· 5 min read · Features

Office relocation special 1/2: interview with Frank Robinson, HR director QVC


It’s all go… Escape to the Country, To Buy or Not to Buy, Homes Under the Hammer: the sheer number of television programmes and glossy magazine articles about moving house – all lapped up by the Great British public, demonstrate the challenges of navigating the property market.

Finding a property, negotiating terms with estate agents, organising and paying for renovations, securing a mortgage, references for renting, the logistics of packing and moving, as well as adapting to living in a new community, are hurdles challenging enough for the individual. In fact, a barrage of research finds moving house to be the third most stressful thing one can go through, after only death and divorce.

When it comes to business, the relocation process, which can become a long and drawn-out labyrinthine affair involving staff consultations, union negotiations, IT infrastructure, facilities compliance, health and safety - as well as the need for a comprehensive internal communications strategy - brings a raft of tasks to HR's door.

HR caught up with two HR directors who have made the most of the opportunity, using relocation as a catalyst to business transformation.

In part one we meet Frank Robinson, HR director at TV retailer, QVC

Positioned as a television broadcaster as much as a retailer, QVC's business proposition doesn't snugly fit into either category. But with both the retail sector and the broadcast media industry experiencing a period of flux, QVC is facing a double-edged threat - but equally a double opportunity.

High-street retailers are experiencing a decline in footfall and some of the stalwarts of our shopping centres have disappeared or entered into administration in recent years. At the same time, broadcasters have seen an increase in new channels competing for viewers. Even the mighty BBC was forced to move from its iconic London Television Centre to an all-new venue in Salford, Greater Manchester, in a bid to economise and take licence fee-payers' money further.

QVC invited HR to visit its spanking new £33 million complex in Chiswick, west London, just days after it stopped production of its live shows from its base in Battersea and shunted its 500 London staff across the Thames overnight, ready to start production from the new base at 9am next day.

Frank Robinson, HR director at QVC (pictured), is used to mobility. He splits his time between QVC's call centre and warehouse in Knowsley, Merseyside, where 1,800 people are employed, and the London broadcasting hub.

"We couldn't have moved our broadcasting to the North like the BBC," he explains. "We would have saved money, but we would have lost staff that are invaluable in the current environment and we need that continuity."

The business imperatives for moving to Chiswick were clear-cut. With the TV channel moving into high definition (HD) at the end of this year, and a concomitant requirement to purchase HD camera equipment and modify studios to accommodate HD sets, there was a need to move to more modern studios.

With the channel featuring Apple technology and Lulu Guinness accessories, for example, there was an ambition to modernise the surroundings too. As the lease was due to expire on the Battersea premises, the opportunity arose to find a venue more fitting for the growing company, as it made a bid to move into a new era of retailing and broadcasting.

Robinson explains: "We didn't have anything in common with the other companies in Battersea, but in this new venue we are alongside more similar companies [sports channel ESPN and Disney are neighbours] and it was a sensible evolution."

The organisation has had a Battersea office since UK launch in 1993. With high retention rates and long-serving employees, had the company handled the move the wrong way, staff could have become disengaged and uncertain about any move whatsoever.

Robinson took no chances. "The new venue was only six miles away, but we have been planning this for two years and have been communicating with staff since we made the decision to move. We don't have any union members, so we formed employee forums to ask for feedback. We felt the responsibility as leaders to give our staff a good understanding of what we wanted to achieve."

Another string to his bow: Robinson has responsibility for facilities at QVC and the transition gave him the opportunity to marry his HR and facilities strategies.

"HR needs to provide a value to business - and facilities is the same," he asserts. "We wanted to share the changes with staff and get them involved in the issues we were facing in the move, so they could feel part of it and offer suggestions."

Innovations in the new premises include cold water being pumped through the office in pipes as a means of cooling the environment, instead of constant air conditioning, and stainless steel shades (or 'sun louvres') outside the office to prevent direct sunlight coming through.

Robinson quotes some of the company's values of being friendly and customer-focused - and hopes the new building can "capture the culture of QVC and enhance it".

The office layout is punctuated with break out-areas and meeting spaces. All the printers are set to a 'follow me' system, so staff are able to print documents at a printer near them if they are away from their desks.

"We have a strong cultural footprint," says Robinson. "And this is about friendliness - we want customers to view our programmes as a neighbour talking over the garden fence, rather than a hard sell - and this friendly, collaborative attitude is important for our staff and their values. We want our people to be innovative; we want them to be able to voice their opinions and watch their ideas work out and for them to be successful. The aesthetics of the workplace have been designed to encourage this. We can't tell staff to innovate, but we can create an environment where they are able to do this, so the outcomes will be great."

And from a retail standpoint, Robinson explains how the company has "opened a whole new shop front".

He beams: "All our employees have been supportive of this and I'm delighted about how enthused staff outside London were about the new premises. This is a window to our customers - and customer service is a huge focus for me."

It is not just HR and facilities that hold sway at QVC. Robinson and his team of 50 manage training, internal comms and health and safety as well. In an expansion to Italy last year, Robinson, who reports directly to the CEO, was pivotal in taking the company's cultures and values to the new market.

He says: "I try to build strong relationships throughout the business. It's fine to be strategic, but you have to be invited - HR directors can't force themselves onto the board. Do the job, do it well and add tremendous value.

"It has been astonishing to find out what's different in human resources in other countries and we are pressing ahead," Robinson added.

And the company has plans for growth, both in the UK - through developing its London base - and globally, most recently, its expansion in Italy.

In the UK alone, the company has one million 'active' customers. Last year, it made approximately 13 million sales and took 15 million calls from customers - with six million of these dealt with by operators at its call centre.

"Part of our culture is accountability," Robinson adds. "We expect our staff to be able to sort out problems and we support them to do this."

But with staff in London putting in 17-hour shifts, the modern workplace approach taken by QVC has allowed the company to reward employees with more flexibility.

Robinson says: "We have spiked activity at different times of the day, so can allow people to work short [call centre] shifts if they need to. About 70 people do this from home.

"In London, we encourage flexible working for staff that have a longer commute, giving them the option to start or leave early or take two-hour lunches so they can take part in activities on the complex [ranging from guitar lessons to gym sessions]."

And with regards to a strategy for HR in the business, the role Robinson has played has paid dividends for his aspirations of collaboration across the company.

He smiles: "We have a serious talent agenda and want to brand QVC as a multimedia retailer and an employer of choice. But the relocation has shown me how a variety of service functions in the organisation have worked together to make business sense. There is a real opportunity to excite people about our culture."