How a complex restructure, HR shake-up and cultural revamp prepared the broadcaster for its digital future

It’s unlikely that the reception at the BBC’s New Broadcasting House is ever particularly quiet, but Theresa May’s announcement of a snap election means the building is a hive of activity when People Management visits just a few hours later. It’s a stark reminder that the success of the BBC’s people agenda – led by HR director Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth (pictured), who joined the organisation in 2014 – is inextricably linked to external events. 

“Since I joined, we’ve had the Scottish [independence] referendum, the general election of 2015, the Brexit vote last year and now another election,” says Hughes-D’Aeth. “Our journalists are focused and maxed out on providing the content that’s needed. You can’t just move ahead [with plans] as you’d like to – you have to stop and say it’s not pragmatic to do something at the same time that the newsroom is coping with Brexit. That’s something I probably haven’t had to deal with in the same way in other organisations, but it’s paramount that we factor those things in here.” 

But there’s still been a lot for Hughes-D’Aeth to do in the past three years. She breaks down her priorities into three key areas: redefining the BBC’s structure so that it “provides fantastic programming and content, but is efficient and effective”; revamping its culture “so people are coming to work wanting to do the best they can”; and ensuring the HR team itself is providing value for money. 

Any of these challenges alone would be enough to keep the best HR directors lying awake at night – let alone in a high-profile, publicly funded organisation with a full-time headcount approaching 19,000. “I’m not going to say it’s an easy job, but it’s incredibly interesting and you wouldn’t get the opportunities you get here anywhere else,” she says.

Under the direction of director-general Tony Hall, since summer 2015 HR has led a reorganisation of the BBC into new divisions that bring together specialties – such as ‘nations and regions’ and ‘channels and commissioning’ – and a “delayering”of management. “We have reduced the number of senior managers by 40 per cent, and taken out a significant cost as a result of that,” says Hughes-D’Aeth. “Each area looked at what they had and the opportunities to say: ‘This doesn’t make sense – it’s not a real management role.’”

Delayering management was an important element of Hughes-D’Aeth’s efforts to make the BBC “an even better place to work for our people”. And it was a tough ask, given the publication of the Dame Janet Smith review in February last year on the BBC’s culture and practices during the Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall era. The BBC’s response, published in December 2016, focused on “what more we could do to make the BBC a more open and transparent place to work – one where people felt they could raise any issues they had in an open, safe environment”, she says. 

Campaigns on speaking out, better management visibility, greater recognition of good work, tighter collaboration between teams and the simplification of complex processes have all had a significant impact on culture, she explains. “In the past, there was a perception that people perhaps weren’t raising concerns as readily as we’d like them to, so we’ve done lots of work on speaking out and feeling free to talk. We welcome people discussing issues; if they’ve got concerns, we want to hear about them and address them.”  

The metrics so far are encouraging. High-level results from this year’s employee engagement survey show that engagement is up by 3 per cent to 69 per cent (9 per cent higher than the Ipsos MORI UK norm), and 93 per cent of staff say they feel proud and passionate to work at the BBC. 

Underpinning HR’s efforts in these areas has been its own revamp; on her arrival, Hughes-D’Aeth was challenged to reduce HR’s cost by at least 20 per cent, so the funding could be reinvested into providing more content and services (currently just 6 per cent of the BBC’s controllable spend is on ‘back office’ functions, including HR; the rest goes directly on content). The first step – in line with the BBC’s commitment to have at least 50 per cent of its roles based outside London – was to relocate the specialist HR teams to Birmingham. 

“Inevitably, not everyone is going to move, and the truth is not everybody did,” says Hughes-D’Aeth. “It made us create job opportunities for people in Birmingham, which is great for the city, but some people weren’t able to move. You have to treat everyone as an individual and talk to them and give them time, because it’s not one person who is involved in the decision – it’s family and friends, too.”  

The HR team also had to make forensic decisions about which services to outsource or take back in-house. “There’s no panacea for this – you have to look at each service stream on its own and decide what is the right thing for it; I would never say you must always outsource or always insource. There is no one answer,” she says. Outsourced services include manager advice and guidance, while transactional HR and recruitment and resourcing support were taken in-house to a Birmingham service centre that answers around 9,000 queries a week. 

“The team has done a fantastic job, because this hasn’t been easy – there’s been a knowledge curve of picking up expertise from an outsourced provider,” she adds. More than 90 per cent of queries are answered while the caller is still on the line, while cost per hire has decreased by around 27 per cent and time to hire has fallen by 21 per cent. All these elements have contributed to Hughes-D’Aeth exceeding her 20 per cent cost reduction target – saving 30 per cent off the cost of HR.  

But the benefits have been far from only financial in nature. “If we hadn’t been on this journey, I don’t think we would have been able to provide the organisation with the support that it needed during all the change it’s been going through with the organisational transformation, so I think it’s absolutely necessary,” she says. 

So what’s next for Hughes-D’Aeth? Ensuring the BBC has a diverse workforce that better represents the population it serves, as well as trying to predict – and equip – staff with the skills they’ll need to flourish in the shifting media landscape, will feature prominently in her plans. Many top HR leaders will surely empathise with the nagging voice in the back of Hughes-D’Aeth’s mind that compels her to push the HR agenda forward: “Am I doing what provides the best value for money? Could I stand up and be counted?”