Julie Kortens, past FM at Channel 4, looks at the move of workspaces to embody an organisation’s culture
Words by Cathy Hayward
When people think about offices reflecting company cultures, they are likely to think about technology and media firms. Google, Facebook and Twitter get plenty of press space devoted to their creative workspaces. But while slides, ping pong tables and bringing pets to work might make for great photo ops they don’t represent the culture of most companies around the world.
Kortens forged a career at Channel 4, much of it overseeing the facilities team. In 1982, when the channel first hit the airwaves, the idea was for it to take risks and challenge the mainstream. From screening the first-ever televised lesbian kiss in 1994 to the more recent live drug taking and Russian roulette Channel 4 has certainly done that.
That said, such an ethos presents some unique challenges when you’re asked to design a workspace to reflect that culture. At least if you want people to be able to work productively. But Channel 4 had always sought to be innovative, televising live births and promoting the Paralympics in a way never seen before. So, when Julie Kortens began a redesign of the head offices in Westminster she wanted the finished space to reflect all of these values.
The meeting room ‘pods’ were designed to be flexible, with a variety of finishes and graphics that brought the Channel 4 brand to life
From the very beginning she wanted to involve as many people as possible in the entire procedure. Staff and service partners were invited to join focus groups to pitch ideas and give feedback. Regular progress updates were given to employee reps and posted online on the Channel 4 intranet. ‘Messages of the Day’ branded in the traditional Channel 4 style were sent out to update everyone on the latest news.
Some of the issues that were raised during this consultation were typically Channel 4: could staff have nappy changing facilities made available? Could Westminster Council be challenged to provide more cycle racks in the area? Should the channel challenge everyone to make the building more welcoming to people with disabilities (the building had been accessible since the beginning, this was a hearts and minds approach)?
Once the project itself got underway the head office was still bustling with staff going about their day jobs. In fact the facilities team managed 2,000 moves involving some 1,000 people across more than 40 departments without ever emptying the building. They archived more than 1,000 boxes, reducing filing cabinets by almost half.
Recycled product was used wherever possible and sustainable working practices introduced. The chairs in this core meeting room were refurbished with recycled laundry bags...
The chillers were made more energy efficient, they decommissioned a redundant diesel tank, and built a new data centre all without impacting operations. All very impressive, but we were talking about the importance of culture. What did Kortens do to make the workspace better reflect the company values? The CEO’s original brief was for a socially vibrant, collaborative workplace for all employees and he also wanted the offices to evoke a similar reaction to what actually watching Channel 4 would.
Kortens brightened up the building during the changes with hoardings and billboards featuring iconic scenes and characters from Channel 4 shows. These were also used to give messages and advice to staff and visitors. She also completely revamped the meeting room system, introducing pods with flexible walls, magnetic surfaces and a range of finishes. The flexibility this offered accommodated current working methods as well as potential future changes. Wherever possible Kortens and the team tried to deliver creative solutions, furniture and finishes, recycling as much as was practicable.
All the while everyone involved, from the board to the newest members of staff, wanted to make sure that the end result was classy, not tacky. Google-style offices might work for some companies, but the CEO felt that that sort of approach would be too gimmicky for Channel 4. Besides, provocation and innovation are in the company DNA, so Kortens knew Channel 4 needed to go its own way. Just as important was making sure everyone knew that they were part of the team and had a key role to play.
Wherever possible creative, cosmetic and cost-effective solutions were introduced, including LED lighting effects and plastic chains for flexible partitioning
Kortens made sure that all the best space was given to people to work in. Technical space and the like was moved down into the basement and meeting rooms placed in the centre of the floors – the windows were saved for people’s desks. The project team also installed new high-level windows on the side of the building facing the garden and ceiling-level light ‘vents’ along the roadside to let in more natural light.
‘We took lots of decisions like that, not just to reflect the company culture but also because we wanted to take into account both staff morale and productivity,’ Kortens says. To take just natural light as an example: Northwestern University in Chicago conducted a study called Impact of Workplace Daylight Exposure on Sleep, Physical Activity and Quality of Life.
It found that workers in offices with lots of windows had better health, were less stressed and tended to sleep better and more efficiently. Other studies conducted by myriad institutions have found similar links and proven that giving people access to more natural light leaves them happier, healthier and more productive.
External impact was a consideration throughout the project to ensure the total impact reflected the ‘DNA’ of the business and was respectful of the channel’s status as a public corporation
Channel 4 gave up on offices, even for the executive team, a long time ago. They just didn’t fit in with the ethos, and open-plan spaces have worked very well. The next challenge on the horizon is the increasing prevalence of agile working, not just for Channel 4 but for all organisations, and the new layout and building infrastructure was prepared with this in mind.
And of course everything had to be done with cost and efficiency always in mind. Channel 4 is a public corporation – it was formally created by an Act of Parliament in 1982 – so there was no way Kortens could have allowed the project to go over budget or allow programming to suffer.
The FM Team
‘From my own perspective I am extremely proud of the role the facilities team played throughout the transformation’ says Kortens. In fact, I would argue that the FM department has done more to reflect Channel 4 values internally than any other department, both through our work in creating the workspace and in the way we operated on a daily basis.’
A mezzanine floor was installed but the framework of the basement TV studio was retained, respecting the original architecture of the building and creating a feature space outside the boardroom
The workspace is the embodiment of a company’s culture and has to underpin its values. Understanding an organisation’s ethos is essential to creating an environment that allows both company and employee to reach their full potential. ‘I left Channel 4 this year and now that I have broken free from the corporate world it is my hope that I can help other organisations recognise why this is important,’ she says. ‘Firms need to define their own values, understand why these should be reflected in their workspaces and identify why the facilities team is perfectly placed to implement this.’