The Call Centre Panopticon

Laura Elizabeth Dover is the Vice-Chair of Scottish Young Labour and an activist for Scottish Labour Young Socialists.


If you work in a call centre, your days are punctuated by a small ‘beep’ and an automated voice in your ear that indicates yet another call has come through. If you’re taking incoming calls, especially for a big company, there’s probably no real end to them, only an end time to your shift. On a good day where you manage to avoid being stuck with a customer, you might be able to clock out on time. No one wants to be stuck on the phone after finishing time, not just because by then you’ve reached your breaking point but because you probably won’t be paid for extra time unless you clock out at least twenty minutes after you were due to finish. Working unpaid for ten minutes occasionally doesn’t sound like much more than a minor irritant, but it adds up over time, as do the minutes before you officially start that you have to spend coaxing your computer systems to life, also unpaid. You probably earn around £8 an hour, if you’re relatively lucky, and your wage slip never seems to reflect the physical and emotional effort you put into your job, so you begrudge any unpaid time you give your employer.

You might not be quite so resentful if your employer didn’t spend every minute of every day watching you via CCTV and timing everything you do — breaks, lunches, visits to the bathroom and the water cooler, the minutes you take for yourself to recover after a difficult call — and threaten disciplinary action if the timings are a little off what they should be. You facilitate the constant electronic surveillance yourself by entering a code into your phone or computer so they can see exactly what you’re supposed to be doing and how long you spend on it, and enforce limits and penalties if they think you’re taking minor liberties with their time. Your activity is tracked in real time, with the time between calls expected to be as low as possible, and more than likely there’s a manager somewhere nearby with their eyes permanently trained on your work status, so if you appear to be idle for a couple of minutes they can instantly warn or discipline you. Your stats are emailed round the call floor at the end of the day too, with the names of the less efficient highlighted in red, because of course a company that monitors you incessantly isn’t above public shaming either.

“Surely if you’re doing the work you’re paid for and doing it fast enough, you shouldn’t have any trouble?” Normal office jobs aren’t like this. Outside of retail and call centre environments, workers are generally expected to manage their own work without an electronic timer being used as a stick to keep them productive. Call centre shifts for a full-time employee tend to be long, nine hours or more if you’ve reluctantly agreed to do overtime. Your working week is often long, usually more than 40 hours, so you’re probably tired most of the time. Call volumes are high, and you’re (hopefully) getting about an hour in total off the phone to eat and decompress. For the remaining hours, you’re tethered to a desk by your headset wire, facing a relentless stream of monotonous phone calls that follow the same two or three scripts, and few opportunities to breathe in between them.

For what’s considered unskilled work, high levels of concentration and emotional labour are required: you’re navigating a couple of computer programs while simultaneously making sure you say the regulatory scripting; trying your hardest to sell without hard-selling; and keeping the tone friendly and pleasant and helpful regardless of how irate the customer is. It’s not only them listening, because all calls really are recorded for “training and quality purposes”: a silent auditor is in the background to pick apart and score them. You probably get feedback on them every couple of days in the more intense call centres, and this continuous evaluation serves to keep you on edge, because these scores and stats matter and call centre workers care about them. They don’t necessarily care because they think the work they do is of much importance, but because of the ever-present threat of disciplinary action or even losing their job if they aren’t considered up to scratch. It’s difficult not to sound hyperbolic when describing something as Orwellian, but the call centre comes close: you reach a point where the company’s monitoring no longer matters because you learn to police yourself.

You aren’t expected to be human in a call centre environment: you’re expected to be a machine that completes the same meaningless processes over and over again, never faltering or taking too long, and without sacrificing your emotional performative characteristics: you have to still be able to “smile down the phone” while completing every task accurately and quickly. In short, you have to be robotic in your actions but never in your presentation: your work is demanding and repetitive but that shouldn’t be apparent in your manner or tone. Inevitably, you will drop the ball at some point – you might be exhausted or mentally ill or just struggling – but it’s never acceptable to slow down, or let your tone slide from upbeat to indifference, or even take a minute for yourself, because the electronic timer is there to let your manager know you’ve taken a minute too many.

Ironically, the obsessive scrutiny of statistics is bad for productivity in the long term, as there are few rewards for meeting targets and they tend to be difficult to achieve consistently, so workers burn out due to the pressure and staff turnover is high. There is an odd mix of a forced corporate culture with an atmosphere that is more reminiscent of school: employees are infantilised, told where to sit and how long they can spend in the bathroom, except at school you can’t be sacked and you aren’t churning out surplus value. Control over your working day is generally considered important in maintaining good mental health and satisfaction at work, and as such there is a particularly intense form of alienation at play: everything from your work environment down to your self-presentation is outwith your control and dictated by the norms of a distant, often faceless senior management.

While the worst aspects of the job tend to be cultural, there is often some contractual nastiness to be found too: deductions from your final salary for leaving your job within six months of starting; astronomical charges for unreturned headsets; no occupational sick pay. If you work for an outsourcer, your employer probably retains the right to vary the company you’re outsourced to, which can have an impact on your pay, your job description and your workplace itself. Six weeks after I started my call centre job, we were informed that fifty of us weren’t required at the company we’d been working for and that we were to be moved to different project. We were promised a consultation process on how the transfer would happen and what the impact on our terms and conditions would be, but as the employee rep for my team it was immediately clear that “consultation” wasn’t on the table. Instead what we had was a glorified information sharing process where decisions were made over our heads by senior management and we were left to pass them on to colleagues. Things didn’t get off to an auspicious start when a HR officer told me “sometimes these processes would involve trade union reps, but as a business we don’t recognise trade unions, and having employee reps works better anyway.” Who, exactly, it ‘works better’ for was left unaddressed. My dissatisfaction with the process and the transfer itself led to an argument with a manager who was misogynistic and then verbally abusive. In my seven months of working there this incident led to my one small victory, as I raised a formal grievance which was eventually upheld, though not before I went through a demeaning hearing, and raised eyebrows by insisting a trade union rep accompanied me.

There is no culture of trade union membership in call centres, despite the fact that many of them now rely on a core of full-time committed employees and are less casualised than most retail or food service environments. Consequently, there are few instances where workers act collectively and stand up to management; it was only when I moved to a very small campaign with a team of older, long-standing employees that an informal threat of collective refusal to work was made over pay discrepancies and was successful in forcing management to resolve the situation. Despite this, the team didn’t see the value in sustained attempts to organise and bargain collectively to make more significant, long-term gains. Defying management is heavily stigmatised: employees are afraid for their jobs and the atmosphere conditions them to police not only their own behaviour but that of their colleagues too. Part of being a ‘team player’ who is accepted by coworkers is cooperating with management and assimilating into the repressive company culture.

It’s possible to cope in a call centre for a while. You can find an ally whose attitude matches yours who will vent with you, and you can take your work seriously enough to get by but never too seriously. You can take some time off if it gets too much, but you probably only get statutory sick pay and can’t afford to lose too much of your pay. You can spend your free time searching for a less soul-destroying job but it’s hard to get time off for interviews: officially you have annual leave but you’re a new employee and all the allocated holidays were booked up six months ago by current staff. When you work forty hours a week in a monitored, pressurised environment, you probably lack both the physical and emotional energy to pour your limited free time into a job search anyway.

Call centres are a necessary evil and they’re not going away, but they don’t have to be miserable and dystopian. No amount of computerised supervision matters without humans willing to use and enforce it, but in an environment where there is a relentless drive for short-term efficiency – even if this results in reduced productivity overall – it’s unlikely that call centre management would willingly relax their standards. A concentrated campaign of unionisation and organisation is an important first step in changing not only the formal terms and conditions for call centre workers but also the workplace culture, and help to bring about a fundamental shift in attitude to wage labour and exploitation. For now, call centre workers will remain watched and wary and ground down by both the human and inhuman faces of their employers.

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