Some 200 years ago, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham composed a blueprint of the ideal prison, subsequently used by Foucault in 1977 to describe the workplace of the future: “Each individual is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by a supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions…there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect…power should be visible and unverifiable.”
This bleak picture perfectly describes telephone call centres, according to Sue Fernie and Professor David Metcalf of the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance: “The possibilities for monitoring behaviour and measuring output in call centres are amazing to behold…the agents are constantly visible and the supervisor’s power has indeed been rendered perfect – through the computer monitoring screen.”
Call centres are one of the biggest growth industries in this country. They already employ one per cent of the workforce and this figure will more than double in the next five years. They can be located in areas of high unemployment, making them a vital plank in the development of the UK’s regional economy, but reports about the conditions in some call centres are appalling. They have been likened to Dickensian sweatshops, with ranks of staff kept at their desks for long stretches, working from pre-ordained scripts with little training, being monitored constantly and then chastised if they linger over calls. High absenteeism and staff turnover are the inevitable result.
A survey of 106 call centres, mainly in the UK, conducted by call centre consultancy the Merchants Group last year concluded: “Absenteeism rates are high, with over half the centres experiencing rates of between four and 20 per cent, which indicate possibly serious problems with stress or morale.”
The survey, The Call Centre Benchmarking Report 1997, also compared the number of permanent staff in the centres with the number of staff recruited in the previous year and found six centres had recruited more staff than their total number of agents, indicating serious difficulty hanging on to employees.
“A high level of staff turnover means higher training costs, lower service quality and an unstable company environment,” says Bibi Bajwa, joint managing director of another consultancy, BPS Teleperformance. “Most staff leave a call centre for one of four reasons: pressure (predominantly in sales), the monotony of work, a feeling of being ‘tied to the desk’ all day, and lack of career enhancement.”
While call centres inevitably have a flat structure, with between six and ten workers reporting to a super- visor, and limited opportunities for promotion, there are still ways of making the work more enjoyable. Bajwa says: “The solution is to vary employees’ work; enable calling staff to perform tasks away from the telephone; give each member of staff a defined career path and truly empower staff through training.”
Telebusiness consultancy The Customer Contact Company also emphasises the need to provide varied work. Staff in its centres spend time monitoring newspapers and magazines and making mystery shopping calls to competitors, organise their own shift patterns and rotate activities and get involved in workers councils so they feel more involved with the whole organisation.
“Staff should be empowered to make decisions,” agrees Keith Francis, managing director of Chiltern Consultancy International. “We train them to use natural conversational skills rather than a struct ured script. The mindset in the early days seemed to be that you treated customers and the people who worked in the call centres as stupid.”
He believes the impetus for change will come from the customers who are at the receiving end of the calls: “You shouldn’t pretend to be doing a survey when actually you are trying to sell them something.”
Martin Bartle of the Direct Marketing Association points out that the DMA’s Code of Practice is very stringent on such matters and the Privacy in Telecoms Directive, due to become national law in October, also sets out strict guidelines on how telemarketing companies should treat customers.
He adds that it is against advertisers’ interests to use a telemarketing company that patronises its customers or mistreats its staff. “Advertisers have a duty to ensure quality of service, so companies disrespectful of consumer attitudes will be squeezed out of the market.”
In general he welcomes the growth in the industry, pointing out its benefits in terms of flexibility: “Call centres offer types of working patterns that suit many people, in that you can pick which days and hours you work. Some other sectors only employ people of a certain age, or choose them on the basis of looks or gender. This job depends only on voice.”
He also reckons the Working Time Directive is “bound to have an effect” on working conditions, though unscrupulous companies will still be at liberty to keep staff at their desks for a certain number of hours and impose strict targets on number and duration of calls made.
“Targets are standard in a sales environment,” he admits. “So it will always be stressful, but the more responsible companies understand that they must maintain a comfortable environment for staff.”
Travel company Thomas Cook put the focus firmly on environment when it opened its new call centre in Falkirk. Architects BDG McColl designed a centre laden with holiday references, explains senior designer Mark Alcorn.
“People entering the building go through an area known as the ‘sensorama’. They walk over the river and weirs that run through the building and there are coloured lights and a soundtrack featuring a plane taking off, an elephant trumpeting and crickets in the grass.” Fragrances such as olive groves and coconut oil permeate the air.
The theme continues into the work area where palm trees stand in pots between clusters rather than endless rows of workers. Striking silk murals hang from the walls.
“Selling over the phone is very demanding and stressful,” explains Alcorn, “but this is an enjoyable place to be.”
Bupa’s call centre, too, aims to give staff a taste of its own health-promoting medicine. Its call centre in Staines has been refurbished on feng shui principles which allegedly create a harmonious atmosphere. It has quiet areas for relaxation, which feature soothing fish tanks.
Other call centres offer aromatherapy and shiatsu massage to stressed workers.
Virgin Direct has its own methods of encouraging staff to take genuine breaks from their demanding work. “If it’s fun, people work harder,” explains marketing manager Gordon Muir.
“During the World Cup, we set up a big screen in the canteen so people could watch during their breaks, and we had a table football tournament with staff teams representing each country. After ‘mad March’ – the peak season for PEP sales – we had a huge party with a Caribbean theme.”
But it’s not just about having fun: “We made 1998 the year of personal development and everyone is encouraged to get a professional qualification as well as developing in other ways. Some people wanted to learn Spanish, so we got a tutor in.”
Encouragement of this sort is rare. The Merchants Group report found that an alarming 58 per cent of the centres it surveyed had no career development policy, though those with such policies had higher productivity and quality, and lower overall costs. Retention rates were considerably higher where role development policies existed.
The report also discovered big gaps in the training offered to staff, though the writers of it were encouraged by the number of centres working towards Investors in People and NVQ accreditations. Half the centres surveyed had no specific call centre management training and “less than 50 per cent of agents receive any self-management skills training, which links directly with the disconnection that is often evident in agent awareness of company/call centre objectives”.
The rapid growth of the industry – which already employs more people than coal, steel and vehicle production combined – is good news for workers and sobering for people who run the old-style sweatshops.
“Nowadays, you will have competition wherever you set up a centre,” says Matthew Taylor, client services director of training consultancy Calcom. “People must have the training and development opportunities and the pay they deserve, otherwise they’ll leave, which is expensive for the employer.”
Darrel Williams, an area organiser with banking union BIFU, agrees: “Because the nature of the work is similar wherever you go, people can jump about.”
Williams believes conditions for staff may be helped by the Fairness at Work White Paper, shortly to become law, which gives individuals the right to be represented at grievance procedures by union officials. Also, workplaces will soon be entitled to vote on whether they want union recognition: if 40 per cent of the workforce vote in favour, an employer is compelled to recognise a union. All these should strengthen the hand of staff lobbying for better conditions.
But the work will always be tough and the monitoring is here to stay. “You wouldn’t allow your copywriter to send out copy without a proof reader having looked at it first,” says the DMA’s Bartle. “So there must be some sort of monitoring.”
And Julia Legge, marketing manager of Callscan, which produces call analysis software that identifies call patterns that fall outside a pre-set profile, insists that the monitoring is in the staff’s interests: “Financial institutions, for example, have to record calls: if a legal dispute comes up, you need evidence. Our records have led to convictions in the past.
“You might have an irate caller on the phone who isn’t allowing the operator to say anything. That person may need help and the system will identify that.”
Another advantage of more sophisticated technology, according to Chris Saddington, business development director of Portfolio Systems, is that mundane tasks and queries can be handled by automated software, leaving the human operators to develop higher skills by dealing with the more interesting work.
It may be that big brother does after all have a benevolent, supportive side.