💫 Employee Experience Spotlight: Meet Surbhi Ugra
Head of Employee Experience Excellence at Unilever
Surbhi Ugra, M.A. HR Management, has 10 years of experience across all aspects of HR, including business partnering, expertise, and services. She has also played a significant role building up Employee Experience at Unilever, where she has spent the majority of her career. She is passionate about customer service, and designing solutions that improve the lives of end users.
Surbhi’s purpose is “to create order from chaos” and loves to jump into new challenges to strategically define these spaces. She is a demonstrated leader in pioneering spaces including Employee Experience, Agile Ways of Working, and Design Thinking at Unilever.
Surbhi completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Human Resource Management at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.
How do you describe the field of Employee Experience?
An Employee’s Experience is every interaction an employee has day to day when they are working, as well as the special moments they have during their career. We often think of Employee Experience through the lens of the services we offer as HR or even IT. but it really goes way beyond that – it’s the way that we support line managers, the way that we build our systems in order to enable better connections between colleagues and the way we connect with leaders. This has a massive impact on team and company culture.
The experience that we deliver is being there in the special moments, making sure the right support is there, but equally as important is the day-to-day interactions and making sure that those are as simple, yet as powerful as possible.
What sparked your path into Employee Experience?
Four years ago, I took on a role that completely changed the trajectory of my career and my passion, though initially I was not particularly enthused about it. I started off wanting to be an HR business partner (HRBP), and this was a role in backend HR Services, but this project made me realize that there is a combination of the two, now referred to as Employee Experience (EX), which I am very passionate about.
As an HRBP, I really wanted to fix the fundamental issues employees faced, which led me to partner closely with Workplace Services and IT even back then. In addition, Unilever’s vision to bring these disciplines together under EX was a dream opportunity where I could go and really use my skills, relationships, and experiences for the greater good.
What was that project that transformed your career?
Most of Unilever’s HR Services had been outsourced for nearly a decade, and a decision was made to move away from a service provider to a majority insourced model. Initially, I moved into this role because it was the only open role in the location I wanted, and I thought I could always find something else in a few months’ time if I truly didn’t enjoy it. It was a 10 month engagement to support the design phase of this project globally.
I wound up completing that design work, and loving it so much that I took on leading the entire transformation for North America. That entailed learning every aspect of our HR Services, traveling to the vendor site in Bangalore, India for knowledge transfer, redesigning new and improved processes, staffing a new US based team, and training them all in the new ways of working. Until six months after the transformation was complete, I was still in that role answering questions because I was a human encyclopedia for everything in HR Services!
I really loved the entire end to end oversight and developing such deep expertise in everything from Payroll to People Experience to Recruitment. Even though the project title was ‘Reimagine HR’, I also partnered with IT to automate processes and Workplace Partners to ensure employees' office needs were being addressed. It was so eye opening to the cross-functional impact of Employee Experience.
That's what made me happy – solving employee issues beyond my day job and having the right resources and contacts to help them. It was a great opportunity to partner closer with non-HR teams. This made a huge difference in the way we delivered our services and I’m so proud till this day when I see the changes we made back then are still around. We continue to work together and make magic happen!
How do you collaborate with Internal Communications?
Internal communications is critical to what we do. We have a 4D Design Thinking model in Unilever EX that guides our employee experience teams. This means Discover the voice of the employee, Define your problem statement and your vision, Design the solution that fits the problem statement and Deliver it with ease and clarity.
Our internal comms partners are with us from the moment a project hits our pipeline with the discover phase – understanding the problems that we’re solving for and understanding the voice of the employees so they can craft the right story about what we want to deliver. The final stage, Deliver, is where Comms really shines. It is about building awareness and energy around a change, of course, but also crafting the entire employee support model which will enable success post launch.
Comms is the team that keep us honest – asking what benefits the work is actually going to bring to the business or the end user. Internal Communications keeps us really close to what is the value and what are the employees actually looking for. Their mission is to keep us focused on what matters.
Internal Communications is a massive partner for me, especially at a company the size of Unilever, to ensure the hard work we do behind the scenes is noticed and used (and hopefully appreciated!) by employees.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Employee Experience?
Customer Intimacy and Customer Lens on everything is key. For us, the customer happens to be Employees, but equally we consider contractors, suppliers, and other types of Unilever workers as well! If doing what’s right for them is not your main driver, you won’t make the right impact.
At the end of the day, no business wants to do something to make things more difficult for employees to waste their time. To ensure that you optimize each solution, it’s critical to understand end user needs and to constantly seek their buy-in. If anything that you're doing is not driven by customer satisfaction, then you won’t make the impact.
It is a massive mindshift. You have to keep in mind that employees are not shy to share their insights, so applying them in the right way and partnering with them intimately is the most critical. You must be customer-centric in your solution development. As I’ve built out my team, I’m focused on how we all start to define employee experience in the same way and deliver high quality solutions global.
How do you continue learning about your field?
There are three main ways I keep upskilling in my role. First, there are seminars and workshops always going on, there’s never not one in sight! Sometimes these are really transformative and there’s this one nugget that I bring back to change my work, and sometimes it can simply serve as validation of what we are doing.
Secondly, I learn a lot by forming Consortiums with a partner companies within and outside of our industry. In these Consortiums we focus on HR, employee experiences, Technology, Hybrid working, and more. We talk with them about the challenges that we’re facing, tools that work well, resources that we give to employees, big wins we’ve had, and learn from them as well. There are a few companies who we look to and realize they’re the benchmark, let’s learn how they did that and make it even better for us! There’s not a conflict of interest because we’re just trying to do what’s right for employees.
Finally, I am also part of a formal external Think Tank through which we get visibility into lots of innovative thinking in the space of Employee Experiences. We learn about the solutions companies are building and how they are pushing the boundaries. I love learning from peers on the job that way.