting skill area, which I&A can supply.”

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