Innovation is key at £6m Sky hub

Sky's digital centre of excellence at Leeds Dock
Sky's digital centre of excellence at Leeds Dock
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When Sky was planning its £6m digital centre of excellence, it nicknamed the project ‘Otis’ because of its vision of working on the dock.

The media giant launched its world-class technology hub at Leeds Dock, designed by architects bdg, just over a year ago. Last month it was named the most innovative office in the North by the British Council of Offices.

Originally set aside for retail units, the space remained empty until Sky saw the potential to create a slick and modern workplace. They are now home to 650 staff.

“Rather than saying ‘here’s what we want’, the architects came in and watched how we were actually working in our other offices,” says Mark Kitching, head of technology at Sky.

The space is made up of three separate buildings, Sky 1, 2 and 3, covering 62,000 sq ft.

The brief was to create open plan spaces with plenty of ‘break-out’ areas, a mix of soundproofed booths, leather chairs and bean bags, for informal meetings.

Rows of desks are placed throughout the double-height buildings, which each have a mezzanine floor. Initially the idea was for all staff to hot desk but that has lapsed. “The problem is people tend to group together in their teams so it doesn’t quite work like that,” says Kitching.

He adds: “Our other buildings didn’t have enough space where we could just have a quick meet up in a small group so that’s what we wanted in this building.”

There are now only couple of meeting rooms and the rest of the space, which has an industrial feel, is open plan apart from the mysteriously-named ‘discovery room’, which features floor-to-ceiling blackboards on which employees can write suggestions for the company. The room even has its own Spotify playlist.

“It’s been up for two weeks and plenty of stuff has been written, it’s our way of getting people to use the room,” Kitching says.

Sky also invested in state-of-the-art video conferencing technology. “Sky’s obviously based in London, not Leeds and we’ve spent a lot of money on video conferencing so even in the break-out areas we can talk to people on the monitors,” says Kitching.

Collaborative working is the current buzz word at the company. Kitching, who has spent 16 years at the company, says: “I was brought up in an environment where developers sat in a corner and didn’t talk to each other but these guys aren’t like that. They are a lot more social and at Sky we put a lot of effort into finding people who will collaborate and talk to each other.”

The colour scheme in each building echoes Sky’s yellow, orange and blue logo.

The company also rescued graffiti art from outside the vacant buildings and reused it in one of the break-out areas. Free-standing furniture in these zones is sourced from second hand stores and vintage shops.

Over the last year, the Leeds team has been involved in the development of the Sky Q platform and the company’s new Sky Mobile offering.

The Leeds ​team continues to lead on work ranging from app development to digital​ ​customer service and e-commerce trading.

According to Kitching, the office is more productive now because everything works more efficiently. “People get quicker responses from speaking to people face-to-face on the video conferencing,” he says. “Showers and drying rooms enable staff who run and cycle to work get to their desks quicker.”

The media giant is used to creating innovative spaces for its staff. Previous offices have included a circuit board design on one of the ceilings, pool and football tables in the middle of offices and, at one point, even a free beer fridge for staff to use on a Friday afternoon, although that perk has now stopped.

Stephen Frood, chairman of the British Council of Offices in the North and partner at Gardiner and Theobald, says: “The fact that Sky came into an empty retail shell and converted it into a workplace that people want to work in was one of the reasons it won the award.”

However, even though Sky’s award-winning offices are the envy of many companies, there is one thing that would make it even better. “Ironically we could do with one more big meeting room,” said Kitching. “It’s not a massive issue but the two big meeting rooms we’ve got are really oversubscribed because we’ve taken on more staff.”