URW: Don’t rest on your laurels around diversity
There is always more progress to be made.
Why You Should Care
URW, best known for its Westfield shopping centers, is focusing on being a diverse and sustainable employer.
Find out its current commitments, and how it wants to continue to improve, in this exclusive UNLEASH interview.
European real estate giant Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) is best known for its shopping centers.
While this is the core of its business (87% to be exact, it actually owns 78 Westfield retail locations in Europe and the US), URW’s assets also include office spaces and convention centers.
This explains why URW’s purpose is to Reinvent Being Together; “it is about bringing people to one big space” where they can be together and connect, Louise Haffenden, URW’s people director for the UK and Italy, exclusively tells UNLEASH.
Of course, this purpose doesn’t just apply to URW’s business, it also applies internally, and therefore created huge challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions.
One thing that was very hard to overcome was losing that “physical sense of togetherness”. Prior to the pandemic, most of URW’s 2,700 employees were in the office five days a week.
“COVID-19 pushed us to be able to offer flexible work to absolutely everybody” – now employees can work from home up to two days a week; teams are encouraged to coordinate on which days so they can “come together and collaborate in person on the same days”, explains Haffenden.
The HR team also introduced core hours – 10am to 4pm. Beyond this, people can work flexibly.
URW on being a family-friendly employer
A major benefactor of these flexible working policies at URW has been working parents.
According to Haffenden, introducing core hours “truly has meant that people can be present parents; it is so good that we can support people with that”.
It is “just about communicating that it’s okay to work amended hours to make sure you can pick your children up [from school]”, and avoiding guilt if employees are called away because their elderly mother who they care for is sick.
The new flexibility around location has formalized the often stressful individual case by case process that was used by employees, and particularly parents and caregivers, pre-pandemic.
But URW has gone beyond flexible working in efforts to support its employees who are also parents and caregivers. And this work, which started seven years ago, long before the pandemic, has led URW to be named among the top family-friendly employers in the UK.
The accolade came from the charity Working Families – other employers on the top 30 list were Citigroup, American Express, Experian, NatWest and the Bank of England.
Haffenden is really proud of URW’s work to upgrade its family-friendly policies over the past seven years.
She reflects: “Before this, it felt like we just had a very black and white, stagnant policy in place for maternity leave. I don’t think we even had a paternity policy in place”.
Then URW came across Working Families at an awards ceremony – “they just seemed to have everything to offer us a company that…would genuinely help us in terms of what we could offer people”.
So, the HR team worked with the charity to “review all of our policies, put best practices and beyond in place, and really hold us up against our competitors and people from completely different sectors”.
One of the first things URW did was introduce an employee network. “It’s for parents, carers, and then supporters of parents and carers – they hold a mirror up to us as a business and question ‘are you looking at this? Have you thought about that? This is what other companies are doing,’ They really just give us the insider track on what employees need”. This helps to keep URW and the HR team accountable.
In the UK, URW has introduced a shared parental leave policy. “Our standard maternity policy includes three months full pay, three months half pay, and we encourage everyone to take the full year off. We match that for partners who are taking shared parental leave”.
“For fathers, we pay four weeks full pay” – Haffenden is proud of this benefit as it is much more generous than most companies with fewer than 3,000 employees.
URW also has policies in place around surrogacy, pregnancy loss (and on a different note, menopause). Regarding pregnancy loss, paid leave and support is available to both parents, and includes those going through surrogacy.
This year, URW is on a mission to ensure that all parental leave and family-friendly policies are aligned in the two continents and 12 countries the business operates in.
“Everyone always jokes that I put all of this stuff in place about a year before I had my first child. But it did mean that I was able to experience it myself, come back and see what more needs to be done”, shares Haffenden.
One of the changes was about line manager support – making sure they are equipped with training and coaching so they can be there for parents and caregivers in their team.
From diversity to sustainability
Of course, URW is not just committed to being an employer of choice for working families – diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is “part of our everyday, it is in everything we do”, according to Haffenden.
“It is hugely important that everybody knows that they can be themselves at work, be whoever they want to be”.
URW wants to make sure its internal community reflects the diversity of the customers it serves. It is not a just a “box ticking exercise”, “it genuinely does come from our CEO, and particularly our COO in the UK. If it filters down, it just becomes part of daily life”.
Another aspect that is really top-down for URW is its sustainability commitments. “We’ve had various different group wide leaders and all group meetings…to discuss sustainability. It’s something that is at the top of everyone’s agenda”.
This is expressed in its Better Places 2030 green strategy, which is “aimed at…making sure we future proof everything that comes up, both for our places of work, our assets and our shopping centers, but also for our people and our communities”.
The strategy has been in place since 2015, and URW has made huge strides. As of August 2023, the company had achieved a permanent 15% reduction in energy intensity.
The target is 30% decline by 2023, and to help the company reach this goal, it is going to focus on reducing lighting, air conditioning and heating during open hours, and better leveraging the URW’s smart parking technology.
The sustainability strategy also commits URW to having global carbon neutrality – it has already achieved a 27% reduction in its carbon footprint (including through embracing renewable electricity in its shopping centers) and is on track to reach the 50% target by 2023.
In fact, in December last year, URW’s Better Places 2030 strategy received an ‘A’ rating by Global environmental non-profit CDP for the fifth consecutive year.
Where HR comes into the sustainability strategy is in ensuring that URW people are “Better Together”. “It is all making sure that we are both sustainable and also diversity change makers” – this comes through learning, development and training on climate change and climate awareness, but also in ensuring that sustainability is part of everyone’s objectives.
For URW, awareness of environmental issues is not enough, “it is about how we move the conversation onto…what are we actually going to do about it”, states Haffenden.
Don’t rest on your laurels
When it comes to diversity and sustainability, “I don’t think you can ever rest on your laurels”, shares Haffenden.
Regarding the Better Places 2030 goals, URW is going to announce decarbonization targets later in 2023, and the management team is going to release four pillars of change for sustainability – people and culture will be one of them, the others are around marketing, customers, and experience.
“Everybody and every department…will feed into one of those four pillars, if not all four. It is about making sure everyone does their bit”.
In terms of diversity, URW is aware that “we are not experts in every aspect”. This is why the organization partners with “various different organizations and specialists to make sure we are an employer of choice and we’re doing everything we can to be best in class for HR”, states Haffenden.
Examples include Stonewall, Real Estate Balance, and being a signatory to the Business in the Community’s Race at Work Charter.
Haffenden has already talked about its employee network for parents and caregivers. But URW has other communities and networks to ensure leadership is listening to its people and making the right changes.
“It feels like we’re [living through] a very strange year. In some ways you can compare it to the last two”, but it is also different – “we have so many people with financial worries and the world feels very strange”, notes Haffenden.
“With another tough year ahead, I think we need to make sure that we plow forward with our employee wellbeing to make sure that we keep everyone happy and engaged….and make sure that [we keep thinking about] what’s best for [our] people”.
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Allie is an experienced business journalist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.