The new ‘U’: Unilever’s revamped U.S. HQ is thousands of square feet — all aimed at helping its employees thrive

By Meg Fry
Englewood Cliffs | May 30, 2018 at 7:11 am
From our print edition

Katie Ambrose admits to frequently posting to social media at work.

“This space has been just incredible for our brand,” she said. “It Instagrams very well.”

Unilever, the nearly $53 billion, Netherlands-based global consumer goods and foods company, recently unveiled its redesigned and redeveloped U.S. headquarters in Englewood Cliffs.

Now, Ambrose, manager of employer branding — an internal branding team dedicated to upholding the company’s reputation as an employer — is utilizing the space to attract and retain the workforce of the future.

“What we say here at Unilever is that every voice matters and every story is celebrated,” she said. “So, when the building was designed, we thought through things like, what do our people need and how can we best support our employees?”

That included amenities such as healthy and local dining options, a heavily-subsidized fitness center, an on-site dry cleaner and credit union, and even a TIGI-branded hair salon.

It all started, though, with being more conscious of how one utilizes space, Ian Dunning, service delivery director of workplace services for North America at Unilever, said.

“For us, it is all about sustainability, productivity, collaboration, agility and thriving in the more connected digital world that we live in today,” Dunning said last week during a tour of the facility.

In an unprecedented example of green redevelopment, the 325,000-square-foot “Unilever Marketplace,” as the company calls it, reduces operating costs by 20 percent, potable water demand by 50 percent, carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent and total energy consumption by 50 percent — all while providing 28 percent more useable space than its previously occupied buildings had at the suburban office park.

That currently makes it one of the most sustainable and technologically advanced workplaces in the country.

“I actually look forward to driving in to work now,” Ambrose said. “It’s nice to work for a company that takes care of its people and the environment.”

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The project has been more than five years in the making, Dunning said.

In 2014, Unilever received nearly $40 million in tax breaks from the state to keep the company and its jobs in New Jersey.

“We really wanted to remain here, because we believe this location gives us the best of both worlds,” he said. “We are able to not only maintain our campus feel and our long history with New Jersey and its people, but we also have access to talent in New York.”

In response, Unilever unveiled “Project Unify” to consolidate five of its North American offices and several of its operating groups into a single, state-of-the-art workplace more in line with Unilever’s global Sustainable Living Plan, created in 2010 to reduce the company’s environmental footprint and increase its positive social impact, including for its more than 160,000 global employees.

“What we wanted to do was renovate this 1960s slab construction building and turn it into something that felt more like a funky New York loft,” Dunning said.

They would need a lot of help — and a large, undisclosed investment — to do so, while also making the building as sustainable as possible.

Unilever therefore worked primarily with Netherlands-based OVG Real Estate and New York-based Perkins+Will to develop, design and renovate the existing building at 700 Sylvan Ave.

“It was a very big step because we are a European developer, and this would be our first building in the U.S.,” Coen van Oostrom, CEO of OVG Real Estate, said. “Modern office buildings need four very important things: sustainability; health and wellness factors; smart technology; and they must be fun and energizing to be in for both younger and older generations.

“This building, for us, would be one of the most important buildings we had ever worked on — we wanted this building to be so healthy that, when you left at the end of the day, you were healthier than when you walked in that morning.”

Van Oostrom and his team were so confident in their concept, he said, that they even guaranteed a reduction of energy consumption and costs for Unilever.

So far, the project has been a resounding success.

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Unilever Marketplace, designed to earn certification by both LEED-NC and the International Well Building Institute, was completed at the beginning of this year with help from a small army of partners, including Normandy Real Estate Partners, M&E Engineers, Cushman & Wakefield, AMA Consulting Engineers, Robinson+Cole, Structure Tone, DrinkerBiddle, Evalan, Mesirow Financial and Deerns.

Currently, about 80 percent of Unilever employees are in the office on the busiest days.

Given that the vast majority of employees maintain flexible work schedules and telecommuting capabilities, the main architect, Perkins+Will, needed to take into consideration Unilever’s “agile work” policy, as it has increased employee productivity and retention for more than a decade.

The building therefore features no private offices or assigned desks for any one employee, but rather, a variety of open-space workspaces and seating arrangements, including “huddle” rooms, Skype-enabled private phone booths and traditional conference rooms.

“Our board members are actually embedded with their teams,” Denning said. “And, while our teams know where to come to in the building and whom they need to work with, they can then choose to work wherever they want.

“This is particularly useful for the way we often work at this organization, considering you might work in finance, but your role also is supporting personal care.”

Unilever’s unique work structure is made much more seamless in its new headquarters, which is completely connected by the Internet of Things via the EDGE Technologies platform.

Using a mobile application, employees can more easily find each other on campus and book meeting spaces while also being able to personalize the lighting and temperatures around them.

“We also can provide building managers with data about how spaces are actually being used,” Floris Vroemen, in business development with another partner, Mapiq, said. “For example, if we see that a lot of larger meeting rooms are only occupied 40 percent of the time, but phone booths are occupied 90 percent of the time, we can let the building owners know that they should perhaps build more phone booths.”

Through additional partnerships with multiple technology companies, including bGrid, iBeacon and Nuuka Solutions, the building is monitored by more than 15,000 sensors that measure data points such as occupancy, humidity, daylight, energy consumption and more to allow building operators to optimize the use of each space based on real-time information.

“If the sensors recognize that there are 25 people in a meeting room, the building automatically should adjust the temperature,” Mikko Valtonen, CEO of Nuuka, said. “But, if nobody is in there, the space does not need to be cooled and we can therefore save energy.

“Currently, we are only up to 70 percent of our target total consumption of energy, which means we were using 30 percent less energy than we had initially anticipated — but, we also can see that we currently have an issue with our indoor air conditioning, as the temperature in one area has been going up and down quite a bit for the past seven days. When we read information like this, we can immediately send it to the maintenance group to locally address the problem.”

Of course, the building also contains more traditional energy- and environmentally-friendly features, such as low-flow plumbing fixtures, salvaged wood and solar panels.

It also can now accommodate all 1,600 employees at U.S. headquarters, if the need ever were to arise.

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While expansion can be good, consolidation can be even better.

For example, when Unilever moved its Food Solutions group to Englewood Cliffs from Chicago, it needed to provide a working kitchen in which its chefs could continue to create cuisines in conjunction with brands such as Hellmann’s, Lipton, Country Crock, Klondike and more.

Now, the state-of-the-art, open-concept kitchen looks and feels more like a hip bistro bar than a corporate entity.

“Our working kitchen is first and foremost for us to train employees and collaborate with our customers, as we do a lot of production development with them,” Chef Einav Gefen, corporate executive chef, Food Solutions North America, said.

In addition, the U-Café, Unilever’s lower-than-local-cost on-site dining facility, was redesigned to adhere to standards set by the International Well Certification.

“The certification wants to encourage us to be healthy, so all of our healthy options are facing-forward,” Chef Sebastian Rivera said. “We do have French fries, but you’ll not only have to look for them but also wait for us to fry them for you.

“Realistically, if you have 30 minutes to eat lunch, have some local vegetables, move on with your day and skip the fries until Friday.”

Multiple marketplaces throughout the building also feature local and healthy food offerings, including artisan tea, coffee and smoothies.

But no worries — U-Treats, which provides free ice cream to employees daily, is due in part to Unilever’s role as the world’s largest ice cream manufacturer, including brands such as Ben & Jerry’s and Breyers.

“It can be sort of an indulgent treat, though, so many of our employees then hit the on-site fitness center,” Denning said.

More than half of Unilever’s employees are willing to pay the nearly $10 per month fee to use the facilities.

“We do charge employees a nominal amount, because all empirical data tells you that if you provide it for free, people will not value or use it,” Denning said. “People who want to get their money’s worth actually will use it more.”

For those employees who don’t have time to devote to the gym or are just starting out, Unilever also provides free wellness rooms throughout the building, which include a variety of fitness equipment, short demonstration videos on everything from posture correction to quick cardio workouts, and even chairs for meditation and reflection.

Then, when employees are finished with their workout, they can purchase a selection of the more than 400 Unilever brands, such as Dove, Axe, Vaseline, Q-tips and more, for reduced prices at the company store.

Unilever Marketplace also provides employees with private lockers, an on-site dry cleaner and credit union, and a hair salon to visit on their own time in the new enclosed 16,000-square-foot atrium, which now combines the previous four buildings and serves as a bustling hub for working, socializing, dining and events.

“One of our biggest challenges with our flexible work schedules actually is our employees overworking, because they feel they need to be ‘on’ all of the time,” Denning said. “We are trying to get that balance right. We don’t particularly care when you are ‘on,’ as long as you are ‘on’ when your job demands it.

“With a facility and culture like ours, we encourage our employees to work with their managers and their teams to make their own choices.”

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That goes for prospective employees, too, Zakiya Nashid, associate brand manager of employer brand at Unilever, said.

“We hosted a big event earlier this year, for example, called Unigame, in which we brought in undergraduate and graduate level students for a business case competition,” Nashid said. “As soon as they walked into our building, many said, ‘Hey — I’d love to be a part of this.’ The space really jazzed them up.”

Providing tours of the new headquarters really is the best way to open prospective employees’ and guests’ eyes to the level of opportunity and comfort Unilever can provide them, she added.

“We make it a point to bring people around the building because we would like them to understand how we work, our flexible scheduling, our unassigned and open environments, and how we interact with each other, so that they feel comfortable making a decision as to whether we are the right place for them or not,” Nashid said.

Unilever is the right place for Ambrose, she said — and it’s not just because the new headquarters looks good in photos.

“We talk a lot about work-life balance and flexibility at Unilever, but what we’ve done with this concept and space is really focus on work-life integration and making it all seamlessly flow together,” she said.

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Meg Fry | mfry@roi-nj.com | megfry3