Unipart Group: Harnessing digital skills for communities

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Business in the Community (BITC) member Unipart outlines its commitment to responsible business and how the use of technology has revolutionised communication.

Unipart Group provides manufacturing, logistics, and consultancy services across the globe, employing over 6,000 people. Since it began in 1987, Unipart Group has been recognised for its leading role in shaping management thinking. Its employee share scheme, stakeholder partnership programmes, and The Unipart U, one of the first corporate universities in Europe, led to Unipart being called a beacon for responsible business.

A member of Business in the Community since 2007, Unipart Group is committed to embedding responsible practice and behaviour across the business, including through its proprietary business system, ‘The Unipart Way’, which is described as a philosophy of working underpinned by tools and techniques to continuously improve.

That’s what outstanding employers are doing: they’re looking at how their colleagues can feel better, work better and connect better with each other and with their communities.”

Frank Nigriello, Director of Corporate Affairs

Having sponsored BITC’s Responsible Business Award for Outstanding Employment for a number of years, colleagues at Unipart have been thinking deeply about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what it means for responsible employers. In this article, Frank Nigriello, Director of Corporate Affairs, and Deborah Astles, Corporate Responsibility Director, consider the use of digital tools to support employee inclusion and help colleagues gain new skills.

“Being inclusive is part of our DNA, and completely underpins The Unipart Way, as well as our capability-building programmes such as Gate to Great” says Deborah.

Unipart has further increased its focus on inclusion during the pandemic, running sessions throughout the year that pick up on issues that affect different people in its workforce. “We held some fantastic events during Black History Month [in October 2020], that aimed at raising the profile of the role of black and ethnically diverse people in Britain’s history.”

Unipart also conducted other events to enable colleagues to share their own experiences during religious or social festivals. “We had a great session around Diwali,” Deborah recalls, “where colleagues came together to share how they were celebrating with families during lockdown.” Events like these can be simple to run, but have had a big impact, boosting employee engagement and helping colleagues to feel part of something bigger during a time when many have worked at home.

“We’ve seen that the use of online tools like Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams have revolutionised the way we communicate with diverse stakeholders” Frank says, adding that as well as developing the use of these tools for internal purposes, many Unipart colleagues “are involved with community groups and business networks, and we use these communications tools to help others build back responsibly.”

As well as chairing BITC’s South East Leadership Board, Frank is non-executive chairman of Oxfordshire’s B4 business network and has been working with the Local Enterprise Partnership in Oxfordshire to develop a virtual work experience platform where students can learn more about local businesses.

“This idea came from local businesspeople who have really seen the value of work experience, but felt it should be done in a different way given the conditions created by COVID-19. It’s had the dual benefit of providing opportunities for young people and being a real showcase for Oxfordshire-based businesses.”

“COVID-19 has almost required developing a new set of skills just to manage on a day-to-day basis”, says Frank, “and we know that more and more companies are focused on the idea of digital transformation to ensure everyone feels prepared for change. At Unipart, that’s meant building on our culture of continuous improvement and employee engagement.”

Throughout its history, Unipart has placed great importance on training every employee in the tools, techniques, and systems that help improve their roles. It has also engendered a culture of creative problem solving, something that Frank suggests “has really been a way of life” for the business.

Throughout the pandemic “we’ve taken that same problem-solving culture and asked our people to look at their business activities through a digital lens,” Frank explains, “and Unipart has fully encouraged its teams to consider how digital technologies can support all aspects of their work.”

The company has also been quick to encourage, and celebrate, new ideas and digital tools implemented by colleagues. “Some of our own internal innovations will translate into products that we can share with existing clients and will also help us attract new clients who may not have thought of Unipart as a digital company before” adds Frank.

As such, the learning approach put in place for Unipart’s own employees is fundamental to its core business, effectively testing products that are proven in the workplace that can transform the operations of other businesses.

Despite presenting a range of very real challenges, Unipart sees opportunities for outstanding employers to evolve and adapt to create lasting, positive change. “It seems the pandemic has made all of us compensate for not being able to work in the way we once did” Frank says, “but in thinking that through, we’re coming up with different ways of doing things that are providing advantages. That’s what outstanding employers are doing: they’re looking at how their colleagues can feel better, work better and connect better with each other and with their communities.”

BITC works with organisations to ensure digital transformation is ethical, sustainable and inclusive and that their innovations are developed in recognition of these challenges.

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