How Leena Nair, Unilever’s Head of HR, Sees the Future of Work in a Post-Pandemic World

10 minute read

(Miss this week’s Leadership Brief? This interview below was delivered to the inbox of Leadership Brief subscribers on Sunday morning, May 23. To receive weekly emails of conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decisionmakers, click here.)

In early 2020, when the pandemic hit, companies around the world made a series of complex moves to enable their employees to work from home. Now, as cities and countries start to emerge from lockdowns and execute recovery plans, many companies, like Goldman Sachs, are equally focused on getting them back in the office. At Unilever, which has more than 150,000 employees—including 90,000 in factories—in 190 countries, Leena Nair, the company’s head of HR, is leading the consumer-product giant’s return-to-work strategy, planning for hybrid working and implementing safety protocols to ensure employees across all sectors of the company feel comfortable returning to their workplaces.

Nair started her career with Unilever 25 years ago as a management trainee at Hindustan Unilever, where she held a range of roles, including becoming the first woman to work on the factory floor. When she joined, only 2% of Hindustan Unilever’s employees were women: Last year, Unilever announced that it is gender balanced across its management globally. Nair, 51, is the first female and first Asian chief human resources officer of the company, which estimates that 2.5 billion people worldwide use products from its family of brands, from Axe to Dove to Knorr, every day. Nair recently joined TIME from her home office in London for a video conversation about the workplace in the post-pandemic era.

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(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

What do you think the future of work looks like, now that we’ve had this once-in-a-generation seismic event?

I believe very passionately that this has to be a moment of reinvention. We’re doing everything with the spirit of experimentation. We have unleashed a four-day workweek experiment in New Zealand, and we have started a program in Unilever U.K. called U-Work where people who want to work for less months than they do today can do so and get flexibility and security. We have experimented with a model called U-Renew, where people can choose to get educated and take a sabbatical and Unilever pays their salary.

We are also looking at the best ways to reskill our workforce to ensure everyone can be flexible in the workplace, as well as how they work. WEF’s 2020 Future of Jobs report shows that 40% of core skills will change in the next five years, and 50% of all employees will need reskilling to support business growth. Our ambition is for all employees to have a future-fit skill set by 2025 through reskilling in the company.

What issues are you thinking about from a HR perspective?

We’re doing a lot of thinking on hybrid workplaces, which is a combination of physical and digital workplace, and thinking about how the physical space needs to be a safe haven where people can collaborate and be creative. We are giving the options to employees as to where and when they work, whether this is how many days a week you are in the office or how you arrange your working day. No change to number of hours, but choice on how to split hours, in agreement with their line manager.

How many people did Unilever hire during the pandemic, and how did you adjust the onboarding process for new staff joining during the COVID era?

We did continue to hire but at lower numbers than in previous years, however we maintained our intake of graduates and interns. We moved our onboarding process to a 100% virtual experience, and created online communities which included virtual tea breaks, yoga, pizzamaking classes and happy hours. Our new-joiner survey results indicated that our new team members were very satisfied with the overall experience.

What have you been doing for your own mental well-being during this time of uncertainty?

I’ve written a gratitude journal every night for the last few years, and I do a 20-minute meditation practice every morning. Those little practices keep me sane and balanced as we go through this relentless exhaustion. When I go out for walks and have my run, I make sure to talk to my team so that they know I’m setting aside time for doing things that I love. I often joke that I’m the best Bollywood dancer in Unilever, so finding that time in a week to dance a bit too. Reconnecting with your passions and things that you care about is so important to keep us going through this.

What do you think HR brings to the leadership table, and why is it important for business leaders to integrate in decisionmaking?

Human capital is as important as financial capital. Our attrition rate in all the countries that we operate is half of that of the national average. And 76% of the graduates who apply to us say that they believe that Unilever is a force for good and stands for goodness in the world, and that has led to my recruitment costs in the last seven years falling by 90%. Putting human resources at the top table has real business benefits.

You studied electronic and telecommunications engineering at college in Maharashtra, western India. What drew you to management instead?

I grew up in a very small town, and there was no proper school for girls there until I was about 6 or 7 years old. I always grew up having lots of norms, taboos and barriers around me about what girls can do and can’t do. My objective at that time was just to get educated. I liked math, physics and chemistry, so it made sense to do engineering, and while I loved the intellectual challenge of engineering, I didn’t enjoy working as an engineer. Luckily, I had a mentor who was the professor who taught me management and engineering studies, who kept encouraging me and told me I had a talent for people.

When I told my dad that I was going to go into personnel, which was what it was called in those days, he was so disappointed. He asked why a great engineer would go into a “back-office function” like human resources. So I was quite disappointed, because I had become so keen on this. But that taught me to follow your instincts and follow your purpose, because I did follow my instincts into doing management in human resources. And from day one, I felt like this totally made sense to me.

When you joined Hindustan Unilever more than two decades ago, you achieved several firsts there: as the first woman in the organization to work at a factory, the first woman to work a night shift and the first woman on the management committee. What did the experience of working on the factory floor teach you?

Often when I went to the factories, there was never a loo for ladies because nobody had imagined a woman would come to their factory, and my first job would always be to ensure that they built a toilet that I could use. Jokingly, all these loos that were built were called “Leena’s Loos.” But I learned so many lessons, about the factory and production, the shop-floor ecosystem, the importance of resilience. It’s made me who I am. Hearing “this can’t be done because it’s never been done before” is normally the start of a conversation for me, where I’ll reply, “It’s never been done? That’s fantastic. Tell me, how can we do it?”

There is an expression, “You might be the first, but make sure youre not the last.” Is that sentiment something you think about?

It has given me huge insight into what needs to be done to support men and women to succeed at Unilever and has shaped so many things that we’ve done. We have so many progressive policies across the company, from generous paternity and maternity leave to our new policy on gender-based violence, where we’ve come up with a policy of extra leave for men or women who find themselves in that position. So much of my thinking, whether the designing of day-care centers in different countries, or organizing to support men and women during the years of their life where they have both caring responsibilities and career responsibilities, has come from my own personal experience, because you naturally feel a greater sense of responsibility to make it easier for those who come after you.

India is experiencing a severe COVID-19 health crisis at the moment, and Hindustan Unilever recently shared the ways in which it is supporting local communities. Can you tell me more about Unilever’s social commitments over the past year, and what you’ve learned from them?

The last 12 to 15 months have been the most stretching and fulfilling of my career. Stretching because it is a human crisis, and the health, well-being and safety of our people has never been as central as it is today. But it’s also been fulfilling because we can do things that make a real difference. We’ve leaned into the medical infrastructure, we bought oxygen concentrators for people, we’re investing in ventilators. We bought a quarter of a million tests with 17 countries in Africa that had no access to tests. We’ve also given almost €100 million ($122.1 million) worth of hygiene and sanitizing products across the world to communities that we know will benefit from these products.

We’ve been learning about business agility and personal agility within Unilever, and we’ve also been focusing on the mental well-being of people. We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. We’ve introduced a slew of things we’re doing to take care of people, whether it’s supporting those who are homeschooling, supporting those who are feeling lonely, supporting people who are feeling stressed.

What’s been your biggest challenge over the last five years as chief human resources officer?

Learning that every culture and every context is different. Even for the simplest of policies, you always have to think about how it’s going to land in that country, in that culture. So the true globality of my job is my biggest challenge and my biggest learning curve. It’s not one size fits all. For example, in Pakistan, when we recruit young women to the shop floor, we invite them and their parents to stay for two weeks in our company guesthouse so that the parents can see that what the girl is doing on the shop floor is perfectly safe, and perfectly all right to do. It builds confidence in them that they can have a career in Unilever.

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