The Future of HR: Agile Workplaces


December 10, 2009

The Senior HR Executive Conference.

Just hearing those words for most of my career made me picture some off-limits, highly secretive conference where you have to know the secret knock or secret handshake to be allowed entry.  That and a wealth of HR experience under your belt.  It was the one conference I did not know if I would ever make it to during my HR career.  Well, my perception could not have been farther from reality.

I was asked to participate in this year’s conference in order to give feedback on how The Conference Board can bring more aspects of social media for HR into the future events and how the conference can expand it’s reach to Gen X and Gen Y.  I’m excited to tell you that as an organization, The Conference Board is fully embracing social media and the up-and-coming generations.  Now, it’s up to all of us to reach back as they are reaching out to us.

As an attendee at the Senior HR Executive Conference, participants are in store for more learning than most other conferences out there offer.  Each informative session is presented by a top global HR executive, so it is challenging to determine where to begin in sharing what I learned.  I have decided to begin at the end of day one, the Keynote session.  This session was presented by Fiona C. Laird of Unilever.  Fiona is the Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Communications for the Americas.

So, picture it.  You are in a ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel in New York City.  You are seated with 100 of the top HR executives from around the world.  Then, Fiona is announced.  Two things immediately strike you; first, she is incredibly polished and professional.  Her presence fills the room.  Second, as she begins speaking, you realize that her storytelling style will engage this challenging crowd in ways that more speakers dream of.

Fiona’s keynote,  “Enabling the Future Workforce” accomplished several things.  She told the story of Unilever, a world-class company that provides over 400 brands of personal care, home, and food globally.  Brands you use such as Hellmann’s, Lipton, Dove, Vaseline, and Surf.  What is truly different and unique about Unilever is they are so forward thinking when it comes to their people.  Fiona told us their story of bringing an agile workplace into play at Unilever.

What is an agile workplace?  It is something that goes several steps beyond just the talk of work flexibility.  The agile workplace focuses on three areas; practices, facilities, and technology.

  1. Practices– In order to implement an agile workforce, you will need to offer agile and flexible work experiences to all or as many employees as possible.  This means that performance is measured on the output of work, not on the hours you work or where you work them.  At Unilever, they were able to offer this flexibility to all employees.  It was a huge change that forced managers to have trust that employees would get their work done.  It also was a process where managers had to have ongoing discussions with employees to ensure that it was working.
  2. Facilities– Much like your home is divided into different rooms with different functions (kitchen for cooking, bedroom for sleeping, etc.) an agile workplace throws out the use of office space in a traditional office/cubicle layout.  In an agile workspace, there are areas to focus and work independently, then employees can move to areas where they can connect and collaborate with other employees.  There are also areas for vitality like break rooms, kitchens, and cafes.  Unilever was able to reduce their real estate footprint when they moved to this model.  They are using approximately 40% less space.  The key is that ALL employees, from the non-exempt to the executives, are expected to use the same work areas.  It is working for Unilever.
  3. Technology– You must invest in technologies in order for an agile workplace to work.  First, virtual collaboration technologies such as telepresence meetings can help reduce the cost of global travel for employees.  Second, advanced mobility technologies will need to be used to facilitate employees having ease of working from other locations.

When an agile workplace is in place, there will be a cost savings on the real estate footprint.  Tech costs increase initially, however travel costs decrease.  It really is a trade off.

So, do you see this type of work environment gaining popularity in the future?  How do you think this would impact HR and providing service to employees?


  • Trish – Excellent overview of what I thought was the best session of the conference. One point of emphasis that Ms. Laird made that was very telling was that how at Unilever all managers are being held accountable on their own performance reviews and compensation evaluations on how well they support Agile Working in their own organizations. This was strongly driven from the very top of the organization on down and is a crucial element for the program’s success.

  • Many of the companies I work with are hesitant to embrace these less formal work arrangements, although I firmly believe that they will be a critical component of the emerging workforce. As the baby boomers find their savings getting back to a semblance of stability after the downturn, they’ll start leaving the workforce in droves and those companies ready to embrace newer ways of getting work done with both physical and virtual environments will almost certainly thrive. Thanks for the great article!

  • Great insight, especially for anyone would not have attended. I would be interested in hearing any thoughts on sessions that may have been a waste of time and not to be repeated. But then that would be rehashing the old which we probably don’t need anymore 🙂
    I wonder how the agile workplace would affect work for individuals and projects that needed private space to ensure that the work and performance of the people stayed high. Just thoughts

  • Over the course of the last couple of years we’ve transitioned some 15,000 people to Agile Working, mostly in offices…not so much Home Working particularly in the Finacial Services sector.

    I’m always impressed by what people tell us after implementation… ‘It has helped me be more effective, I have to plan my work more’ , ‘it helps build trust between colleagues and teams because you get to sit with different people’ …’ it has helped me be more productive’….

    As well as space saving that most people refer to Agile Working reduces CO2 per head and energises the atmosphere of the organisation….

    But of course if you are applying these ideas in traditional businesses ithe key to effective implementation is ‘a good reason’ and a well orchestrated change programme….

    • @Steve- Great point. The agile workplace certainly would not be likely to work if leaders were not required to participate and be held accountable. This was such a highlight of the entire conference. Thanks for adding to the post.

      @Todd- I think you make a great observation. Currently, most companies will not embrace this type of work arrangement, but as the boomers retire, I think we’ll see more and more options for work arrangements. So glad you commented. Thank you.

      @Laura- You hit on a key element- cost. While some initiatives have greater cost up front, over time they will really pay off. I know that was one thing that Unilever faced with their telepresence. Thanks for commenting and sharing your link.

      @Benjamin- thanks for stopping by. you know I always welcome the 513 on my blog! ha ha I love your idea to share the sessions that, to put it delicately, were not as effective or progressive. I’ll have to think about that a bit.

      @Andrew- So many great points! Thank you for adding them. I have heard that both the financial services sector and healthcare offer the most flexibility. Sounds like you’ve got first hand experience. So glad you commented.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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