Spirit in the Sky

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We’re more than used to relying upon planes, trains and automobiles to get us to where we need to be. We cannot, however, recall arriving at a new project by boat – until now.

We’re in Leeds to take a look at Sky’s new Technology Centre and our enjoyable boat trip out of the city centre to Leeds Docks (despite the autumnal weather) is merely the first pleasant surprise of the afternoon. As we alight, our shipmate, BDG architecture + design’s Clive Hall, tells us more about the Sky set-up here. ‘This was just a shell,’ he begins. ‘It was originally a mixed-use development, with retail spaces here previously. The developer put through a change of use and we put in a minor planning application for bits of plant that we added.

‘Like I said, this was just a shell when we first saw it. We’ve put in the mezzanines, we’ve put in the stairs, we’ve put in the toilets and the showers – and then the office space has been worked around all of that.

‘There was a mix of retail here and a large casino at the back, which was shut down some time back. There is still a Tesco Express and a Pizza Express just around the corner.

‘We ate a lot of pizza during the planning meetings here!’

Sky, of course, is now leading the charge to resurrect this area – and despite the slightly adverse weather conditions, it is clear that the area has an awful lot going for it.

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‘When we first met with the Sky team and did a walk around they didn’t want to give us too many suggestions – but one of the reference buildings they did like was the Tea Building in Shoreditch. They liked that stripped-back approach and they didn’t want to make this look overly burdened with technology. Obviously, this is a technology centre, so the challenge from an aesthetic point of view was to give them that stripped-back look and feel while accommodating all the resources and facilities they need.’

As we walk into Building 2 – the middle of the three Sky buildings here – we can see exactly what Clive was explaining to us. The look and feel here is, in workplace terms, a million miles away from the Sky facilities we have seen in London in the past. The buzz is palpable as soon as the doors open and we see exposed ceilings, bustling mezzanines and that stripped-back aesthetic Clive spoke of. Furthermore, there are no obvious security barriers for us to contend with. Instead, we find total transparency as we walk through towards the busy café space, where a smiling receptionist sits at a surprisingly low-key reception desk, asks us for our names and hands us what appears to be a business card. Written on the card are the words ‘Have a drink on us’. Walking into the café space, we try to think if we’ve ever encountered a nicer, more personal way of being greeted by a major business. None spring to mind.

‘We originally wanted to hide some of the boxes and exposed elements you can see here but the project managers were definite that we couldn’t do anything that might jeopardise the programme here,’ Clive explains. ‘We have added some sound baffling elements – such as the foam cylinders that hang from the ceiling in the café – to help with the noise levels in certain areas. This space is, after all, full of hard surfaces.’

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Having gratefully accepted a hot beverage, we are led up a flight of stairs and onto the mezzanine, past cool Sky graphics, rows of bench desks and Sayl chairs, where we meet Matt Grest, Sky’s Director of Digital and the man who has led much of the development here in Leeds. Taking an armchair in a cool, cozy ad-hoc meeting space that is tucked away in the corner of the mezzanine (and, we seen discover, says a lot about how the business here likes to work) we ask Matt about the choice of location. ‘Back in 2014 we wanted to move our digital capability out of London – which was becoming very pressed for skills,’ Matt reveals. ‘We wanted to grow another technology base where we could get access to the right skills at the right price.

‘We looked globally and ultimately decided upon Leeds because we felt we could get the skills we needed on the scale we needed and could also develop our own next generation of talent through graduates and apprentices.

“I’m a big believer that a workspace should be considered a productivity tool rather than just a box to keep people in.”

‘At the start of last year we had 40 people in Leeds – and now we have 600! I’m very pleased to say that this has been an extremely successful initiative for us.

‘It was obvious, at the start of 2015, that we were bursting at the seams in our old office here in Leeds. We looked at every single vacant office space in Leeds – including stuff that’s not yet built. The main reason I pushed for Leeds Dock is that, when we first looked at the building, it was a complete shell, which gave us the opportunity to meticulously design a workspace that would facilitate the way that we wanted to do business. So the reason that this table is sat here is because we designed the table to be here.

‘We work in a particular type of way in digital product development. We’re very heavy on collaboration. This is about two, five, 10 people getting up from their desks, going into the corner, writing on walls, collaborating, then heading back to their desks again.

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‘We worked very closely with BDG on the vision for that. We didn’t want just another office – we wanted a workspace that was particular to the type of work that we do. The BDG came up to our old offices and sat stealthily in the corner for a few days and observed how we like to work. When the designs started to unfold after that session it was clear that BDG understood the vision of what we were trying to create here, understood how we liked to work. It was plain sailing from there on in! The quality of talent we’ve been able to attract here is just off the scale.

‘Another important factor was the transport infrastructure. We’re just out of the city centre and it’s really easy to get here. It was really important that we looked after that getting to work aspect for our staff.

‘We’ve been given the opportunity to start from scratch. We had a clean slate here. We weren’t trying to change behaviours, we just wanted to introduce people to our way of working. All of the Sky Sports digital platform takes place here – the website, the apps – the Sky News platform and also Sky.com. We’ve also acquired a full stake in Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia – so we’re now delivering across the group. By having everyone in a central location, we’re able to work together, collaborate and the pace at we’re able to deliver new products has increased dramatically.

‘A big benefit is that collaboration is now easy – there is always somewhere to go to have those meetings. We’ve actually only got four bookable meeting rooms across the entire space but lots and lots of collaborationω space. I’m a big believer that a workspace should be considered a productivity tool rather than just a box to keep people in. The building should work for you.

‘Our people sit with people who are working on the same product as you. Around each desk you have got a set of multidisciplinary people, all with full empowerment to take that product forward. They don’t need to have meetings – they just talk across their desk. They don’t have to wait to make a decision. We are giving them the tools they need to be able to do business.’

Matt tells us that, as well as giving staff writable walls, collaboration space, team TV screens etc – there are also a number of really smart, advanced technological facilities provided throughout. Heavy investment has been put into videoconference facilities, which are not limited to just one or two meeting rooms, instead they are constantly available to all teams, both at their desks and at collaboration points on all floors of the three buildings here. With a need to talk with Germany and Italy, as well as other Sky UK sites, on a daily basis, this is very much becoming the company’s default way of talking to people from other sites.

Walking though the facility, we constantly see examples of what Matt has been explaining in terms of collaborative working. This isn’t about people retiring to high back sofas or pods – this all feels like a very natural, fast and disciplined way of working. This is indeed a space that works for the business.

The Leeds Dock space is also one of a number of projects completed by Sky in the last couple of years that signals its commitment to providing fantastic workplaces. Two new spaces in the city opened earlier this year, and the ‘activity-based’ Sky Central opened on the Osterley Campus this Summer, which is home to 3,500 people and the new glass-box Sky News studio. These followed from the completion of the Hub and Believe in Better Building in 2014. BDG are also now working with Sky on re-purposing the Hub as an ‘agile engineering’ centre for its NOW TV and Technology teams, which is set to open in February next year.

We’ll leave the final words to Matt. ‘From the start I said that I want Sky at Leeds Dock to be the place to work in the North of England, where colleagues can work on cutting edge products that are used by millions of people across Europe. Where previously people would need to relocate to London or the West Coast of the USA to have a career like this, today we can say they can do all that and more from Leeds. We’ve achieved the vision and it’s working really well. That’s all we could wish for really.’

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