Signiant Series

Helen Stevens | Operations Officer for Content Supply and Delivery | ITV

Skyscrapers in London.

In mid-March, media and entertainment companies across the globe and throughout the industry began to face what China had experienced since January — the realities of the Coronavirus Pandemic social distancing and isolation. Amidst this public health crisis, companies abruptly confronted extreme technical and workflow challenges while continuing to create and distribute content.

During this historic outbreak, Signiant launched “The Pandemic Series,” a collection of articles, interviews, and other content from the industry, for the industry.

As part of the series, Signiant interviewed industry professionals on how they transitioned and maintained remote work, what their challenges and successes were, and what lessons they’ve learned from it. Each one is a snapshot in time from their particular company, industry, geography, and personal perspective.

London, UK | June 10, 2020

SIGNIANT: Tell us about ITV.

HELEN STEVENS: ITV is the largest commercial broadcaster in the UK. We are a producer/broadcaster which includes long-form content, short-form content, commercial spots and all kinds of promotional marketing — type material. We’re strategically concentrating on our streaming video on-demand services direct to consumer. We’ve recently launched BritBox, which is a joint venture. We have BBC Channel Four, ITV content all up there in a streaming service — the best of British content. We have a strong pedigree in regional news and general production over the regions in the UK.

We have done a fair bit of acquisition in the production space worldwide. In fact, we’re in North America and largest producer of non-scripted factual programming. That’s through a set of acquisitions of other companies.

SIGNIANT: How many people does ITV employ?

HELEN STEVENS: It flexes because we have so many freelancers and production teams that spin up and down as needed.  We have probably a workforce of about 4,000 flexing to around 6,500 with contractors.

SIGNIANT: Describe your role and responsibilities at ITV.

HELEN STEVENS: I’m Operations Officer for Content Supply and Delivery. That’s basically the content supply chain for ITV. We see ourselves as getting our creations to our customers. It’s all the processing that happens after a program is commissioned to the point of which is distributed, and then reporting back post-distribution. That would include all things like access services — subtitling, audio description, sign language; it includes quality control; it includes making sure we have accurate information around content. And then it’s about managing the contracts that make sure our content is distributed onto the platforms in the right way, whether that’s linear or VOD.

SIGNIANT: Before COVID, walk me through your life at ITV.

HELEN STEVENS: I was never in one place more than a day at a time. I have a wide range of diverse departments within content supply and distribution. Everything from software engineering to straight-forward broadcast engineering, product management, platform services, and scheduling — right through to making programs.

I have quite big teams, about 150 people in London. Same again in Leeds, and probably about 45 people up in Gateshead. So, I would typically be in Leeds on a Monday, London Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then back up north on Friday either to Leeds or Gateshead. We have a department based up in the northeast of England, which produces programs for sign language users and run access services as well. So, it is spread throughout the UK.

Even in London, we have more than one site. I’d be one place on a Tuesday and other place on a Wednesday, and possibly in the third place on the Thursday or back to one of the original ones. I was always on the move. I was always traveling. No two days were ever the same.

SIGNIANT: When did you start getting a sense something big was coming and affect ITV, your responsibilities, and the staff?

HELEN STEVENS: I vividly remember back in January reading about Wuhan in China and seeing the news of the deserted streets. Part of me thought, “Wow, that’s enormous.” If that were to come here, I wonder what that would be like. But I also felt it would be contained as other episodes have, as SARS has or Ebola.

And then gradually, you saw it creeping. I think it’s safe to say that by mid-February, I was starting to think, “We better get some contingency planning done.” Just in case we actually have to start to manage people, a lot of people going off sick. At that point, I still hadn’t thought we were going to be in major lockdown, or we’re all going to be working from home. As we got towards the beginning of March, the reality was getting to be quite obvious that we would have to take some action.

SIGNIANT: How did COVID planning start at ITV?

HELEN STEVENS: ITV was quite forward thinking. Our executive leadership took this very seriously. Before the government lockdown, we had taken the decision we were going to say to people, “If you can work from home, start working from home.” That was because of concerns over people’s health and safety.

But also, we thought, “Let’s just make sure that all our systems will stand up to this.” If we need to do anything differently, up our infrastructure, change our processes, or get ourselves in a state where we can work remotely, let’s find out about it now while we still got time to do something about it.

SIGNIANT: When did that start?

HELEN STEVENS: From about the second weekend of March — maybe even towards the end of the first week in March, we were having people work remotely. I wouldn’t say everybody, but a very large percentage of the company were. And then on the 23rd of March, we were told the time has come where you locked down. But we had been clear, and I feel we’ve been clearer than information coming out from government as to what we wanted or how we expected people to work.

SIGNIANT: When you dusted off the contingency plans, how far off were you from those preparations? Was it drastically different than you had planned previously? Or was it close?

HELEN STEVENS: It was very close. The area that I’m responsible for is quite in the forefront of emergency planning. If my department isn’t doing what it needs to do, we’ll have blank screens —whether on video on-demand or linear broadcast.

We regularly do scenarios and rehearsals before every big event. For example, we were going to be having the [UEFA European Football Championship] this summer; we would have done war-gaming on that. So, we were in quite good state in terms of our business continuity. But also, we had changed everybody to using laptops and therefore able to work much more easily outside of the office. We were in a very fortunate position. It didn’t take a huge amount for us to be really quite productive outside of the office.

SIGNIANT: Technically, would you say ITV already had the infrastructure ready for remote, high-volume, and secure access?

HELEN STEVENS: I would say 90%, in terms of our broadcasting division. In terms of production, that took a little bit more to get remote editing, production, and directing, so I would say no — we weren’t really in such a great position with that. We’ve had to ramp that up really speedily. I’d say we were about 30% of the way there with that one. So, the production side of things has been running around trying to get this all sorted, but miraculously, very successfully.

SIGNIANT: So, around the first week of March, the staff started to go into lockdown.  Did that transition go well?

HELEN STEVENS: Yes, it went really well. There was absolutely no pushback. I think everybody was kind of shocked and took it so seriously. Everybody was really cooperative and just did the best they could. It was [an] euphoria of everybody pulling together in a crisis for about three weeks. It was like a novelty. It was like, “Yeah, this is what we’re good at. We’re good at handling crises. We can do this. We will keep us on air.”

There was so much attention paid to how well we were doing and what a great effort it was, that people really responded to that. The first three weeks were so busy. You hardly had time to think, but at the end of the day, you were quite satisfied with what you’ve done. You really fulfilled your purpose and felt valuable.

SIGNIANT: Before COVID came, you were at a different location every day. Now, what is your day-to-day like?

HELEN STEVENS: I get up, have a cup of tea, and go for a run. And I never ran before — never did anything like that. Come back and have some light breakfast.

Then I set up in my spare room as an office and start doing [Google] Hangouts, Zoom meetings, emails, or board reports. I have a lot more communication deliberately with the overall team. With the bigger group, I do town halls very regularly. I have one-to-ones with my direct reports religiously every week. I have team meetings.

I’m doing so much in the way of Hangouts and Zooming that I deliberately have to stop at four o’clock and do yoga for half an hour, come back and do some more Zooms and Hangouts, and finish around about six, usually.

Every day is the same. I’ve actually had to make quite a concentrated effort [on] weekends not to carry on that same routine and do things a bit differently. Otherwise, you’d never know it was the weekend. I do find that because it’s so much more intense and because you’re having to concentrate and focus so much more during these Hangouts, I’m less inclined to be reading my emails every available opportunity through the evening and waking up in the night and reading my emails. I try not to do that so much now.

It’s a habit that is quite hard to get off, especially my job. If anything goes wrong on air or there’s any outages with a transmitter, I’m the one that’s on call. So habitually, I would always be looking at anything that came in, in the way of work. But I just think now, just be a little bit kinder to yourself and give yourself a little bit of time.

SIGNIANT: Aside from the amount of work that happened in those first three, did you find yourself just more tired from stress?

HELEN STEVENS: I was absolutely exhausted at the end of each day, yes. I think you’re throwing yourself into it, and there’s what’s going on in the world.

SIGNIANT: Does this experience influence how you lead your staff now?

HELEN STEVENS: I think it does. I am lucky in a lot of ways. I grow a garden; I don’t have any dependents; I don’t have children; I don’t have elderly parents living with me. I’m very fortunate in that way.

A lot of my team have young children under five. They’re trying to juggle looking after the children, while trying to do as much work as they ever have. I have much more empathy with people’s own situations. Even, I think, it’s something as simple as when you Hangout with them. You’re seeing their homes and you’re seeing how they live. We’re all in quite an unknown situation, and everybody’s feeling the pressure and the stress.

SIGNIANT: One industry person described this as flattening the hierarchy.

HELEN STEVENS: Yes, yes, yes. I’ve had a lot of feedback from town halls I’m doing on a weekly basis. People have come to me and said, “Thank you for doing this. It’s so great to just see more of how you are as a person. We feel as if we know you know, and we didn’t before.” They’re getting a glimpse into how I am living.

I do share how I feel a little bit. I’m really not happy. It’s not something that I’m enjoying. It’s just because I’m not seeing those spontaneous opportunities that you get to have a coffee with somebody or talking to somebody in the lift, or just knocking some ideas around. I just shared that with them all. And afterwards, I got loads of feedback from them about how helpful they find that I’m not expecting everybody to be superhuman with all this going on.

SIGNIANT: Do you think this is a temporary change in culture because of the situation, or this will be a new way of interacting or managing?

HELEN STEVENS: I think it’ll be a new way of interacting or managing. I don’t think we’re just going to reset and everything back the way it was, by any standards. If we can take the good things that have come out with this and put the rest of it behind us, I think we will have benefited in a funny old way.

SIGNIANT: What are those good things?

HELEN STEVENS: The culture change. The whole idea the office is not any longer somewhere for people to go 37 hours a week to sit at the desk and be told what to do. It’s going to be much less formal, much more relaxed, much more all the things that we’ve valued about the office being built on. There’ll be a hybrid mixture now of people going into the office a few days a week and the rest of the time working from home.

It’s particularly interesting for us, because I’ve worked across so many sites — London, Leeds and Gateshead. And quite often, I would go physically to London because there was a big meeting happening. The reality was that if you had a meeting, and everybody was in the room, but you were on a Hangout or a Zoom call, you didn’t feel the same ability to participate, you didn’t feel part of the same group. You have to force your way in with a point; people forget you there. When everybody’s remote, that playing field is completely leveled out, and there’s no longer that feeling that you all have to be physically in the room together all the time in order to be heard or to get stuff done.

SIGNIANT: Aside from the public health concerns, what would be some of the negatives for the industry?

HELEN STEVENS: Because we are commercial broadcaster, advertising revenue, of course. It just fell off a cliff at the start of this. Partly because of the paralysis in the world, but partly because commercials are productions, and production had to halt. And then of course, we have to worry if we go into a very deep recession. That’s going to not be a sharp V coming back, but it’s more likely to be a W-type curve, or even an L-shaped curve, which is the one that we really don’t want. We’ve had to do modeling around the different scenarios that could hit us, and the L-shape is the one that we see as severe. At the moment, we’re tracking to what you’d call significant, but that’s recoverable.

Production, that was the other big thing for us. The fact we’ve got no new content productions going on is a real concern for us. And that’s not just a concern during the lockdown. Let’s hope everything’s back. It’s going to be 12 to 18 months before we can get any new drama.

SIGNIANT: This is not coming back like turning on a light switch. It’s going to be a long ramp-up?

HELEN STEVENS: Exactly. What worries us is if we get those sporadic lockdowns. We could start filming some big production and then everybody has to be locked down again, whether it be nationally or locally. That’s difficult then for us, for example, to get insurance for; no insurer wants to underwrite this at the moment. So, there’s some quite big fundamentals in the business that are worrying us.

SIGNIANT: Would sporadic or regional lockdowns be more catastrophic to your business than one big lockdown but a continuing return to production?

HELEN STEVENS: Yes, we think if we come out of this one and basically keep going, then it’s painful, but we will make a recovery.  Probably by the end of 2021, we might expect to see ourselves getting back on some kind of decent footing. If we start now and then we’re in and out, in and out, in and out of local or regional lockdowns, that’s going to have a much more severe impact on us.

SIGNIANT: Now, we are returning to work, both in the UK and the U.S. What does that look like for you and your group?

HELEN STEVENS: We are not encouraging people to go back unless they have no alternative way of doing their work. If you can work from home, work from home. If you are somebody who has to access particular kit on location to do your work, then we will manage that return in a way that meets all the health and safety standards.

The people we said can go back are people [who are] putting the business at risk by doing the work remotely. That tends to be people who have very, very sensitive data and really need to be using corporate systems, rather than home broadband type systems. People that are working in pensions, for example, who are dealing with death certificates, or actually some of the legal teams. We’ve said they can go back.

And then the other category, and this is a little bit less objective, is anyone who for one reason or another, cannot have adequate working conditions at home. There are people that are quite vulnerable, or people who are maybe in abusive relationships who don’t feel safe in their home and actually would be better in the office. We have a category which will allow us the discretion to do that.

For everyone else, what we’ve said quite clearly is we will not be having anyone else back before September, at the earliest. In September, we will look again at our situation. We have a three-phase plan. Phase one we’re in at the moment. Phase two, in September, there may be a more of a partial re-entry. But for the majority of people, it will be January before we start to bring people back en masse.

SIGNIANT: Do you think it’s the right time for the industry to start opening up?

HELEN STEVENS: Right now, at this point? Yes, I do. I think we can take some even more stringent precautions than we’re obliged to take, and we do. We take it very seriously. We are doing everything we can to make sure those people in production are as looked after as they could possibly be. For the rest of Britain, in terms of the general public, there’s quite a lot of opinion maybe we’ve done things a little bit too soon. And when you look at big mass gatherings, and actually people just ignoring things going out on the beach, you do have to wonder that. But I think in the workplace, we’re very controlled.

SIGNIANT: Because of the pandemic, will cloud be more of your business and technology future than it is now. Where do you see that going?

HELEN STEVENS: Cloud was always our existing strategy; it’s just accelerated quite dramatically. One of the things that we’ve found in the hurry to get production up and running in new ways, [was we’d] done a little bit of a scattergun approach across lots of different systems and facilities, and licenses and all the rest of it. So different parts of the business have gone and done a deal with X and then somebody else has done a deal with Y. What we want to do is consolidate all that and then look at it in the round for ITV and come back with probably two or three preferred solutions that we would say we would rather people use. But we’re just doing that work now.

Other than that, I think it is just really building on what we’ve already got. Clearly, some of our bigger infrastructure, things like playout, we will be looking at cloud-based. But those will come along at the points where the existing contracts are up for renewal anyway.

SIGNIANT: What have you learned about yourself as a leader because of the pandemic?

HELEN STEVENS: I do seem to be able to communicate with people, and then as people feed-back to you, you get more confident about that. I think I’ve learned I shouldn’t be embarrassed to put myself forward in a public communicating way. That it’s okay to be a little bit human. You don’t have to be this kind of withdrawn figure.

Also, I absolutely hate being on camera. I really do. I don’t like looking at myself. I don’t like photos of myself. But I’ve had to do these big town halls — 350 people tuned in to see you talking to a screen, and I’ve been doing that every week. I’ve made myself watch them back thought, “It’s not as bad as I thought.”

SIGNIANT: Is there anything you’ve discovered that you think you will need to work on?

HELEN STEVENS: I think organization probably. They have always said I was a very organized person. But when you do a million and one Hangouts, picking up actions after, and making sure that they get done, I’m becoming more conscious of being sure that I do it rather than just letting it flow. When you’re in the office, you bump into somebody and you’ll say, “By the way, have we done this?” Or, “I was thinking that.” No, this is a case of actually having to be a bit more prescriptive with myself about putting some formality around making sure things are done. And that’s not a bad thing, really.

I’ve also discovered people take information and in lots of different ways. I like words, so I’ll always write stuff down or verbalize it. I’ve discovered my team like visuals and they like diagrams and they like whiteboards, and they like things drawn out. That’s not something I’m great at. So, that’s another thing that I am trying to practice.

SIGNIANT: If you could go back to January and give yourself advice on what to prepare for, what would you tell yourself?

HELEN STEVENS: Something about stamina and perseverance. I think I would have just given myself a little talking about not going into it in such a naive way but being more prepared for the long run.

Maybe this is just how these things unwrap, but back when we first went into lockdown, my little brain had an idea we were going to do about three weeks and come back to where it was. Here we are, three months in. In the world now, it’s before COVID and after COVID, and maybe after COVID is how it is for the foreseeable.

SIGNIANT: Looking back, what do you think you’ll be most proud of?

HELEN STEVENS: I think we have to be most proud of the way that no viewer will have known that we were pedaling so hard behind the scenes. It was as if nothing had changed in television. We were just there doing what we do.

For me, I think this has done so much good for ITV, in the perception that the government has of public service broadcasting. In two or three years, we might be saying this is what caused ITV to have a long, long life because the future of public service broadcasting now has an importance that was perhaps starting to lose a little bit before all this.

SIGNIANT: Is there anything that upper management now will look at in a new light, that may have not given as much attention to or not giving as much capital to, but now see the need? 

HELEN STEVENS: The top management focus is on digital transformation. Let’s use this as a way of accelerating the transformation that we already had in mind. We would have probably spent five years trying to get to the place we’re at now. We try and restructure, and let’s say, for argument’s sake, take it out of London and put it in a less expensive location. And the argument you would get is, “Oh, you can’t do that, because this team really needs to be in proximity to that team.” Nobody’s in proximity to anybody. All that argument is null and void.

SIGNIANT: What about with staff contributions?

HELEN STEVENS: I do think we have a recognition now that wasn’t there before in the wider ITV. I’d say that’s the same for all the operational teams that have kept on air because previously were only ever noticed when something went wrong. And now, we’re seen as key workers. The value placed on those teams is higher than any time I’ve worked in this area.

SIGNIANT: Is there anything from your experience you think would be good for your peers in the industry to know?

HELEN STEVENS: We have a weekly call with all the other broadcasters in the UK — peers we share everything that we’re doing, the progress we’ve made, or the issues we’ve come up against. That’s been such a great forum — almost therapeutic, because we share all the things that are coming our way. And they’re starting to become bit more constructive in terms of looking at patterns or trends or areas where we might want to concentrate, and where in fact we should as an industry be focusing our energies for the future.

SIGNIANT: Others we’ve spoke describe a new sense of company collaboration and kindness, less cutthroat. Are you seeing anything like that?

HELEN STEVENS: We’re seeing genuine consideration for each other. For example, quite a few of us use one playout provider, Red Bee Media. We said right at the beginning of this, that if one of us was hit by a lack of people in Red Bee because of sickness, then the others would look at their requirements for playout. To allow staff to be shared out across the broadcasters, rather than one actually suffering and having to go off air. We’d said that in the start that’s how we would act. And we’ve seen that through.

Luckily, we haven’t needed to do that. But I think we all care about each other and feel that we want to do this for the industry and not just for our own individual company.

SIGNIANT: How do you think this period will be remembered by the industry?

HELEN STEVENS: The obvious thing is it’s the most terrible time any of us have ever come across. But I am now starting to see good things that could come out of it. There’s a real fundamental life-change for people, which will be part of the workplace as well, which will mean everybody doing things completely differently. There are some quite profound changes that are coming about because of this. Not all of them are bad. They’re just different, and they’ll change our lives.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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