Millions of Americans are quitting their jobs and rethinking what they want when it comes to work and work-life balance. Companies are responding, meeting their employees’ needs in areas like remote work, flexible hours, four-day workweeks, compensation and more. This story is part of a series looking at the Great Reshuffle and the shift in workplace culture that is taking place right now.
Harriet Talbot dreamed about bicycling across Europe and then on into Australia. Yet to make it happen, she thought she would have to quit her job.
Then, her employer, London-based Unilever, introduced a new program called U-Work that gives employees the flexibility of contract work within the company while still providing benefits and job security.
Workers commit to working a minimum number of weeks a year, receive a small monthly retainer and get paid for assignments. Benefits are not the same as those offered to full-time employees, but include a pension, health insurance and sick pay.
“I didn’t expect that it would be possible to have that ongoing relationship with an employer,” said 30-year-old Talbot, who is based in London.
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Talbot left her full-time job in the consumer-goods company’s global sustainability team in 2021. She then worked two contract jobs at Unilever and had a side gig at a local bike shop.
On Tuesday, she takes off on her trip, which should take almost a year to complete.
“It’s such a kind of real relief and really progressive, I think, to be able to come back and join the Unilever community when I get back,” she said.
Unilever’s United Kingdom office piloted the program in 2019 as a way to help retain workers nearing retirement.
“Very quickly, we realized that it wasn’t just people of that generation who were looking for flexibility, but others too for a variety of reasons, like family care, and study, travel, wanting to work for themselves or work for other organizations,” said Morag Lynagh, Unilever’s global future of work director.
U-Work became a permanent part of Unilever’s U.K. benefits in 2020 and is now being piloted in several other locations, including Argentina, South Africa and the Philippines. It’s yet to reach the United States, although Lynagh said she’d like to make that happen.
“We’re always open to having conversations with any market in the Unilever world that’s interested in taking this forward,” she said. “We’d love to talk to the U.S. if the U.S. wants to do this.”
There are 75 workers either currently active or about to start in the U.K.’s program. They include a member of the legal team who wanted to spend more time with her children and also put in some hours at a friend’s law firm, a factory manager who wanted to phase into retirement and another worker who wanted to start her own business in furniture restoration.
Not only does the freedom and flexibility help workers, it benefits the company as well, Lynagh said.
It gives Unilever a pool of talent it can quickly access, and those workers can hit the ground running since they are already familiar with the company, she said.
“U-Work is very much about talent retention,” Lynagh said. “It’s about how do we keep people for whom the traditional employment relationship isn’t working? How do we maintain access to that talent?”
That is a top priority for companies these days, as people have walked away from their jobs in droves during the Great Resignation, also known as the Great Reshuffle. Roughly 47 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021 and the movement has shown no signs of slowing down.
For some, freelancing may be the better option.
A recent survey by Upwork, which connects freelance workers to companies, found that 59 million Americans performed freelance work last year and 56% of those who currently don’t work freelance are likely to consider it in the future. The survey was conducted by Edelman Data & Intelligence from Aug. 27 to Sept. 29, 2021, among 6,000 U.S. working adults.
Those who work independently have also reported being happier and healthier, a separate MBO Partners survey found.
For Talbot, who said she will continue in the U-Work program after her trip ends, the benefits and security coupled with the freedom of freelancing is the perfect combination. She doesn’t see it hurting her career. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“One of the big benefits, I think, of working on an assignment basis is you actually get to know your own skills a lot better, and how you work and the best way to get the most out of your career and take that forward into future projects,” she said.
“In terms of future career, it’s really exciting.”
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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.