Crafting future-fit career plans at Unilever

Unilever’s Natasha Tilakdharee explains how the pandemic affirmed that ‘people with a purpose’ do thrive.

  • By Natasha Tilakdharee, employee experience transformation manager at Unilever

At Unilever, purpose is at the heart of our strategy, with the view that people with purpose thrive, brands with purpose grow and companies with purpose last. With the arrival of a global pandemic, everyone has had to rise to meet an untold number of challenges brought on during this volatile period, striking at both the heart of people, and at the heart of companies.

A crisis period in history that has seen people globally question their purpose and rethink their priorities both on the personal and work fronts. It was noted that while 2020 brought a downturn in the global economy, essential consumer products from Unilever remained in demand. This was attributed to Unilever’s strategy, including driving differentiation in the market, focusing on innovation and leveraging technology.

In Unilever South Africa, we have embraced the challenge presented by the pandemic; seeing it as an opportunity to pivot on how work gets done more meaningfully and with purpose. Our focus has been to help reorient people’s mindset to one of life-long learning and building new skills linked to changing consumer demands.

Ongoing commitment to employee wellbeing and development during uncertain times is key to supporting the organisation during and post crises. Through HR best practice, we have intentionally focused on employees’ development; proactively supporting employees to (re)-define their purpose and bring into meaningful alignment their strengths, talents, values, family and work needs.

As people discover their purpose, it has helped guide them into career planning and understanding which roles and projects may be a good fit in aligning with their values.

With the pressure on costs and companies getting flatter, the traditional hierarchical career planning approach is evolving to dynamically meet the needs of both employees and organisations alike. At Unilever South Africa, employees continue to be encouraged to gain different skills and experiences laterally through more project-focused assignments.

Through online platforms such as Flex, Unilever teams from across the globe can post projects for employees to be a part of. Projects are structured for a short duration, where employees can remain in their current role, but carve out specific hours per week to work on something new. Whether it is a project to build a new skill or an opportunity that speaks to an individual’s purpose or passion, employees can work on a variety of projects.

The benefits are twofold; by empowering employees to work on assignments linked to their purpose, it helps keep talent engaged, motivated and inspired (Naude, 2012); and by focusing on embedding a life-long learning culture and allowing employees time to invest in their development, this also helps future-fit companies to remain relevant and competitive (Khalil M. Dirani, Mehrangiz Abadi, Amin Alizadeh, Bhagyashree Barhate, Rosemary Capuchino Garza, Noeline Gunasekara, Ghassan Ibrahim & Zachary Majzun, 2020).

As consumer trends rapidly evolve, with channels such as e-com seeing exponential growth, so too has our talent’s skills and capabilities been positively stretched to remain up to date. Unilever has focused on the concept of each employee crafting a future-fit development plan, which focuses on what skills, experiences and competencies they need to build, in order to stay relevant.

To further embed this focus of employees investing time in their self-development, we have adapted our performance management system accordingly. In addition to measuring performance and leadership KPIs, we have also introduced an additional dimension on assessing an employee’s contribution to their self-development to embed the notion of life-long learning.

Another noteworthy response to the pandemic, by Unilever South Africa, was to support employees to quickly embed agile ways of working.
As companies pivot to meeting changing consumer demands, so too have our resourcing and talent management processes adaptively risen to meet the challenge.

Where employees have historically had fixed roles and responsibilities, we have been agile in dynamically resourcing key projects for specific periods, where additional resources are required to meet deadlines. With Covid-19, many products and innovations have either had to be fast-tracked or placed on hold, with the current changes to consumer behavior.

This real-time innovation and execution have driven companies to become more agile and to consider a flow-to-value approach to resourcing. In other instances, where certain projects or areas in the business have slowed down, talent has been redeployed to higher-value projects to deliver. In Unilever, this meant focusing on a high level of prioritisation with business teams identifying their highest value work and allocating resources accordingly.

It has also meant that attention has had to be paid to employees being supported to become more open-minded in how they embrace flexible ways of working. In times of global crisis and unprecedented social anxiety, where people naturally seek the psychological comfort that comes with being familiar, routine and consistent, it is a big ask of employees to embrace new ways of working.

As such, the focus of HR has been to thoughtfully attend to those needs and ensure wellbeing and productivity continues to be equally considered.

While the Covid-19 crisis has undoubtedly brought untold loss and trauma to many, it has also brought unexpected opportunities to pause, reflect, grow and redirect attention and energy to that which matters most to people.

So, as we forge ahead with key lessons learned from this pandemic, my view of what lies ahead for Unilever South Africa feels hopeful; indeed, ‘People with Purpose’ do thrive.

So while this crisis has left an indelible mark on both people and companies, it could also be just the jump start that was needed to meaningfully refocus the hearts of people and companies alike. Maybe now is the time of getting us all, globally, to start crafting future-fit plans for the days ahead.