A Visit to BBC Research and Development

At Irwell Valley Housing, we are on a journey to introduce a process which will encourage innovation, and we’re calling it The Hive (More on that here). As part of this journey we are exploring how others work, and yesterday we visited BBC Research and Development (R&D) in Manchester. The visit focused on how they have created a space that works for their team. Here is some of my learning from the visit:


It was evident from spending time at BBC R&D that the user is at the heart of everything they do. Creating a good experience for the user is key for them to create a good place to work and to deliver services to their customers.

An understanding of the requirements of individuals and ensuring there are areas to suit different types of working was crucial to the design of their space, for example, they understand that deep thinkers need somewhere with minimum distractions. They talked a lot about understanding different personalities and work styles and creating an environment which considers individual differences.

Understanding who will use the space is also necessary to ensure it provides a good experience for all. When designing our space, we need to think about whether it will just be internal colleagues or whether external customers will use the space. For internal use, an orientation session is a good idea (for the BBC it includes what to do if you see a celebrity, but we don’t get many of those in the housing sector!) for external customers it’s about creating a welcoming environment.

Be Flexible:

Key to being user-led is providing a space that is flexible to respond to changing needs, new colleagues and new projects. Multi-purpose rooms with items such as whiteboards on wheels, room dividers and folding furniture help deliver this.

At BBC R&D they operate ‘clean desking’ rather than hot desking, this means that colleagues who need a more permanent setup with more tech have their own desk space and ‘light workers’ who are more mobile can work at any available desk.

There is also sometimes as a need for specialist space -BBC R&D has a cool user testing lab with enables them to observe how customers interact with their products. Their advice for this type of space is to make clear on the use and get people using the space as soon as its available.

Keep the design clean and useful:

Some of the features introduced by designers looked good but caused issues with functionality, for example, one vivid wallpaper design created a reflection on screens making them difficult to view. In another example, one of the walls designed for writing on had a pink background which meant the pen was hard to read and instead people just stuck paper over the design. Involving colleagues in the design is key to avoiding these issues.

Facilitate change:

BBC R&D had been quite experimental with their office setup trying different approaches with their space and moving on quickly if something didn’t work. They also operate a policy where no one has the same desk for more than two years. When the two-year change happens, there is around a week of upheaval while the switch embeds but within a week people are used to their new space, and it’s like they’ve always sat in that place.

Share information:

Here are some ways BBC R&D share what they are up to:

  • Open days where they invite colleagues or customers to visit
  • Newsletters but be aware of quantity and quality
  • Presentations with a follow-up survey to continually improve
  • Filming and streaming activity (the BBC aren’t short on filming equipment!)
  • BBC Taster — where the BBC test out ideas with customers
  • BBC Blue room — where BBC allow customers can try out future technologies

Use technology where it will enhance:

BBC R&D use teleconferencing equipment to communicate across their multiple offices it’s a great enabler to communicate without the need to travel. The business case for the equipment has already realised itself in a £36k saving on the travel budget in 6 months.

However, not everything needs to be solved using technology:

One example they had was a solution to keep cables attached to monitors- they tried to 3D print a solution, but that didn’t work, so a colleague knitted a solution instead! When you visit alongside the VR equipment, 3D printers and screens there was a lot of paper and post-it notes.

Finally, I think two of the most useful insights for me came right at the end of the visit…

Start with a minimum viable product (MVP) — scope out what an MVP will need to deliver, get started on that first and grow from there.

Don’t try and please everyone — choose one peer, one rising star and one senior manager — get them onboard and use them as advocates.