Channel 4 is a global employer who constantly embraces new tech. But how does the firm ensure it maintains the support of its employees during this change? myGrapevine magazine reveals all...

Words by Jade Burke | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Jade Burke


Design by Matt Bonnar

As organisations grow and develop, the need to transform increases. Whether it’s a decision to embrace new ways of working, to streamline teams or to update a company’s culture, transformation is now part and parcel of any business’ lifecycle. This rings true when looking at stats too, as 2018 Tech Pro Research found that 70% of companies either have a digital transformation strategy in place or are working on one for the future.

While some organisations may have still been dragging their feet at the start of 2020 when it came to transformation the global pandemic has certainly forced even the most sceptical into embracing change. A recent McKinsey survey of global executives highlights this, finding that companies have advanced customer and supply chain digitisation by three to four years, over the last few months, while their digital and digitally-enabled product portfolios have jumped ahead by seven years during the pandemic.

 

The scale of transformation is easiest to imagine when we think of the pivot to remote work. With three consecutive lockdowns taking place since March 2020 (England is currently in its third) remote working has become the new norm for the vast majority of employees – a survey of 2,500 people by Redfield and Wilton Strategies on behalf of i News in September 2020 found that 44% are still working from home – and this has resulted in huge transformations for many businesses in how they structure work and communicate with their staff.

It’s about how do you evolve in the world that we are all living, which will be a hybrid model

So much so that in a survey of 3,500 workers for Buffer & AngelList’s State of Remote Report 2020, 98% of respondents stated that they would like to work remotely for at least some of the time for the rest of their career. These wants of today’s workforce will undoubtedly lead HR teams to consider how they can change the way in which staff work, the way a business is structured and how to remain successful in a volatile landscape, and it seems HR leaders are keen to embrace this, as a study by Gartner discovered that 90% of 130 HR leaders plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part of the time.

  • Channel 4 is a publicly-owned yet commercially-funded public service broadcaster.
  • In addition to the main Channel 4 service, its portfolio includes: E4, More4, Film4, 4seven, Channel4.com, streaming service All 4 and The Box Plus Network, including 4Music.
  • Its public ownership and not-for-profit status ensure all profit generated by its commercial activity is directly reinvested back into the delivery of its public service remit.
  • As a publisher-broadcaster, Channel 4 is also required to commission UK content from the independent production sector and currently works with around 300 creative companies across the UK every year.
  • Channel 4 reaches 85% of the population monthly – and has 24 million registered users to its streaming service, All 4.

Someone who is no stranger to dramatic business changes is Channel 4’s People Director Kirstin Furber. Speaking exclusively to myGrapevine magazine (over a telephone call due to the latest imposed lockdown) the television network’s people head shares that the organisation has undergone its own stages of transformation, but points out that for any business on a similar journey, it must understand what direction it hopes to move in, while also ensuring that each staff member is fully aware of this goal and the business’ purpose.

Firstly, however, Kirstin notes that for any transformation to happen in today’s world, HR teams must welcome a ‘hybrid model’, where employees will freely be able to work from home or a physical workspace once they are able to reopen. “It’s about how do you evolve in the world that we are all living, which will be a hybrid model – which will be sometimes in the office and sometimes at home,” she cites. “So you have got that balance that provides that flexibility.”

Stats released by Hubble in 2020 also identified that employees want a mixture of working from home and elsewhere, as 86% of respondents said that they want to work somewhere other than the office at least once a week. While transformations such as this are likely for many businesses today, how exactly should HR leaders determine which transformation is right for them?

 

When it comes to determining a company’s transformation, Channel 4’s Kirstin outlines three key factors that HR teams should first consider. According to Kirstin these include authentic leadership as “being authentic about that really builds trust, particularly when you’re working in a virtual way,” and communication, to ensure every member of an organisation understands what’s happening and where the business is going. Lastly, Kirstin states that HR must ascertain what direction of travel they want to go in, as she explains: “Whether that might be on a short-term basis, medium or long-term, because when there’s change and uncertainty going on, providing direction is really critical.”

Every company is different, so there’s no one size fits all

While these three separate steps may indeed equip a business with the tools to carry out a successful transformation, Kirstin warns that “every company is different, so there’s no one size fits all”. While some businesses have been vocal on how they have made permanent changes to their business to fit the new working lifestyle of employees as a result of the coronavirus crisis – Twitter and Unilever are two big corporates to have shared that they will allow staff to work from home permanently if they wish – as Kirstin warns, this is not a ‘one size that fits all’ strategy, meaning many employers will head in different directions of travel. “Any big seismic shift like that (the pandemic) of course is going to make change, but I really believe every company is different,” she says.

 

Since joining Channel 4 in September last year, Kirstin has been privy to witness the launch of the network’s new business strategy known as Future4. This was rolled out in November during 2020, something that was in the pipeline regardless of the global pandemic. The five-year strategy has been designed to accelerate Channel 4’s pivot to digital and increase both streaming of its content and new revenues. Sharing the news in a release, the business stated that it is hoped this will ensure the network delivers “distinctive content at scale and meet its unique public service remit in a more competitive digital viewing environment”. A complete transformation of business and purpose.

As a result, staff, partners and stakeholders will have a new direction of travel: to create change through entertainment. Reflecting on this new strategy, Kirstin states that it was critical Channel 4 aligned it with its people. She says: “People are absolutely critical to our success and are an important part of Channel 4 and why our remit is so critical and so exciting for us and the culture that we have. So aligned with that given the changing dynamics, we have this new strategy.”

To support this new strategy, Kirstin reflects back to her tip on ensuring communication is clear during any workplace transformation, sharing how Channel 4 has followed this rule. She continues: “Having that clearly launched and having people understanding where the direction is and what the strategy is, is the work that we have been doing.” She adds that as part of this process she has been “clarifying with leadership and employees where our direction of travel is”. “All I can say is that at Channel 4 we’re in a very positive position and now we have a future direction as well,” she notes.

Last year, The Great British Bake Off proved to be the most popular show for the network, with 11.5m views.

Other shows that attracted its biggest audiences in 2020 was Gogglebox (6.5m) and Friday Night Dinner.

The most binged title on its demand service All 4 of 2020 was Married at First Sight Australia.

As humans we are creatures of habit, meaning when change comes around it isn’t always something that is embraced. Therefore, leading on from Kirstin’s advice regards communication, the People Director shares that this is essential to keep employee buy-in when a dramatic business change is underway. “The fundamental level as humans, we all find change difficult. It’s not something we say, ‘oh yes’ to and we are in an ever-changing world,” Kirstin explains. “So, what I really believe in is about being really clear of why the change is happening and how the company is transforming against that.”

People are absolutely critical to our success and are an important part of Channel 4

Statistics from Workamajig also echo this as 29% of employees say that poor internal communication is the reason why projects fail. This is something that Kirstin says can be corrected by “being really clear in terms of direction, strategy, and also getting that two-way communication of understanding what that might mean to someone’s role and what change or work needs to happen etc”. She continues: “That open line of communication which goes back to what we were talking about around leadership.”

 

As Kirstin has already laid out, change is something that most humans try to avoid, but the pandemic has forced employees and businesses to embrace reinvention, nonetheless. Harvard Business Review also points to this, as it published last year that Covid-19 is driving digital transformation rapidly, sharing that businesses who chose not to change overnight would be left behind.

And for Kirstin, in particular, this global disaster has shown that immense change can indeed be put in place overnight, signifying that any business should not be afraid of embracing transformation and subsequent change. “I’ve spoken to lots of people about going remote and we just did it overnight. But I think in a way it’s sort of showed the pace of how we can shift things through the use of technology and also by adapting,” she explains.

The people head shares that to get individuals on board, HR should take a common sense approach to ensure every team member can truly understand why a transformation may take place and what this will mean for a business and its future. “I think what is really critical (is to approach it with) common sense and going back to the simplicity of we are all human so there’s only so many changes we can take at once that will be embraced, so let’s think about what those priorities are and think about them from a human way as well,” she adds.

 

Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report states that HR has a clear role to play when it comes to a business’ transformation, adding: “HR today must define its role as the team that helps management and employees rapidly transform and adapt to the digital way of thinking.” Kirstin also believes that HR has a core role to play, suggesting that “people teams will really be looking at the whole employee lifecycle”. And for Kirstin, this encompasses how to hire candidates remotely, how to induct people so they are successful virtually, how to support people so they can be their best selves and how to create a development area.

It’s gradual work that we are doing but that’s where I really see the transition in five years

Reflecting on how this has been put in place at Channel 4, she concludes that while these changes are gradual, they are necessary to keep the firm ahead of the curve and up to date with the relevant developments happening as a result of coronavirus on the working world. “It’s gradual work that we are doing but that’s where I really see the transition in five years; how do you look at all of those operational pieces of people being inducted and importantly being successful against the strategy of the organisation and where it’s directing,” she says.