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How 'everyday' flexibility can unlock engagement, productivity and growth

Flexible working can benefit both employees and companies - this is why. Davos 2023

Flexible working can benefit both employees and companies - this is why. Image: Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Morag Lynagh
Global Future of Work Director, Unilever
Patrick Hull
Global Head of Talent, Culture and Leadership, HEINEKEN
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Pre-COVID-19, flexible working was largely associated with part-time working for parents.
  • The pandemic forced people to work from home and are seeking more flexibility in how and when they work.
  • To build a relevant, inclusive and productive future of work, it is vital we find ways to meet a variety of flexible working models and do so responsibly.

In the past, many people associated flexible working with part-time work for parents. In a post-COVID-19 world, that’s no longer the case. The pandemic meant that a wide cross-section of our workforce and potential workforce experienced work differently and there’s no going back.

Flexible working is now important to all generations. There are numerous surveys that say that millennials and generation Zs value flexible working above other benefits, potentially even above pay. An ageing demographic means that, in many markets, the number of workers with elder care responsibilities is overtaking the numbers with childcare responsibilities, with a knock-on increased demand for flexible working. As we live longer, healthier lives, we want to work differently at different life stages, perhaps taking time out to study, travel, run our own businesses, pursue portfolio careers or phase into retirement.

That’s why ‘Provide flexibility and protection’ is one of the five pillars of the Good Work Framework and a key component of the World Economic Forum’s holistic ambition for a new future of work for all. As part of the Good Work Alliance, Unilever has made a commitment to pioneer new employment models and to extend flexible working practices to all employees by 2030. We see this as integral to our commitment to the Good Work Alliance’s wider mission of building a healthy, resilient and equitable future of work.

What do we mean by flexibility?

Flexibility is often used loosely to mean not working in the office. We’re all still having those, ‘How many days are you in?’ conversations as hybrid working continues to evolve. Post-pandemic, however, expectations of flexible working are much broader than before. Recognizing this, Unilever's approach is more holistic.

External data and commentary suggest that most people look for what we call ‘everyday’ flexibility - the ability to manage and adjust start and finish times, the freedom to manage work commitments in and around life commitments and for work to be measured in outputs delivered, rather than hours worked.

Flexible working can boost productivity. Davos 2023
Flexible working can boost productivity. Image: Gartner

Creating everyday flexibility, the kind of flexible working that we believe will have a positive impact on the greatest number, is not about creating policies and rules. It is about developing and sharing a vision of what working with everyday flexibility looks like, trusting employees to act responsibly and empowering them to take the flexibility that they need. Continued focus on output, delivery, productivity and business growth is a given.

Merck is driving this agenda successfully, offering its employees a variety of flexible working options so they can ‘adapt to their priorities in life'. This includes flextime, summer hours, remote work, telework, job sharing and part-time work.

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The continued role for formal flexibility

Fixed or formal flexible work arrangements (e.g. working part-time) continue to be important for those who need more certainty about when they are, or are not, required to be available to work. Some form of part-time work is at the heart of most, if not all, formal flexible working arrangements. There can be many reasons why people have a need or a desire to have a lower workload and a reduced time commitment to the organization, but for many it is connected to their caring responsibilities.

The reality is that women still take on more caring responsibilities, looking after children, elderly parents or other dependents. Those demands are often a driver for wanting to work part-time and, indeed, more women do so than men. On average, across all age groups, in OECD countries, 9.8% of employed men are working part-time, whilst it is 24.7% of employed women.

It is not only women who want to work part-time, however. It’s a flexible working arrangement that can also allow older workers to remain active for longer. With an ageing demographic, poor retirement provision in many markets and the value of pensions shrinking in others, helping to retain this skilled demographic is a socially responsible way to address talent shortages.

Swiss Re is recognizing the needs of older workers through a generation programme aimed at helping its workforce transition positively into retirement. It has some 12 different retirement options for employees to choose from, making it possible for individuals to taper off responsibilities without compromising their retirement benefits.

The role of new employment models

New employment models are an emerging form of flexible working. These are new types of employment contracts that allow individuals to have a different lifestyle, while maintaining a relationship with their employer. They give the employer access to talent pools they can use to resource flexibly, deploying resources to priority work. Having access to talent that can be used in this way is fully aligned with our move to agile ways of working.

At Unilever, we have launched U-Work, an employment model that pays employees a retainer and in return, the U-Worker (as we term them) commits to working a minimum amount of time each year. As well as additional pay at the rate for the job for each assignment worked, employees also receive a benefits package (e.g. medical cover, pension, funds to pay for their learning, etc). This is different from the package that regular employees receive, but it still provides security. Available to existing Unilever employees and alumni, U-Work offers individual flexibility with security and gives Unilever access to a talented pool of people who know our business.


Why is flexibility important?

Flexibility is important for several reasons. With the increased desire for and expectation of flexibility, having a culture that truly caters to this need is essential for securing and retaining access to the best talent and to having an engaged workforce.

But more than this, having the ability to resource flexibly, i.e. having access to known talent and skills that can be flexed up and down and deployed to priority work as required, is allowing us, and others in the corporate world, to be simpler, faster and more agile and to change the balance between fixed and variable costs.

That said, it’s important that we resource flexibly in a socially responsible way – hence the Forum's alignment of flexibility with protection in the Good Work Framework. Unlike zero-hours contracts, which are often criticized for the way in which they can potentially exploit individuals, new employment models provide flexibility for us and security for individuals.

At Unilever, we are taking active steps to make everyday flexibility a reality for our 148,000-strong workforce and we’re keen to learn and co-create as we go. To build a relevant, inclusive and productive future of work, it is vital we continue to find ways not only to meet a variety of flexible working needs, but also to do so responsibly. This will ultimately support our people and our business, to grow and thrive.

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