Driving culture change in UN-ESCAP

In recent years, the United Nations has undergone a series of transformative changes that have impacted the Organization’s people, processes and technology.

Some leaders are embracing the change, adapting the way they work and the way they behave while supporting staff to adapt as well. Anne Matthews, Director of Administration at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Bangkok, Thailand stated: “to me as a leader, I need to change, I need to change my behaviors, and I also need to change how I think about the way I work. I believe the implementation of a technology platform is a lot easier than trying to change old habits."


While ESCAP was not directly impacted by UN Reforms in terms of structure, a number of changes have been underway to achieve the Secretary-General’s vision for a more nimble, agile Organization. For example, to improve staff well-being, the adoption of flexible working arrangements was increasingly approved. The change was difficult for some managers as they had to adapt the way they managed performance and results, but the programme continued to expand. A recent survey showed that work-life balance and staff well-being improved by 14% in ESCAP.

Additionally, ESCAP has aspired to have a greener culture. Inspired by the “Walk the Talk” concept created by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), ESCAP has prohibited single-use plastic on its premises. People now bring their own coffee mugs and lunch boxes, reducing overall waste.       

With the aim to improve disability inclusion, ESCAP has made physical changes to the premises. Furthermore, captioning is being implemented in meetings and documentation is being prepared according to accessibility standards. 

Throughout the crisis, it was critical for the Organization to work together and deliver as One UN. Staff across entities in Bangkok have been coordinating policy dialogues to look at lessons learned to ensure the United Nations and Member States are better prepared for future shocks.

 “COVID-19 taught us that when we work together, we’re stronger, we leverage diverse skills and talent across teams, and we just do a much better job,” Ms. Matthews emphasized. “I think innovation and agile mindsets have enabled us to walk the talk and help us move toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) together,” she added. 

To confront global crises and to remain relevant in a fast-changing world, the United Nations workforce must continue to drive culture change as the Secretary-General has called for. This will ensure greater collaboration across pillars and build a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable world.


It might seem like critical situations or incidents should be second nature in the United Nations, yet sometimes capacities are stretched beyond any norm or barriers to reallocation of resources put up obstacles. As part of management reform, a dedicated capacity in the Department of Operational Support was created to support the start-up, surge, or closure of Secretariat entities, as well as to better respond to critical incidents. 

Due to the global and dispersed nature of the United Nations, system-wide collaboration has always been a challenge. In person meetings are not always possible and entities across the UN system employ different tools and systems for their own work.

Adapting to the pandemic and addressing unprecedented challenges is driving staff and leadership to act fast and drive change. Building on the new structures and processes that reform put in place, the United Nations is quickly adopting a more collaborative, agile, and less bureaucratic way of working, accelerating processes and dramatically increasing collaboration between departments and entities.