For some — like Degreed — remote work is built into the fabric of company culture. For others, operating without the comforts of a cubicle and the familiarity of in-person connections is a brand-new experience. The situation we’ve all found ourselves in is unprecedented. How can we keep focus when distractions lurk around every corner? How do we stay responsive when priorities are shifting at hyper-speed? How can we encourage “business as usual” when it feels like anything but?
We’re interviewing clients across a wide variety of industries to hear how they’re supporting their newly-remote workforces, creating virtual learning programs, and maintaining productivity in uncertain times. This is definitely new territory for us all, but we hope that by sharing best practices, insights, and real stories, we can all continue to grow, learn, and thrive — together.
Check back often for new entries in Navigating the New Normal: Advice from Degreed Clients.
Degreed recently spoke to Nicola Braden of Unilever, an international consumer goods company co-headquartered in London, England and Rotterdam, Netherlands. Unilever’s products range from antibacterial soaps and beauty products to ice cream, energy drinks, and more. An estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide use their products every day.
Degreed: Could you introduce yourself?
Nicola: I’m Nicola Braden. I work at Unilever as the Global Learning Innovation and Standards Director.
Degreed: How has the Coronavirus pandemic affected Unilever’s business?
Nicola: Being a global business, obviously it’s had a big impact. Over two months ago now, we closed all of our offices globally and introduced social distancing in our sourcing units. So that was a big shift for some people — working from home.
Parts of our supply chain have been affected. And we’ve got huge demand for some of our products. In consumer goods, a lot of those products are essential for day-to-day living. We still need to wash our hair and clean our floors. But it’s no different for us than many other businesses right now — it’s a challenging time for all of us.
Degreed: What does that mean specifically for the learning team? How has your work been impacted?
Nicola: One of the first impacts was a sudden, broad pull from the business. We put together some content to help people transition to working from home full time. A lot of people in offices worked from home some of the time, but this is different. Perhaps your children are home with you, or partners and other adults are there as well.
So we addressed all the different aspects of that, like setting up an office environment that suits you for health, safety, comfort, and privacy. We also addressed the emotional impact. You might be used to driving to an office environment, sitting face-to-face with colleagues, and having all the social benefits of that. Then, suddenly you have all this fear and are working virtually. That is a huge shift. So, we turned that content around very quickly.
Now, we’re starting to understand the global impact on our business. We’re identifying areas in which we need more content, either because the business needs to ramp up and prove our skills in the current environment, or because in some cases we’re redeploying people. Some parts of the business are really busy and need more people to dive in and help. They’re looking for those who have adjacent skillsets, where they may be able to virtually move over and temporarily take on a different job.
How do we do that? At the moment, we’ve seen the highest level of engagement with Degreed since we went live. We want to analyze how much of that is people directly going to coronavirus content versus people looking to do more learning for whatever reason. We think it’s a bit of both. It certainly does look like there’s been a real interest in learning. Perhaps some people have more time, since they’re not traveling or commuting. They’re developing new habits.
Degreed: In response to these new challenges, what is your learning team doing differently? Are you changing approaches?
Nicola: All of our learning team is used to working remotely some of the time. That isn’t something completely new. Our team is global. So that’s a big advantage. We’re used to using all virtual tools to work together.
As a learning leadership team, we are looking at our priorities to figure out what should go on hold and what new things we need to focus on now. We’re working in an agile way across the learning team to get the right resources around urgent priorities. For example, we’re using a calendar planner tool to outline all the activities that are the result of the Coronavirus.
Some of the functional learning teams are taking programs they had intended to run at least partially face-to-face and turning them into entirely virtual programs. People still need development. We just need to make sure it’s in the right format so that development can continue even in this situation.
Degreed: What is the role of technology at Unilever? Are there specific tools or technologies that your team is suddenly finding more useful than expected?
Nicola: One thing that’s been hugely useful is getting more technology to our factory teams. Most are not on Degreed yet, because of issues that you find in factories — not having access to unique devices, always needing identities, emails, all those other things. So, we were already in the process of rolling out Degreed in those factory environments. But with the content we’ve created for the coronavirus, we needed to get that out to people immediately. Degreed gave us the ability to put that content onto consumer platforms, which was brilliant. That’s been really, really welcomed by the business.
In terms of other tools, we’re using Microsoft Teams to deliver programs and courses that would have been face-to-face. In our programs, there would be parts of the program done virtually anyway, but usually not much. When you’re transitioning a three-day, face-to-face session into a virtual format, you need to have lots of interactivity. So we’re using pre-existing tools, virtual programs like WebEx, because of the great functionality to develop people through those. We’re using interactivity tools, whiteboards, and polls. We began to split people into subgroups, that kind of thing.
Degreed: You mentioned Pathways that Degreed rolled out on the consumer site for factory workers. Can you talk about that initiative?
Nicola: From our side, we started developing Pathways for the office staff. We made two — one about well-being in this new environment, and one specifically about working from home. For the factory guys, working from home isn’t relevant. A vast majority of them are still in the factory. So we took the well-being Pathway and made it more relevant for people in those sourcing units. We made sure the content would be universally accessible, that it didn’t require a license and it wasn’t stuck behind our firewalls.
As soon as those were ready, we got it over to Degreed and got the links introduced. And those have been communicated out to the factories. Then they can just use their own devices, like their phones. Some of the factories have devices for people to learn on, such as iPads, and some of them have kiosks. They’re all in different countries and different stages of development.
I think we’ve got a total of eight languages now. That means everyone in the factories who speaks one of those languages can actually use it. That makes a difference. We’ve started to use more languages in lessons now. We’ll work with the factory’s HR people. We help them create a version of that lesson in a local language, then they can get it out there.
Degreed: Have you found any big surprises in changing the way that your team is operating? Anything that you wish you had been better prepared for? Or anything useful to share with peers?
Nicola: One of the challenges was getting stuff in multiple languages really quickly. We’ve always done that, but it might take another month after a piece of content has been produced to get a version of it in the other languages. Of course, we didn’t want to wait that long. It had to be turned around in a few days, which is difficult. Now we’re working on the best way of translating really, really quickly. We’ve got processes, but a lot of them are quite slow, particularly if you need to go out to external agencies to get the translations done. And sometimes, you need to find an alternative piece of content in the local language. An external agency can’t necessarily do that.
The feedback from the business was really positive, saying, “You guys have turned this around in the blink of an eye. That’s really amazing.” That was great, but it took a huge amount of effort to do that. So we’re just looking for ways to scale that step for when we need translations done really quickly.
Degreed: So what’s next? Is Unilever at the point where you’re anticipating other changes in the months ahead, or is your team still in react mode?
Nicola: It’s a very difficult place to be, because we’re not comfortable being in react mode. The problem is, there are so many variables. Stuff is changing so rapidly that we could put a huge amount of time and effort into something we think might happen in a month, and then it doesn’t happen at all. So we’re having to work on much shorter timeframes, staying very, very connected to the rest of the business.
Our focus is away from some of the company’s bigger initiatives — which I think will get pushed back, due to our asking, “What does the business really need right now?” Everyone here is just making their best guess about what might happen, and doing their best to prepare for that.
For us, it’s not about trying to look in a crystal ball and say where we’ll be in two, three, or four months. It’s really about whatever gives us flexibility and agility. Staying really close, having the conversations, looking at the data daily. Being prepared to drop things in the blink of an eye, and move onto something else.
This is particularly challenging for a global business in over 100 countries, and they’re all different. We are working very hard to coordinate so that we’re not wasting effort with 10 teams working on the same stuff. There is coordination at the leadership level across the business. It’s messy, but it’s getting better. Even in the last week or two, that has started to improve. People are just doing their best for the business, for our consumers, and for our ecosystem.
Unilever made the commitment — not just for our employees, but for our contingent labor as well — to do everything that we possibly can to not see a drop in their income in the next three months. We’re not just battening down the hatches. We’re trying to look after everybody and play our part.
We’ve announced a 100 million euro investment that we’re making in hand-washing around the world, because obviously that’s what you need to start with — soap. We’ve arranged that with the Department of International Investments Ministry here in the UK. But it will be global, so that we can support the world in the most basic situation, which is washing hands. That sounds so basic, but we know it makes a huge difference. That’s where we are at the moment.