Monday, January 14, 2013

Inside the BBC's New Broadcasting House

When he becomes director-general in March, I wonder if Tony Hall will have his own desk, or just a filing cabinet to store his stuff. 

Think I’m joking? I’ve just been to the BBC’s new headquarters, and I’m afraid Tony is in for a bit of a shock.

When I worked at Television Centre, the bosses lived on the 6th floor. Just getting out of the lift brought you out in a cold sweat: there was an executive toilet in the corridor with a special key so workers couldn’t use it. The silent circle of offices, some with wooden plaques on doors proclaiming titles so grand you never saw their owners, led to the secret world of channel controllers. Each controller’s office had two doors: one with a name plaque, the other marked No Entry. This was the inner sanctum. When a controller was appointed, there was a budget to redecorate his space. 

BBC offices were as self-important as the people who inhabited them. When I became an executive producer, they gave me a huge desk. It was so ostentatious, Alan Yentob, another executive producer in my department, jealously redesigned his own office like a Japanese geisha house, with translucent panels and soft lighting. Private Eye magazine found out and called it Office Wars. 

Nowadays teams work together and open plan spaces are the norm. However, with New Broadcasting House, the BBC has taken open plan design to the next level. 

New BH: 6000 people will live here
Down in the Basement:  The BBC Newsroom

This epicentre of the broadcasting universe cost £1bn of our money. The architecture is so complex, they had to change firms halfway through.  It was more than 4 years and £55 million over budget.

You’ve got to admit that it’s fairly impressive. With a vast atrium sweeping to the sky, and glass walls overlooking the basement newsroom, it’s designed to “deliver the vision of One BBC”. 

In practice, the designers appear to have managed to deliver one of the strangest and most unpleasant working environments imaginable.

Channel Controllers' Check-in Desks

Danny Cohen, Controller of BBC1, has arguably the best job in television. But when he and his fellow controllers moved into the new building, they were each allocated not an office, but something that looks like an airport check-in desk in a public corridor. 

In front is a row of small cheap filing drawers, to one of which was affixed a paper label that reads 068-095-06 COHEN, Danny. Apparently this is where the Controller of BBC One is expected to put away his stuff at the end of the day: it can barely fit a decent sized laptop. 

Danny Cohen's Locker
This is a brilliant man, who single-handedly controls a £500m budget and our most important network, and the BBC rewards him with an airline check-in desk and a locker. Rumour has it that he and the controllers rebelled, demanding to be moved to more discreet desks away from public gaze, but Danny’s locker remains – a testament to just how bad impersonal corporate office design can be. 

Battery chickens have their own designated cages, but here most people are made to “hot desk”: one commissioning editor told me she gets in early just to make sure she gets a space. At night, everything must be put away in a locker. 

But that’s nothing compared to the meeting arrangements. Scattered around the building are little open booths where people huddle and whisper, for you can easily eavesdrop on the most sensitive discussions. 

View from the Sixth Floor
On the floor that houses all the television commissioning teams, as well as the Controllers, there were two conventional meeting rooms, both of which were empty. We commandeered one for our discussion, but immediately our host warned: “I apologise in advance: we’ll have to swap seats every five minutes”. 

At first I couldn’t understand why: there were plenty of chairs. Two walls were glass and two were made of what looked like acoustic board with vertical slits. 

After a few minutes my head began to spin and I became aware that our host’s head had slowly detached from her body and was now floating around in space. The vertical slits had generated a living Bridget Riley psychedelic painting. 

My host saw the faraway look in my eyes and said “Time to swap.” We rotated every five minutes for an hour and a half. Weird. 

Later my colleague and I escaped to a nearby Starbucks. In the basement, next to the loos, were several large tables. They were filled with BBC staff having formal meetings. 

“It’s the only place we can concentrate,” they told us. 

Well done, BBC. 


Virtual Office Solutions said...

A busy BBC office! Thank you for giving readers a free tour in their headquarters.

Workplace Office Space in Manchester said...

Nice, new BBC offices. Not going to lie, you've given us office inspiration.

Workplace Office Space in Manchester said...

Nice, new BBC offices. Not going to lie, you've given us office inspiration.