Flexible working is the future

Newsroom at New Broadcasting House House rules: switch desks and be good neighbours

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If your desk more closely resembles your living room than an office space, start depersonalising it. Take down pictures of animals and children; get rid of the pot plants; lose the clutter. In fact, the concept of a fixed desk assigned to one person will soon be as dated as the rotary telephone. Welcome to life in the modern office.

The changes - already under way in many places - are part of the BBC's shifting attitude towards flexible working. There'll be little storage, more laptops, clear-desk policies, 'neighbourhoods', and more places from which to do your job but fewer desks. You could be working from a designated 'touchdown' space in a BBC building or a café down the road. This might be out of choice or necessity.

Start Quote

The BBC is turning up the volume on flexible working”

End Quote Andrea Cooper Manager, W1 project team

Why this evolution? Simply because the BBC is running out of space. As the property portfolio shrinks and space comes at a premium, we need to adapt our office habits. Jane Slaughter, W12 programme manager, says: 'A shrinking portfolio is driving it, but how it is embraced is being driven by different departments.' (Interpretation: some teams might welcome it with open arms while others might remain a bit more on the fence.)

The W1 project team, who are handling the moves in central London, are advocates of this brave new world and claim to practise what they preach, including moving desks regularly. Their strapline is, 'Working whenever, wherever and however is most appropriate to get the work done.' It's not a motto guaranteed to slip off the tongue.

W1 managers Andrea Cooper and Jenny Wilcockson explain that the BBC hasn't changed its official policy on flexibility, originally written to comply with legislative requirements, but is adopting more informal arrangements across the board. 'The BBC is turning up the volume on flexible working,' Cooper confirms.

How the numbers stack up

  • Desk occupation at the BBC is about 45%, rarely rising above 60%
  • There will be 15 people for 10 desks on average
  • Some teams will aim for 17 people for 10 desks
  • 2500 people will move in W12 into smaller office space by March 2013
  • 34m people worked from home occasionally in 2011 and the figure will double by 2016 in the United States
Musical desks

One of main things to get to grips with is the idea of ratios - the BBC average of people to desks will be 15:10, with some ratios set even higher. Vision Factual, for instance, is aiming for an ambitious 17:10 when they move to NBH next year.

Nicola Pinn works in Vision Factual and is helping to migrate staff over to NBH. She concluded that desk occupation is around 45%, rarely rising above 60% - and this is standard across the BBC. To arrive at this, she conducted a survey of 200 people, split between production and editorial colleagues.

Editorial staff said that 54% of their time is spent at their desk on average, while production management and support services said it was 63%. 'We are paying for a lot of space that we are not using,' she argues.

Pinn, who works as a production executive, says there has been some scepticism in production teams about the studies. 'In production, sometimes you are at your desk most of the day for a number of weeks and sometimes you are away from your desk, filming or editing for a number of weeks … it becomes about how we manage the space.'

'Completely different'
New Broadcasting House seating Your desk is fair game if you leave it unattended for more than two hours

Emily Sheridan, a business manager who works from Brock House, was one of the first to test the changes in W1 as part of a pilot. The location was chosen for a pilot because it's a microcosm of bigger buildings.

Sheridan's team of 70 people in Marketing and Audiences were only allocated 48 desks when they moved in June. 'It was completely different to anything we'd known,' she admits. She says that flexible working needs defining. 'I think when you say flexible working to people, most think I'll work from home a few days a week.'

In reality it can mean many different things: working different hours, sitting with teams that may be your clients or stakeholders, having fewer meeting rooms, storing stuff in lockers, less privacy and becoming less territorial about space. You might need to spend longer logging in and out every day, too, if you are leaping from desk to desk and using lockers.

Wilcockson clarifies that 'nothing is absolutely set in stone and changes can be made further down the line'. The key thing, she stresses, is that there 'isn't a one size fits all' solution. Each team, with the approval of their managers, has to make decisions that suits their business needs.

Getting managers and HR on board is crucial, agrees Sheridan. 'It's very difficult to get the staff on side if the managers aren't leading by example.' In her case, she found that people on director level were open to the changes and did adopt them.

Pod in Salford Pods are meant to aid creativity in Salford
Grown-ups vs. children

But the concept of 'presenteeism' - believing you have to be in the office to be counted - is still a problem among some managers at the BBC. Managing from afar is also something which people aren't always comfortable with.

Sheridan says it's about trusting your staff and changing your approach: judge people on their results, not how many hours they are in the office, is her advice. She also stresses the importance of getting the technology in place and giving people the confidence to use it.

If you get it right, there are payoffs. The environment is a big one. A clear-desk policy means that people horde less paper, while concentrating more people into fewer energy-efficient buildings will reduce our footprint.

Salford open plan Salford's open-plan offices: is there too much noise and distraction?

Business manager Lesley Eaten is a cautious convert: 'I've worked with loads of paper on my desk forever and a day, and I thought I would find it really difficult to adapt to not having any.' She's now using an Excel spreadsheet.

In Sheridan's team benefits include more collaboration and a sense of personal control. 'It feels a bit more grown up,' she concludes. Not everyone agrees. Some teams in W12 have been told to move desks every day for no obvious reason except that it is supposed to aid collaboration. It has led to grumbling that people are being treated like schoolchildren.

Others don't believe their working habits have been taken on board, with some very small teams uncertain about why they must sit apart from colleagues. Another common complaint is lack of clarity on BBC-wide policies, including whether working from home is something the BBC actively encourages.

Meet strangers

Creatures of habit, who avoid eye contact on trains, may need to start talking to people who were previously strangers. Angela Muddle, in A&M Finance, feels that the changes have 'invigorated' the team. 'We have been exposed to different personalities within our own area and have greater interaction with the News and Global News teams who are also on our floor.'

A day in the touchdown zone

My trial of flexible working gets off to a bad start. I discover that I need a laptop to get anything done. It's sitting, unhelpfully, in my locker at White City. I wander around the neon-coloured floors of NBH and locate one desk with a hard drive - there aren't many. After a 10-minute log-on process, I'm in. First observation: lack of fixed phones. I make a mental note to start storing crucial BBC numbers on my mobile.

My neighbour, from the College of Journalism, is a regular hot desker and believes there's too much noise and not enough privacy. He says the spaces aren't great for 'heavy work'. In the interest of rigorous journalism, I don't rely on a single source. I wander through three floors and hear about cramped desks and distraction.

No one felt comfortable walking into the team areas to use an available desk there. Someone from I&A in Salford told me that his team didn't switch desks. 'It might be more common on production teams who work shifts, but we didn't see the point.'

She cites improvement to technology, particularly wifi in the BBC's buildings and mobile phones with the MES (mobile email service), to keep across big news.

While many people may have been issued a work mobile, not everyone will get their own device. Banks of desks will also have fewer fixed phones at the BBC's big hubs. But communication is improving - Lync, the next version of Office Communicator, will be rolled out to all staff next year. It will allow you to use your PC like a phone or video phone so that you can participate in conference calls from your desk.

There will also be a Lync app that will enable you to use your personal mobile device to dial out so that you can join meetings by voice, update your presence status and send and receive instant messages. In effect, you will not pay for work calls made with these devices.

Be adaptable

However, can you really replace face-to-face contact with colleagues? 'There's a myth that team spirit is better delivered in the old world,' says Cooper, who led the Brock pilot. There will be some sceptics, naturally. And while there will be improvements to technology, refuseniks could feel like they are being left further and further behind. Not everyone will have the latest mobile devices or even want them.

The truth is, we are all going to have to be more adaptable and open to this evolution. In W12 there will be about 2500 people moving in total, to be completed by the end of March. Space will be getting tighter in a number of big hubs - but it's not just the BBC which is going through an evolution in its approach.

According to Forrester Research - a global research company - 34 million people worked from home at least occasionally in 2011, with the number expected to double by the year 2016 in the United States.

Paul Greeves, who is the W12 programme director, says: 'It's really encouraging to see that many of our colleagues are finding the move to flexible working a positive experience - even though it's a completely new way of working for a lot of us. It's also a step further towards improving the use of our buildings over time with benefits for the organisation, for individuals and creatively for our audiences.'

Is this a message people will swallow? While it may stick in some people's throats at times, there's no going back.

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