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Interview – Unicef

We spoke to John Townsend, Head of Internal Communications at Unicef UK which relocated from Clerkenwell, Central London to Stratford, East London in August. Unicef has over 350 staff members and 200 who use the office on a daily basis. We were eager to speak to a charity of a similar size that had recently undergone a major move to gauge how it went.


Why did Unicef move?

There were a few reasons for moving but there’s no denying that the initial drive was financial. Because Clerkenwell has gone up in the world over the last few years, our rent had significantly increased over our 10-year lease. When the lease came up for renewal and we were asked to pay a significantly higher rent, the only responsible thing to do was to look around and assess our options. We will save millions of pounds over the next decade by swapping the rising prices of our current area for a rapidly evolving, but not yet fully established, neighbourhood in Stratford. Money which we can better use for helping children. An estimated £3 million saving is a lot of vaccines!

There were other factor too, though. We wanted to use the opportunity to see if we could create an office space which worked better for us as an organisation, reflected our values and to see if we could find a space that was a bit more modern. The move gave us the chance to re-think the layout of our four floor town building and together build a more modern space to improve the way we work together.

The focus was on agile working, daylight, open workspaces, collaboration and community. Having surveyed our staff to see what they wanted from a new space, it was also clear that people wanted different zones for different tasks – quiet spaces when they wanted to focus, collaborative areas to work spontaneously together and team zones where they could congregate. We also took the opportunity to introduce better technology such as meeting room video conferencing, video screens and meeting room panels.

We also felt that Stratford was future-looking and the right fit for us. With the under-35 population in the area expected to nearly double over the next decade – and 5 major universities either already established or planning on moving – we hope to be embedded into a forward-thinking area and to make sure we are in touch with young people’s views.  

Stratford, of course, also has big transport advantages – again all enhanced a few years ago to make sure that millions of spectators were efficiently ferried to and from the Olympics.


Was it difficult to sell the move out of Central London to staff?

It wasn’t such a hard sell in the end because it came down to 2 locations, Stratford and Canary Wharf, and there was a feeling that Stratford would be the best fit for us culturally. It was a big change and some people obviously now have longer commutes (as well as shorter ones), but there wasn’t a real backlash against it. Everyone understood the financial savings we would make as well as the opportunity. Some people were more excited than others, but as we started to share information about Stratford we saw an upswing in terms of engagement.


What were some of the challenges around the move?

There were massive logistics. A lot of work was involved in the design and fit out, and we were working to a short time scale (9 months from announcing the move to moving in). It was like moving house times a hundred thousand, but it all went very well!


What are some of the benefits you’ve seen since the move?

Having staff spread across one main floor has been really useful in terms of being able to interact with colleagues. We now have a lot more space for collaborative working, as well as quiet areas. A lot of thought went in to what kind of working environment we wanted and we worked with staff to address their needs. All the technology now works a lot better which is really important when you move to a different location and more people need to work from home, as well as being an international organisation

We also had the chance to work together to consider some of the design. We now have more children’s artwork up, have re-named our meeting rooms, have a dedicated mother’s room, video screens, and added the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child and our values to the walls .

Also, the views are amazing! It’s funny but when you can look out over a city, and your work space has great natural light, your perspective and mentality can’t help but lift. Getting to know a new area has also been quite fun for some people and opened up more opportunities for different kind of networking.


How have staff responded to the move?

I think staff got more excited as we got closer to the move and we started sharing videos about Stratford and how the office was taking shape. There were lots of engagement activities with staff about what kind of design they wanted, what kind of space they would like, and what they thought was important in an office environment. We sent some staff over to the new office to check it out and we did a countdown as we got nearer.

While there were certainly some nerves around the move, we tried to be as open as possible with the information and answer questions as transparently as we could. There was a little bit of anxiety when people realised they needed to actually pack up all their stuff but we got over that and then when we moved everyone was in a really lovely mood. I think staff were pleasantly surprised at the new office. The building matched their hopes and they were really quite impressed with the space.


Any words of advice for the RCOG?

Be as open and transparent as possible, and answer any questions, even if they are difficult ones. Involve staff in as much of the process as possible. Bring workshops and groups together to look at what you want the space to be.