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 Endemol Shine UK.
LOUISA LOCKETT: We are one of the leading producers in the UK, and we produce a diverse range of television, including drama, entertainment, factual and digital content. We span quite a large portion of all the TV output. We’re made up of 19 production companies and labels, including TV production companies, digital content producers, and a talent agency. And, we currently produce for all the major UK and international platforms.
SIGNIANT: How many employees are based in the UK?
LOUISA LOCKETT: There’s about 350, and depending on the freelance workforce on production, that can go up over a thousand.
SIGNIANT: What is your role and the area you manage?
LOUISA LOCKETT: I work with the senior management team, our support department, and productions to make sure operations run well, the business is connected, and the needs of our production communities are heard. We’ve got a huge production community, and everyone operates slightly differently, so having an understanding of that world helps shape what the operational strategies should be.
I have been with the company for 10 years. I came over as a freelancer from production and used to work in production management across comedy and drama — all kinds of different programs. [I] started in operations in 2011, and I’ve grown in that role from ops manager to head of operations a few years ago.
SIGNIANT: Let’s go back six months, what was work like for you pre-COVID?
LOUISA LOCKETT: We work centrally across all of our productions. We’ve got heads of productions in each company, and they are very much on the ground leading those workforces. From where I sit in operations, it’s that central management of systems and workflows we expect each label to adopt and to ensure we’ve got continuity across the business.
I oversee a lot of the procurement activity for the UK, in terms of our preferred suppliers for productions. I oversee health and safety and insurance. So, there’d be a lot of meetings with the heads of productions, regular meetings with our CFO and director of operations. Anything that comes up that nobody knows what to do with usually comes to our operations.
SIGNIANT: Back in February/March, what was your first indication something major was about to happen in the UK?
LOUISA LOCKETT: If I’m perfectly honest, I think my first indication, with Irish heritage, was when Ireland shut the pubs ahead of St. Patrick’s Day. That was a big sign things were quite serious. We were aware of it, and we were monitoring it, but I think in the UK, we didn’t really realize how bad it could get. The production industry is quite a stoic bunch. So, it’s business as normal until it can no longer be normal. And I think that change happened very quickly.
In the week leading up to the lockdown in the UK, we were looking at how we could facilitate everybody working at home. Making sure that people had a kit, making sure the systems we had could handle volume, checking we had the right number of licenses in place, stress testing areas of the business by department, and doing tests with whole companies working from home to check how the IT infrastructure could cope. So, we had a kind of staggered view, and I think we were quite prepared. We were as good as we could have been.
SIGNIANT: You weren’t preparing for one production or one company, you were preparing for how many?
LOUISA LOCKETT: 19.
SIGNIANT: And how did that transition go with 19 production companies?
LOUISA LOCKETT: If somebody had told me we were going to prepare for that, I would’ve been quite afraid. But the transition worked, weirdly. We worked really hard. I work really closely with the IT team, and I think they did an incredible job. Everybody worked very, very hard, and very fast, and in a very agile way. I don’t think we could’ve planned for it, but it worked really well.
SIGNIANT: How independent are the productions from your facility? Do the production companies work within their own facilities? Are they accessing systems at your facility? How does that infrastructure work?
LOUISA LOCKETT: It’s a bit of both. Our media asset management system is Imagen. That’s become incredibly popular during lockdown, because people have been looking in archives to make shows. Accessing the archives has become suddenly very, very important. We’ve been pushing that technology for the past couple of years to get everything in our library and accessible. That’s been a bit hit-or-miss over the years, and now, it’s absolutely essential. The people that have bought into that are really seeing the benefits of those systems. I think when we move forward, we’ll have a big uptake in a lot of the things that we’ve been trying to sell to the business, as good ways of work, and I think people can totally see why they’re good.
And with the editing, we work with a number of preferred suppliers and it’s quite dependent on each production. Because they all have such different needs, and they all have such different delivery requirements. They’re mainly going on a case by case basis.
SIGNIANT: Has your use of cloud resources been impacted during the pandemic?
LOUISA LOCKETT: Much more. We were at about 60-70% and that will increase. It will definitely inform our thinking on what we do next. It’s going to accelerate some plans, whereby we thought it would be nice to have; it’ll be quite essential now. We’ve had the technology for a long time, but there’s been a resistance to use it. Now the people have really depended on it.
SIGNIANT: This is also going to change the disaster and business continuity plans.
LOUISA LOCKETT: I agree with that entirely. Because we look at the business continuity and disaster recovery plans, we’ve never tested it to the level at which we have, because we never would have planned for that. There would be no scenario where you’d go, “every single building is going to be locked down. Every single member of staff has to be at home.” We could never in a million years have envisaged this.
SIGNIANT: How permanent do you think this new way of working is going to be for you?
LOUISA LOCKETT: I hope there’s a lot we’ll carry with us. I think there’s always going to be a need for the office. There’s always going to be a need to connect and to have that central space. What has been fascinating is we’ve known the tech can do this all along, but it’s never been tested at scale in the way that it has. That gives us such a positive platform to build on. I’d be really sad if we didn’t continue to grow those areas.
SIGNIANT: At the time, were you expecting it to be a short-term solution or did you expect something more lasting?
LOUISA LOCKETT: I had no idea we would still be remote working now.
SIGNIANT: How long did you think it would be?
LOUISA LOCKETT: I don’t know. I stopped working in London on [March] 19th. And I can remember just thinking, “God, this might be the last time I see this desk for a while.” I can remember it being quite a significant moment. I thought it would be a month, if that, and that felt quite a long time. That was my personal view.
SIGNIANT: At the beginning, there were technical challenges to move everyone to a remote environment. A month later, with the technical challenges behind you and people getting used to working remotely, what was the landscape like?
LOUISA LOCKETT: I’m really proud to say we have had productions still operating throughout lockdown. The innovation we’ve seen from our production companies, suppliers, and IT team has been really, really impressive. That includes changing the technology, how we film things, installing kits in people’s homes where we’ve got talent, to still do shows, and doing live feeds.
I’m really proud how everybody’s embraced the technology. We’ve got a really large workforce that can be quite set in their ways. It’s gone much smoother than I could have anticipated. But for us, it’s been a really steep learning curve.
SIGNIANT: What are those learning curves?
LOUISA LOCKETT: Different ways of communicating, learning how to get the best out of meetings, how to allow people that aren’t confident speaking on camera or video calls the opportunity to contribute, and have a voice. Just the softer side of embracing the technology. Really humanizing it and making sure it’s not one size that fits all. You’ve got to consider different personalities and ways of connecting with people. I think it’s flattened the hierarchy in many ways.
SIGNIANT: How has the lockdown impacted the creative process?
LOUISA LOCKETT: On a creative point of view, it’s flourishing in many areas. I think a lot of the editorial guys have embraced it. Zoom has been quite important in brainstorming and planning meetings and writer’s rooms. And as a result of the challenges, we’re seeing some real innovation and creative power.
One of our shows, “Ranganation,” was broadcast from our talent’s garage. And that was amazing! The show hasn’t suffered creatively. In many ways, it’s been really successful in capturing both the comedy and the time as well.
SIGNIANT: Do you get a sense of how your staff is doing in lockdown?
LOUISA LOCKETT: I’m in a really lovely position where I get to speak to lots and lots of different departments, and the one thing I would say is across the board people hit the wall at different times. It’s not perfect, and I think there is a level of fatigue that sets in and there’s a level of frustration. Everybody’s facing their own challenges. We encourage people to talk about it, and we’ve got lots of initiatives around mental health, and lots of training.
I’m trying to be mindful and just promote kindness and understanding. Every single person is having their own struggles with it. They’ve all got their own family setups. People with kids in the house might find it challenging, people on their own are finding it challenging. In isolation, or flatshares, or people with their elderly parents. Everybody’s really got their own experience of this. We’ve got to remember that behind each person is a kind of experience.
SIGNIANT: Now we’re looking at the return to work, both in the UK and the US. What does that look like for you?
LOUISA LOCKETT: It’s both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking. We were all nervous entering into lockdown, and, I can speak for myself only, but I’m a little bit nervous exiting lockdown. Because it has been quite a long time.
SIGNIANT: What preparations has Endemol Shine done to return to work?
LOUISA LOCKETT: You’ve got to be mindful of why you would be bringing people back to the office. Are there definite business needs? Not forever, but in the interim, while the risks are still quite prevalent. And then we’ll review it, keep monitoring, and review our plans as the information changes.
We have a phased return planned for our office; we will open the offices from the 15th of June to essential workers or people that require access, assessed by our management team. We’ve been thinking of this for at least the past month, maybe longer. We’ve got a committee that meets to discuss all the various points. The health and safety is epic on office returns and on set.
We’re having to do a lot of changes — identifying safe desks, changing the layout of our offices, looking at one-way walkways through the office, and only one person in the lift at the same time. We’ve historically given fruit and breakfast, and we won’t be doing that in the short term. We’re going to encourage our staff to bring packed lunches and water bottles from home.
SIGNIANT: Do you think it’s the right time to return to work?
LOUISA LOCKETT: It depends what your job is. For crews, if they can be assured that they’re safe and those epic guidelines can be adhered to, then I think yes, there’s definitely scope to return where you’re on set, because that job cannot be done from home.
In our office, we’re good working remotely for the time being.
SIGNIANT: Do you have a sense of how the staff or productions feel about the return to work?
LOUISA LOCKETT: We are doing an anonymous staff survey about how people are feeling so we can plan, both practically and humanly, address those concerns, and put them into our back-to-work planning. Currently, the government guidance in the UK is only use it if absolutely necessary and avoid rush hours. In London, most people take the tube. So, that impacts a lot of our staff.
We just want to find out what people’s worries are, what they find is working, and what isn’t. Whether they are happy with the level of communication, what they want to see more of. We can get a real temperature check of our workforce.
SIGNIANT: Outside of the public health considerations, what do you think the worst thing has been for the industry or your business community during this time?
LOUISA LOCKETT: Across the industry, there’s such a range of people and employment contracts. We’ve got a huge freelance community and population that’s been really hard hit by this pandemic. There’s a lot that have been furlough. So, nobody’s been unaffected in production. It’s been quite a significant blow. Building back confidence in our industry is going to be a challenge.
SIGNIANT: And what about the positives?
LOUISA LOCKETT: We’ve worked together in ways that we didn’t deem possible. It’s allowed me to reach out to our suppliers in a way that I haven’t before because we’re-all-in-this-together approach. Being supportive of our suppliers, having open conversations — I’m really keen to build on that in the future. It’s allowed conversations for collaboration, where there wasn’t before, it’s always been quite siloed where the production community operates quite independently from a lot of our suppliers, in terms of technology. So, it’s opening up some really interesting conversations.
SIGNIANT: What have you learned during this time as the leader?
LOUISA LOCKETT: The main thing that I’ve learnt is clarity is key. You can’t be anything other than truthful, and transparent. And I think if you can lead with honesty and integrity, then that’s the way to do it.
There’s always a real human element in it. It’s the people ultimately, isn’t it, that make it work.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.