Workplace Wellbeing

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Published in Contract, November 2018

You might not immediately recognize the name “Unilever,” but you’ll definitely know most of its brands: household names such as Q-Tips, Dove, and Hellmann’s, among others. As the North American market accounts for 20 percent of the European company’s global revenue, it’s vital that the regional team stay ahead of the game. Yet its home base in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey—comprising five 1960s buildings that were dated, dark, and inefficient—appeared to be behind the times on many fronts, with renovations from different points in time presenting an incoherent mishmash of styles.

Unilever recognized that in order to reinvigorate its workforce, any additional renovations would need to go beyond handsome aesthetics and space allocation. The company looked toward wellness, a hot-button topic in recent years as employers explore ways to enhance productivity, reduce employee burnout, and recruit and retain talent. Furthermore, Unilever sought to unify its brands on a single campus. For this ambitious undertaking, the corporation eventually tapped Perkins+Will.

At the crossroads

Essential to the campus overhaul is a soaring all-weather atrium dubbed the “Marketplace.” The design team created it by enclosing and covering an underused outdoor space shared by four of the existing buildings, retaining the buildings’ exterior walls, and connecting bridges to form part of the atrium envelope. The firm then filled in the gaps, including the roof, with glass and steel systems. A formal entry and reception area seamlessly flows into the atrium for visual impact and ease of navigation to any of the buildings. Previously, there were 15 entrances into the buildings and, “Employees were driving to work, swiping in, and seeing the same eight or so people every day,” explains Paul Eagle, a principal at Perkins+Will. The campus now has only three points of entry—the main reception and two that open into the Marketplace.

Also serving as a wellness element, the Marketplace boasts abundant daylight, patches of green, and a variety of seating where employees can take breaks or even work. Additionally, most of the amenities are within or directly accessed through the Marketplace, including a staffed fitness center, salon, and ice cream corner. Thoughtful product placement educates the formerly isolated brand teams on Unilever’s full portfolio: The salon uses TIGI products; the ice cream station offers free frozen treats from Good Humor, Ben & Jerry’s, and other Unilever brands; and an employee store carries discounted company products.

No two people work alike

Unilever has been practicing flexible working worldwide for the last decade with the exception of the North American headquarters. So, Perkins+Will reconfigured the floor plans of the four bounding structures to make the campus entirely agile and increase the occupancy from 900 to 1,500 to accommodate employees from the adjacent office park.

Designated neighborhoods” house specific brand teams but with unassigned desking, and within each floor is a variety of spaces: open but noise-prohibitive quiet zones, phone booths, meeting rooms, semi-private collaboration booths, breakout areas, and kitchens, all in the resimercial design vernacular. Additionally, private rooms on each floor are dedicated to specific uses such as lactation and pumping, meditation and prayer, or stretching. The freedom of choice and ability to escape, features that more offices are employing in recent years, help prevent issues that arise in open-plan situations and acknowledge that people work differently. “Employees have the ability to work whenever, wherever, and however best supports their wellbeing,” says Ian Dunning, Unilever North America’s workplace director. For example, “They can structure their day around their physical activity by going to the onsite gym at a time that suits them.”

Unilever takes agile working and wellness so seriously, it’s formalized a process of sending an annual survey out to a statically significant sample of the employee population. “We ask questions related to work/life balance, and we regularly look at benefits utilization data at the aggregate level to help us better understand areas of focus for employee wellbeing programs,” says Dunning. “This ensures that we’re developing impactful offerings.”

The green quotient

To help achieve sustainability goals for the site’s developer. Perkins+Will replaced all the exterior facing windows with high-performing double-pain units, removed walls that obstructed daylight, converted all lighting to LED lamping, and installed 15,000 sensors to track and record occupancy rates. The latter move enables facilities to shut off HVAC and lighting in underutilized spaces on specific days and times informed by history.

Unilever was so confident in its sustainability plan that the company stipulated an energy limit in its contract with the site’s developer. “We’ve been monitoring energy usage since the end of January and it’s significantly less than what we used to burn,” Dunning says. “About 10 percent below the guarantee.” Together with implemented waste-cutting strategies and careful material specification, these efforts are keeping Unilever North America on track for LEED Platinum and WELL Gold certifications and, with a 50 percent jump in employee satisfaction so far, the right path to employee wellness.