Your digital journey starts here
Book a free one-to-one consultation to discuss the current status of your digital workplace. Each consultation is followed up with a bundle of useful resources to help get you started.
- Alessandro Ventura, Global Vice-President Technology Transformation at Unilever
Can technology empower and amplify the impact that humans can produce in the hybrid workplace?
Since pre-pandemic times, global giant Unilever has made the best of technology solutions to create a culture centred in collaboration, creativity and connection.
In this Digital Workplace Impact podcast, host Nancy Goebel is joined by Alessandro Ventura, Global Vice-President Technology Transformation at Unilever. They discuss his passions, priorities and focus on delivering business impact by bringing out humanity and happiness in the hybrid workplace.
This engaging conversation takes place just as Alessandro’s appointment to his current role was announced. He shares his insights and reflections on his career to date, along with advice for others on how to be an empathetic and people-focused leader at work.
For some fascinating insights and a glimpse into Alessandro’s forward-thinking approach to hybrid working, take a listen today.
Show notes, links and transcript for this episode:
[00:00:01.610] – Alessandro Ventura
I definitely believe that having the right tools, but also having the right mindset can really help stimulating creativity whenever and wherever it happens. For some people, they need to be in a particular environment to stimulate their creativity. For other people, it’s the moment that matters. So how can we, through technology, be able to capture that level of creativity, stimulate that level of creativity, and then enable the collaboration that can boost that creativity?
[00:00:35.460] – Nancy Goebel
Each morning I start my day by scanning news headlines and social feeds. A couple of months ago, I came across an interesting article in Futureforum.com about building organizational culture in a hybrid world. And of course that’s amid all of the counter media that talks about return to office initiatives that are challenging the nature of remote working for some organizations in a very bold fashion. The article itself featured then CIO and VP of Analytics and Business Services for Unilever North America, Alessandro Ventura. I’m someone who is always on the hunt for interesting voices to feature on this podcast, and we approached Alessandro to join us to chat about his passions and priorities, his career trajectory, and of course, the importance of building organizational culture in a hybrid world. Little did we know that in preparing for today’s conversation that news of his appointment to Global VP of Technology Transformation at Unilever would be announced on social this morning. I have to say, this was the best combination of an exciting, enjoyable, and humbling conversation with Alessandro, or Ali as those people closest to him call him. And on such a fateful day.
[00:02:17.710] – Nancy Goebel
Join me now in conversation with an impactful, intelligent and passionate people leader who is all about making the digital headquarters at Unilever an enjoyable, enabling, and effective place to nurture not only corporate culture, but also to help deliver business results.
[00:02:38.470] – Nancy Goebel
This is Nancy Goebel, DWG’s Chief Executive and your host. As always, Digital Workplace Impact is brought to you by Digital Workplace Group. Happy listening.
[00:02:52.390] – Nancy Goebel
Alessandro. I am so delighted to welcome you to the Digital Workplace Impact podcast studio today. And on such a fateful day, I happened to catch in my morning feed that you’ve launched into a new position as Global VP of Technology Transformation at Unilever. Congratulations and welcome.
[00:03:15.310] – Alessandro Ventura
Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
[00:03:17.950] – Nancy Goebel
And so I’m always on the hunt for interesting voices in our industry. And not long ago, I stumbled upon your name in an article on futureforum.com and just felt an immediate connection with your thinking about building organizational culture in a hybrid world. And I very much look forward to exploring that topic with you as part of today’s conversation. But given that your career has been such an interesting one with a true exclamation point on the day, I thought it would be interesting to get a little bit of a window into your 20 year career at Unilever. And I guess nowadays people do move quite a bit within organizations and across organizations. And so I have to start by asking you to what do you attribute your longevity and success?
[00:04:22.210] – Alessandro Ventura
Basically, Unilever is an organization that constantly adapts and changes. And so I’ve stayed at Unilever because in the last 20 years it’s always felt I could learn something new. I’m a big advocate of lifelong learning. I like learning new things, I like challenging myself with new and different tasks and different things. So I have to say Unilever has given me the opportunity to move, live in different countries, come across so many different international cultures, and this for me is like what gives me energy. So the opportunity to learn, the opportunity to face new challenge, the opportunity to live in different places and obviously in all that, the opportunity to develop myself professionally and personally. So I have to say, even when I compare the opportunities that the external world was giving me, I’ve always find the opportunities that Unilever was proposing me more interesting, fascinating and challenging.
[00:05:31.450] – Nancy Goebel
And clearly just in being connected with you on LinkedIn, it’s apparent that that holds true not only for yourself, but in what you try to do with colleagues all around you. You’re clearly someone who is looking to help Unilever at large and your organization in particular serve as lifelong learners themselves and to create opportunities. And one of the areas that I’m particularly intrigued by within that is the idea of the purpose that you’ve set forth and that’s really around delivering business impact by bringing out humanity and happiness. And you don’t often hear of that, especially from an executive within the technology arena. So tell us a little bit about the origin story for that purpose.
[00:06:29.930] – Alessandro Ventura
So the origin is really looking at my passion. So I’ve always been driven in everything I’ve done. I started working when I was 13, doing very different tasks and activities and in everything I’ve done, probably the education of my parents who were working class people, but really have always said a dignity in everything they did. So my dad was a factory worker at Pirelli Tire Company for like 45 years. And so the idea of business impact comes from there. The passion to really make sure that what I do has an impact and as a positive impact in the people around me and then in the business that I serve. I mean, I’ve been blessed and humbled to be with such an incredible company like Unilever, but before I joined, before I served with Deutsche Bank and with Nokia, although for much shorter period of time. And for me it’s important that what I do has an impact for the business that I serve. At the same time, I’m a people person, I’m driven by the relationship with people, I thrive having people around. And I think that happiness and fun play a very important and hugely underestimated role in how we can do the same thing, but do it better to the point that to me when I go to the office, it doesn’t feel like going to the office.
[00:08:11.800] – Alessandro Ventura
I mean, I want to go and see my colleagues. I consider them people that I want to hang around with and people that I want to share a laugh with and genuinely believe that making people around me, feeling that they can be themselves, making people around me, having fun with me, it kind of de dramatize a bit the pressure that is in the corporate world today, which I think is insane. I also believe, to be honest with you, I always say this to my colleagues because we did a little party for the end of my role here in North America with my team. Several people came to me and told me I’ve never been able to speak so openly with a VP, et cetera, et cetera. And I’m like, I’m not a VP. I’m Ali. And I believe that hierarchy plays a very important role in decision making because, of course, a company as big as Unilever cannot have hierarchy in terms of decision making. If everybody tries to try to make decision is anarchy and the company goes under in seconds or minutes. But outside decision making, we’re all human. We are all people.
[00:09:35.530] – Alessandro Ventura
And why should anybody treat me personally different because of the role that I have? So outside decision making, we’re all the same. Even in decision making, of course I have a role which is different. I have a responsibility which is different. But that responsibility is a responsibility to serve, not to behave in a certain way. That responsibility doesn’t give me any free pass to not behave according to my purpose and who I am. So, yeah, I think that this de dramatize, scaling down the drama and the pressure and the tension that we all have at work by having a laugh and being able to go for lunch all together and feel free to talk to each other as we can talk among among people and among friends really helps them – people giving their best, and therefore helping me to leave a mark in everything that I do.
[00:10:41.090] – Nancy Goebel
And when we think about what we’re hearing in the news media these days with organizations calling upon the return to office and in some cases even issuing mandates to command that that change happen in the now, it feels like such an important time for us within the digital workplace arena. Those of us who are stewarding the digital headquarters of the organization to pause and have conversation afresh with leaders like you recognizing that individuals bring their whole selves to work, and the definition of work isn’t about where you work, it’s about how you work. And so to recognize that, we need to not only look at the what and the why, but the how is critically important too. We actually had our member meeting in London last week, and one of the conversations that we had was about the importance of layering in emotional journeys that employees have as part of looking at optimizing the employee experience. And yes, that’s digital, but that’s also physical. And so recognizing that building organizational culture in a hybrid world is a topic for which you are very passionate and it is a big priority and one that you share very openly in external channels, whether social or otherwise.
[00:12:20.870] – Nancy Goebel
I really wanted to have a spotlight moment for that conversation. And so Unilever is very much operating within that hybrid arena. And I know that some organizations leapt into that space by virtue of the pandemic. But I’m curious to know if this has always been a priority for Unilever or is this a more recent advent?
[00:12:46.690] – Alessandro Ventura
No, Unilever has always been a huge supporter of hybrid arrangements. I mean, we call it hybrid arrangements today but Unilever has always been passionate about the outcome rather than the input and where the input takes place. So it’s really never mattered where you were also because being such a big international company, if you want in a sense, disperse even if I’m in the office but the rest of my team is around the world, I still have the same experience of relationship with them than I have connecting with them virtually. So yes, the short answer is Unilever has always been strong advocate for flexible working arrangements and this comes back from our very origin. So Lord Lever founded what became Lever Fabergé and Unilever in Port Sunlight and he built a village, he built houses for people. And why I’m mentioning this, not because that was a hybrid working arrangement, because factory worker need to go and work in the factory, but because ever since the creation of our company there’s been clarity around the fact that people need to conceive work in unity with the rest of their lives. So coming to the modern days, even if COVID didn’t happen, if there are parents of young children and young children fall sick one day, who am I to tell that person, you need to come to the office.
[00:14:26.540] – Alessandro Ventura
And even if I do that, that person will be to the office thinking about their child sick at home. So they will be even more productive if they are able to take care of the child or relatives, et cetera, et cetera, and commit to work rather than say no, you need to come to the office no matter what. So personally, I am a huge big proponent of hybrid working arrangements and Unilever has always been truly accommodating to the needs of the employees, obviously holding employees accountable to then get the job done. One of my bosses used to say if you have a day which is light and you finish at 3 o’clock and you want to leave the office at 3 o’clock, you shouldn’t think twice about it because trust me, at the end of the year you will have done your hours. So it’s not a matter of hours. It’s a matter of being the best version of ourselves from an energy perspective, from a mental perspective, so that we can lend that business impact I was talking about before. Now, having said that and being a people person, I also believe that personally, I need to be in the office a couple of days a week because I need to see people.
[00:15:55.410] – Alessandro Ventura
I can’t only see people in 2D on a screen. I need people. I’m Italian, I’m a hugger, I give people pat on the back push high five, et cetera, et cetera. So I’m very lively in the office. And although I like hybrid working arrangements that day or two days a week, I really need to see people and get some energy from direct relationship with people.
[00:16:20.890] – Nancy Goebel
And I think the key here is knowing when you can be a remote presence and when you do need to be a physical presence. And it feels to me, it feels to us within DWG circles that those in-person connections that we make have almost become sacred. We appreciate them in a different way. Now, coming out of the pandemic and allowing people to make adult decisions about when they’re working in one format over the other, grounded in the impact story, is a very emotionally intelligent way to think about the process. And you’re a living example of that. Although you mentioned you’re a people person, of course you also sit within the technology arena. And knowing our audience, I think it’s important for us to talk about the role that technology plays in creating and sustaining the culture within Unilever’s hybrid workplace. So tell us a little bit about that.
[00:17:30.550] – Alessandro Ventura
Well, technology is incredibly important. So you mentioned a word before which is very dear to me. You mentioned digital headquarter. And this is very important to me because the headquarter or the office used to be the place where work was done. And obviously, today, not only post pandemic, but already before the pandemic, the idea of the headquarter and the office is changing because there’s a much more flexible conception of the office and of the headquarter. And so technology really needs, really is the unlock for people to be able to work and be productive wherever they are. And so, by the way, technology is not in a dichotomy with people. So technology and people can go together. One of my biggest experience during the pandemic was to understand how much proximity bias I had before the pandemic before, because, of course, I was a four to five days person in the office. And being a people person, we used to go for lunch, coffee and have fun together with people in the office, and then come the pandemic, off you go. You are isolated at home. But my team is spread across seven sites, and I got to know so much better people that were not collocated with me, because all of a sudden, technology offered an even platform for people to relate to myself and for me to relate to people.
[00:19:23.290] – Alessandro Ventura
And so I do believe that technology and the person work alongside and the technology is the enabler, the technology is the tool. Technology is like a hammer, but you need to be able to use it. So you need to have the creativity, the human creativity, to use it at its best. So absolute advocate about the fact that technology can empower and amplify the impact that the human can produce.
[00:19:59.630] – Nancy Goebel
And so let’s pull that thread a little bit further. Of course, it’s critically important to have the right tool for the right job. You don’t want to use a vacuum cleaner to hammer a nail, you need a hammer. And so how do you think technology solutions have helped create a culture of collaboration and creativity and connection within Unilever?
[00:20:29.690] – Alessandro Ventura
As I mentioned before, being a proponent of hybrid work much earlier than the pandemic, we really had a competitive advantage in this space. So we were very lucky to migrate at the end of 2022 and beginning of 23, from Skype to Microsoft Teams, skype is more of a communication tool. Microsoft Teams is much closer to a digital headquarter type tool. So going from communication to collaboration, we were very lucky to initiate a migration of our VPNs from on prem to the cloud. And this really helped us being able to boost the capability for everybody to be able to work online on a dime. I still remember it was Friday, March 13, where Unilever Worldwide decided that from that very day we were all going to work remotely with no notice. And so having, I think cloud has been a huge accelerator to be able to give people an even platform. And we were very much ahead of the game from a Unilever perspective to be in that place. And then the culture was already there because we were already a company that favours hybrid working and we had a huge long-lasting experience of working remotely.
[00:22:11.510] – Alessandro Ventura
So I definitely believe that having the right tools, but also having the right mindset can really help stimulating creativity whenever and wherever it happens. For some people, they need to be in a particular environment to stimulate their creativity. For other people, it’s the moment that matters. So how can we, through technology, be able to capture that level of creativity, stimulate that level of creativity and then enable the collaboration that can boost that creativity. So I think technology plays a super important role in linking people up and then boosting the power of the collective, if you like. Now there are some moments where you need to come together, there are some moments where you say, hey, let’s come together to brainstorm on a certain project, a certain innovation, et cetera, et cetera. And then there are the elements of complexity where you have asymmetry in the presence. So if you have 90% or 95% of people in the room and 5% of people online. Sometimes it’s difficult. So you also need to have working agreement to say, hey, whenever we do this, we do it online. Whenever we do this, we do it in person. And so one of the things that I do now is when I run my town halls, I’ve got a team of 120 and they are, as I mentioned before, spread across seven different sites.
[00:23:58.390] – Alessandro Ventura
So what I do, I no longer get in a meeting room and I stay at my desk so that the experience of everybody can be the same. No matter if there’s a room full of 20 people or there are other 100 people connecting from home or connecting from other offices, everybody gets the same experience. So we need to be mindful of making sure that we are inclusive, even in the use of technology. And so thinking about the experience of the other, but I definitely believe, again, technology is a huge booster and enabler to create a culture that favours collaboration and innovation in a company.
[00:24:48.560] – Nancy Goebel
And you mentioned the idea of crafting working agreements. Do you think there are any other special considerations that teams need to think about or that you’ve thought about in balancing the physical and the digital workspaces?
[00:25:06.910] – Alessandro Ventura
Inside of Unilever, there’s something that I call intentionality. Being a leader in a physical environment, in a sense, is easier than being a leader in a hybrid environment, because in a physical environment, people can see us and seize us in everything that we do. And so there is more of an element of transparency and an element of be true to ourselves. Whereas in the hybrid world, if I want to connect with somebody, I need to be intentional in connecting in a hybrid world. I need to be intentional in thinking about, okay, what is the experience of this connection for the people that are collocated with me, but also for the people that are in different locations. So I’ll give you an example. When I first arrived, we run this survey every year, which is called Univoice. Univoice is the moment where every employee can give feedback to the organization, to the leadership, and then to the direct management. And so I remember that there were some negative feedback and concerns around my level of inclusiveness. I was like, oh my gosh, I’m a people person. I want to be inclusive, so I want to understand what this is.
[00:26:37.730] – Alessandro Ventura
And so we did some focus group, et cetera, et cetera. Anyway, long story short, all it was was the fact that when I ran my town halls, again with the old technology, et cetera, et cetera, so it was a bit more difficult. But I didn’t have my camera on because I was thinking more about the people in the room than the people that were connecting virtually. And so all it took was switch that camera on to enable people that were not co-located with me to see me. And so I think that the word I would use as the most important attribute for a leader to be a leader in the hybrid world is intentionality.
[00:27:22.600] – Nancy Goebel
I think that’s a very powerful statement. And also being prepared to take on feedback to understand the data and the insights that things like Univoice have brought forward and in this case, allowed for a very simple adjustment that had a profound impact on helping people feel more included on a global scale. And so I know you have a background in analytics, and so feedback loop can create a mix of qualitative and quantitative input to guide decisions and taking things to the next level. What are some of the other ways that Unilever measures the success in the technologies that you’re using within the hybrid workplace?
[00:28:15.720] – Alessandro Ventura
So, in terms of success in technology adoption, first of all, the biggest metrics of success for our company is obviously the financial performance of our company. That’s the most important thing. But then in addition to that, when it comes to success in the use of technology, we have two KPIs that we look at. One is the adoption. So the number of unique user that use that specific technology compare with the total number of user that have access to that technology. That gives us a quantitative metric around how many people are using it. And then we have a qualitative measure metric that is the NPS score, the Net Promoter Score, and a year and a half back, we decided to harmonize all the feedback, the qualitative feedback that we received from the user of our technologies using the same KPI, which is the NPS. So the NPS helps us understanding the areas that we need, where we need to improve. So it’s very important to think about the user journey and the user experience, because the technology can be very effective, but user may still hate it because, yes, it performs the task that it was designed for, but is not easy to use at all.
[00:29:42.750] – Alessandro Ventura
And so we use the NPS score to understand how can we make that technology simpler and simpler.
[00:29:49.250] – Nancy Goebel
So it all comes back to creating an understanding of the what, the how, and the why. So there’s clarity about the impact that’s achieved and the journey that’s been taken along the way to understand whether there’s friction in the system or things need to be optimized in some fashion. And part of the reason I asked about this question was not only because of your background, Alessandro, but also this conversation coincides very beautifully with some new research that we’ve just released, which is designed for digital workplace leaders and their teams to be able to tell the impact story behind the work that they’re doing within the digital headquarters. And oftentimes this is an area that is not as mature in lots of organizations. And so when there are advanced teams that are leveraging analytics in the way that you’ve described. We like to shine a spotlight on those living examples. We have seen some of our members even start to use data scientists to help understand and interpret the numbers around the experience and the qualitative feedback to bolster that development area within digital workplace teams. And so we’re coming close to our final moments together.
[00:31:22.910] – Nancy Goebel
And so I wonder if you have any advice to share with digital workplace leaders and teams not only on this topic around culture and the hybrid workplace, but about the digital headquarters as a whole, especially given how generative AI is making its way into this space as well.
[00:31:47.920] – Alessandro Ventura
So I would say, first of all, flexible working arrangements are here to stay and they are convenient to take into account for big corporations. Because when you have a large number of employees, you need to make sure that you put the employee in the best position to be able to deliver that business impact that I was talking about at the beginning. And so the second point is to really think and be sharp on what does that digital headquarter look like for your specific corporation. And then thirdly, to develop a culture that is inclusive and leverages on hybrid working arrangement so that people can feel equipped in how to navigate and get things done and lend that business impact with hybrid working arrangement. And fourth, I would say a clear advice to business leader is the intentionality that I was talking about before. In order to be real human empathetic leader in the hybrid world, we need to be much more intentional. So these are the four things that I would advise would give my giveaway.
[00:33:15.950] – Nancy Goebel
So that is such a clear blueprint and very actionable. So I appreciate you encapsulating our conversation so crisply and framing it as parting advice for this group of leaders. And so I have to ask, have we missed anything? Alessandro, is there anything you were hoping I’d ask you and perhaps haven’t?
[00:33:41.750] – Alessandro Ventura
I don’t know. I mean, the world is changing so fast and so fluidly that maybe today my answer would be no. And then I listen to this on Monday and I say things are changing again. So obviously we need to be mindful of the context that we work in and all the disruptions that are happening, positive disruptions and negative disruptions. So all that I said always needs to be kind of embedded in a context that keeps changing. But for today, I would say this would be it for me.
[00:34:22.260] – Nancy Goebel
Excellent. Any final reflections?
[00:34:24.970] – Alessandro Ventura
No. Look, I’m super, first of all, super grateful to be invited and I’m very humbled to be invited to express my views. I’m a big proponent of we say the future work in reality is the present of work because for me, one of the key skills of a successful company is speed and agility. And I think everything that we said about hybrid working arrangements and the future work, et cetera, is in a context of even big corporations like Unilever becoming more and more agile to be successful in the present and in the future.
[00:35:08.660] – Nancy Goebel
What a perfect thought to cap off our time together. I too am humbled by the opportunity to have this conversation and I certainly hope it is not only the first and the last. I look forward to continuing to get to know you and look for further opportunities to collaborate. But for now, just to bring us back to the start of the conversation today, warmest congratulations to you on your new appointment, and we certainly wish you every success as you move, in every sense, to London. And we’ll look forward to hearing how this new adventure unfolds. And if the stars align, hopefully we’ll be able to have a part two conversation as you get grounded in that new role. But for today, thank you so much for coming into the Digital Workplace Impact podcast studio.
[00:36:09.890] – Alessandro Ventura
Alessandro, thank you very much.
[00:36:18.170] – Nancy Goebel
Digital Workplace Impact is brought to you by the Digital Workplace Group. DWG is a strategic partner covering all aspects of the evolving digital workplace industry, not only through membership, but also benchmarking and boutique consulting services. For more information, visit digitalworkplacegroup.com.
Learn more about DWG and our history, and the benefits of working with us.Read More
Book a free one-to-one consultation to discuss the current status of your digital workplace. Each consultation is followed up with a bundle of useful resources to help get you started.