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Unilever workers will never return to desks full-time, says boss

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5 days ago Jasper Jolly
a double decker bus driving down a city street: Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

The boss of Unilever, one of the UK’s biggest companies, has said his office workers will never return to their desks five days a week, in the latest indication that coronavirus will transform modern working life.

Alan Jope, chief executive of the consumer goods group, said the company will also encourage all of its employees to receive vaccinations against Covid-19, but will stop short of making jabs mandatory. Employees who opt not to be vaccinated, however, will face mandatory testing.

Jope said the company would look at different working patterns after it saw during the pandemic that it could adapt and make big changes far more quickly than previously thought.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Alan Jope at an event in New York in 2015. Photograph: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Alan Jope at an event in New York in 2015. Photograph: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

Unilever, the third most valuable company on the London Stock Exchange, is the maker of brands including Dove soap, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Marmite. It also owns Hellman’s, Knorr, Lipton and Persil.

The pandemic has forced office workers to work from home in most of Unilever’s main markets, including the US and the UK. Factory workers in most economies have been exempt from stay-at-home orders.

Speaking on Wednesday at a Reuters conference, Jope said he did not expect office workers across western Europe and north America to return to work until at least April, and added that Unilever would use a “hybrid mode” of working between homes and offices after that. Permanent changes are expected for many of its 150,000 global employees, 7,000 of whom are in the UK.

a double decker bus driving down a street in front of a building: The Unilever building in central London – which might be less than fully occupied in future. © Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters The Unilever building in central London – which might be less than fully occupied in future.

“We anticipate never going back to five days a week in the office,” Jope said. “That seems very old-fashioned now.” He also said that the pandemic had made it clear that the company did not need to be as hierarchical.

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However, he added that the company was still keen to return to offices, after seeing a “slow erosion of social capital” as working from home prevents colleagues from meeting in person. Many business leaders have voiced concerns about lack of innovation and the impact on training younger staff when workers do not congregate.

Several large companies have said they intend to keep some of the new ways of working forced upon them by the pandemic.

Twitter, the social networking company, last year said it would allow employees to work from home “forever”, while the owners of empty city-centre offices are nervously hoping that economists are incorrect in predicting a sustained increase in home-working.

Related: Future shock: how will Covid change the course of business?

Morgan Stanley last summer predicted 30% of US workers will work from home after the pandemic, double pre-Covid estimates.

Unilever is already experimenting with working practices. In New Zealand, its staff are trialling a four-day week, making it one of the biggest companies to consider reducing the hours its employees work, after a number of smaller firms found it helped productivity and employees’ wellbeing.

The 81 New Zealand staff will continue with the four-day week until December, when Unilever will assess the stratagem’s performance and consider whether to extend it around the world.

As well as bringing changes to working life, the pandemic has changed spending patterns, hitting sales of products such as ice creams but helping sales of cleaning products and food for home cooking.

Jope highlighted the “rise of e-everything” during the pandemic, referring to increased online shopping from consumers stuck at home, as well as increased concern from consumers on environmental and social sustainability.

“People are e-browsing, e-buying, e-paying, e-media-consuming and we expect that will continue,” he said. “We can rely on people’s use of technology to stick around.”

The pandemic will continue to disrupt European and American economies during the first half of 2021, depressing spending, Jope said. However, he said east Asian economies such as Singapore and China – which have effectively suppressed viral outbreaks – were almost back to normal .

On vaccinations, Jope criticised “vaccine hesitancy” and said Unilever would try to ensure access to vaccines for all of its workers.

But, he added: “I don’t want any of my employees to be jumping the queue on frontline medical workers or vulnerable people.”


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