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Managing the Employee Experience in times of change

There are few companies with more reach than Unilever – 400 brands, 190 countries, 3.4 billion users, and a product base that ranges from mayonnaise to soap. Unilever also has 127,000 employees, so it’s no surprise they have plenty of knowledge to share about everything people science.

Hesham Ahmed, Director of People Data Science and Insights at Unilever, and Ana Richardson, Unilever’s Global Employee Insights Lead, joined Simon Daly for a panel at X4 London. They shared their thoughts about managing data collection during organizational transformation, the pros and cons of less-frequent surveys, and the value of specialization in people science.

EX isn’t a single function, especially at scale

At Unilever, employee listening has two primary functions. “EX is a team within business operations that’s very much focused on the digital and physical workplace,” says Hesham. “Their goal is to create a frictionless experience and make it work at scale.”

Then there’s Hesham’s own team, People Data Science and Insights. “We’re based at the HR Centre of Expertise and we do a lot of the listening focused on helping managers, leaders, and central HR functions to design policies.” The two streams collaborate as needed.

“It works really well, especially because it’s so important to integrate people data with all our other sources. There are just great synergies there,” says Hesham. “It also enables focus. We can focus on engagement, culture and values, and the employee experience team is focused on the day-to-day frictionless experiences.”

The annual survey isn’t dead

“I don't think the annual engagement survey is dead,” says Ana. “There is a lot of talk about moving to a quarterly pulse and doing away with the annual survey altogether, but I see a huge amount of value in it.”

Unilever carries out annual surveys, quarterly pulses and thematic surveys, along with lifecycle-based listening and workplace surveys. So it definitely takes a rounded approach. But with so many people, there’s a certain unifying power to the annual event.

“It is the biggest opportunity in a whole calendar year to collect data at scale,” Ana explains. “Every September we collect feedback from our 130,000 employees across offices and factories. It’s the only time we do that, and it’s the single biggest people comms campaign of the year. So it's kind of a shared moment that every employee has, and it's a moment for the organization to come together and say, ‘Hey, we care about you and we want to listen to you.’”

Unilever’s annual survey doesn’t suffer from the data-lag that makes many companies’ annual frequencies unworkable. As soon as the answers are in, Ana’s team works a sprint to make sure annual survey data is in the hands of those who can act on it within days, not weeks or months.

“I'm still getting emails in, say, July, before the next September, asking about results from last year and how they can be used. People are using this data throughout the whole year because we're collecting it at such scale,” Ana adds.

Hesham also sees value in surveying at lower frequencies.

“It's not about survey fatigue, it's about lack-of-action fatigue,” he says. “We’ve found that if you move something to a lower frequency, it can actually get more attention from the leaders who can make a difference. It's discussed at higher levels in quarterly business reviews. Whereas when we had it monthly, or every two weeks, the data kind of faded into the background a little bit.”

Be selective, specific, and flexible during change

In 2022, Unilever announced changes to its organizational model to make it a simpler, more category-focused business. To help leaders steer that transformation, Ana and Hesham and their teams needed to provide listening data.

They were doing so at a point in time where people were returning to work after time in lockdown, and both the leaders and the employees were dealing with high uncertainty. At the same time, much of the interaction was still virtual.

“We developed some key pillars as our solution for that,” Ana recalls.

“The first one was to just be choiceful. As many people have been saying – don't just add more surveys, be really choicefull about what data you're going to collect and how often you're going to send it out to people.

“The second is to get really, really specific, particularly when it comes to the qualitative data. XM Discover opens up huge opportunities for text analysis, but at the scale we’re working at, boiling everything down and then reconstructing it without just ending up with the same themes is a huge challenge. So we have to be really specific on how we're collecting the data and what we're delivering back.

“The third pillar is to be flexible. We’re strong believers in setting something up and letting it run for as long as it needs to, but it’s critical to be able to pivot in times of crisis, especially when the organization is going through a huge change. You have to be ready to accommodate, not only your employees and what they want and need, but also your leaders and what kind of data they need to get quickly.”

Daniel Saunders

Daniel heads up content production in Europe. As part of his role, he gets the chance to work with some of our biggest customers in the region to showcase how they’re delivering breakthrough experiences to customers and employees.

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