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You Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone: Re-Contextualising the Origins, Development and Impact of the Call Centre

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This paper locates the emergence of call centres within the broader political economy. We demonstrate how British Gas responded to privatisation, restrictive regulation and the need to deliver shareholder value by radically changing work organisation. Using documentary evidence and oral testimonies, we show how the call centre was pivotal to tightening control over the labour process, to intensifying work and transforming the experience of work.
Re-contextualising the call centre 107
‘You don’t know what you’ve
got till it’s gone’:
re-contextualising the origins,
development and impact of the
call centre
Vaughan Ellis and Phil Taylor
This paper locates the emergence of call centres within the
broader political economy. We demonstrate how British Gas
responded to privatisation, restrictive regulation and the need
to deliver shareholder value by radically changing work organ-
isation. Using documentary evidence and oral testimonies, we
show how the call centre was pivotal to tightening control
over the labour process, to intensifying work and transforming
the experience of work.
Introduction
In the space of scarcely a decade, a diverse literature on the call centre has emerged
in the broad fields of management and organisation studies. Earlier simplistic and
mistaken depictions, particularly the dystopian ‘electronic panopticon’ perspective
(Fernie and Metcalf, 1998), have been quickly forgotten as rich empirical evidence has
produced a more finely grained understanding. We now know a great deal about work
organisation, surveillance, managerial control strategies and other central concerns of
labour process analysis (see Deery and Kinnie, 2004). However, as Glucksmann (2004)
has recently observed, there is a tendency to treat call centres as ‘self-standing sites of
work’ and to detail their ‘internal workings’, at the expense of broader analysis. It is
New Technology, Work and Employment 21:2
ISSN 0268-1072
Vaughan Ellis (vaughan.ellis@gcal.ac.uk) is Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Devel-
opment and is currently completing his PhD thesis on the changing organisation and experience of
work at British Gas. Phil Taylor (philip.taylor@strath.ac.uk) is Professor of Work and Employment in
the Department of Human Resource Management at the University of Strathclyde. He has researched
and published extensively on call centres, trade unions, occupational health and is a lead member of
an ESRC ‘Future of Work’ project.
© 2006 The Authors
Journal compilation © 2006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main
St, Malden, MA, 02148, USA
certainly true that they appear in much of the literature as disembodied entities,
abstracted from their political and economic contexts, as recent work in the discipline
of occupational psychology epitomises.
For example, Holman (2004) assesses, through a series of empirical tests based on
survey data, the degree of ‘well-being’ and job satisfaction among agents working for
a UK bank. The outcome of this approach, which pre-selects the variables for analy-
sis, is invariably unsatisfactory, serving merely to establish a series of internalised and
self-referential statistical relationships, a method which recalls the criticism made by
Wright Mills (1959) of ‘abstracted empiricism’, of a tendency in social science to sac-
rifice explanation for statistical assertion. Unsurprisingly, this leads to questionable
generalisations. Holman ‘proves’ that in terms of workers’ experiences, ‘call centres
are not radically different forms of work organisation’ (2004: 239) and, bathed in an
optimistic glow, ‘call centre work compares favourably to shop floor manufacturing
and clerical work with regard to well being’. Yet, as much authoritative research on
the call centre has demonstrated, its work organisation, labour process and the daily
experiences of its call-handlers have distinctive characteristics.1This is so despite
recognition that the call centre does have organisational antecedents and the fact that,
notwithstanding common defining features, call centres are not homogeneous.
The intention here is not to isolate for critique one particular author, but to empha-
sise the more general failure to contextualise. It is remarkable how the call centre is
often treated as a normative phenomenon, without acknowledgement of the condi-
tions in which it emerged as a particular organisational form, which reconfigured the
customer servicing function in late capitalism. We contend that knowledge of histor-
ical context and legacy are critical for understanding the very essence of the call centre,
the profound consequences for work organisation and the experience of work that its
emergence generated.
Glucksmann’s (2004) corrective to the tendency to internalise is to expand the frame
of analysis by applying the concept of the total social organisation of labour. She
focuses on process, relationality and division of labour, reinterpreting call centres
within a broader sociology of work. In developing not a definitive typology, but five
differing call configurations, or ‘stylised cases’, Glucksmann inserts the call centre
within differing ‘provision to consumption’ processes. In so doing, the call centre is
contrasted with previous modes of operation, and its agents situated in the wider occu-
pational structure. While her reflective overview represents a considerable advance on
‘decontextualised’ accounts, it should be seen as complementing studies which have
already analysed how the call centre is embedded within the wider capitalist political
economy (Taylor et al., 2005), and the dynamics of markets at macro and sectoral levels
(Taylor and Bain, 2001a; Bain and Taylor, 2002).
In building on this work, this paper concurs with Thompson’s (2003) argument that
a focus on the workplace, and work relations alone, cannot reveal the most important
drivers of organisational change. In order to provide a more complete understanding
of the call centre, we need simultaneously a wide-angle lens, to broaden the perspec-
tive beyond the workplace, and a long lens, to provide historical depth. The paper
begins with an analysis of the reasons for the advent and widespread adoption of the
call centre as the preferred mode of customer contact. While particular importance is
attached to innovation in the domain of information and communication technologies
(ICTs), the dangers of technological determinism are readily acknowledged. The explo-
sive growth of call centres is as much the product of political and economic factors:
the impact of deregulation and privatisation, restructuring at industry and/or firm
level, the intensification of economy-wide and sectoral competition, the growth of the
‘new economy’ and, underpinning everything, the system-wide compulsion to
maximise profits and reduce costs.
This discussion prefigures analysis of case-study data from the Edinburgh site
(Granton House) of British Gas in the UK utilities sector. Evidence is drawn from
extensive company and trade union documentation and from extended interviews,
informed by oral history methods, where clerical staff reflected on work organisation
and their experiences throughout their three decades of continuous employment at
108 New Technology, Work and Employment © 2006 The Authors
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006
the same site. These complementary data sets afford a retrospective and longitudinal
perspective. Methodologically, this paper breaks new ground in call centre research,
because it transcends the static survey, or interview-based snapshot, techniques which
understandably have dominated academic studies. Our approach provides a valuable
prism through which the effects of the call centre can be viewed. First, we consider
the organisation, routines and experiences of clerical work at Granton House and, in
the most general sense, the prevailing culture of work, prior to the advent of call centre.
Second, we evaluate the immediate impact of the call centre. Third, we evaluate
the longer-term consequences of work organisation and working life after the call
centre. The evidence is compelling that the introduction of call centre operations sig-
nified a qualitative break with pre-existing forms of work organisation. In rapidly
becoming established as the dominant mode of customer contact, the call centre
replaced all but minor alternative forms of structuring work. Ultimately, in order to
deliver shareholder value in volatile markets, privatised British Gas realised its stra-
tegic objective of reducing costs, largely through asserting control over a trans-
formed labour process.
Finally, given the conceptual and empirical importance of resistance in labour
process studies of the call centre (Bain and Taylor, 2000; Taylor and Bain, 2001a), it is
necessary to provide some explanation for the apparent lack of worker and union
opposition to these profound changes in work organisation, although these are not the
principal concerns of this paper.
The call centre: origins, development and political economy
When evaluating how and why the call centre became an organisational imperative
as companies restructured customer servicing and sales, it is necessary to emphasise,
although not to over-privilege, the impact of technological innovation and application.
Miozzo and Ramirez (2003) and Cave et al. (2002) usefully document the qualitative
advances in information networking technology, which generated wider techno-
logical and organisational diffusion throughout the services sector. These include the
digitalisation of telecommunications networks, optical fibre technologies and, later,
connectionless architectures based on Internet protocols. The dramatic increase in
computing capacity, and concomitant price reduction, enabled the transmission and
processing of enormous amounts of data, leading to the further integration of com-
puter and new voice technologies. We have always maintained that the call centre was
defined fundamentally by this integration of telephonic and computer technologies
(Taylor and Bain, 1999: 102), but the key innovation was the Automatic Call Distribu-
tion system, enabling calls to be routed to available operators, within (or between) call
centres (Miozzo and Ramirez, 2003: 69).
The importance of these technological developments for structuring and pacing
work, for expanding the range of services capable of being delivered remotely, for
increasing labour productivity and for monitoring and measuring output, is often
downplayed by authors who maintain that the variable requirements of customers
place strict limits on the degree of routinisation and standardisation that the technol-
ogy facilitates (Frenkel et al., 1999; Korczynski, 2002). Despite variation between call
centres, whether expressed in terms of strategic choice, configuration (Glucksmann,
2004), call centre type and market segment (Batt and Moynihan, 2002), or the dimen-
sions of quality and quantity (Taylor et al., 2002), these ICTs undoubtedly influenced
work design and the social technology of relationships, leading to a convergence in
the direction of standardisation (Houlihan, 2002: 68). The significance of techno-
logical innovation was more fully appreciated by some earlier researchers of the call
centre. The contrast with pre-existing forms of work organisation was, to them quite
stark, precisely because the transformation had been recent and abrupt. For example,
Richardson and Marshall (1996: 310) understood very well the revolutionary conse-
quences of the penetration of these ICTs ‘further into the customer interface’.
Although there were always limits to dispersal, the technologies collapsed distance
and facilitated geographical flexibility, permitting location and relocation to regions,
© 2006 The Authors Re-contextualising the call centre 109
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006
cities and towns characterised particularly by lower (notably labour) costs and sup-
plies of skilled labour (Bristow et al., 2000). Once, of course, it was no longer neces-
sary to situate the loci of servicing close to customers, economies of scale could be
realised through the concentration of functions that would otherwise be decentralised.
From this perspective, the raison d’être of the call centre lies in its promise to cut costs
and maximise profits through the drawing together of customer servicing, or selling,
channels. Rather than exemplifying the ‘end of the gathered organisation’ (Handy,
1985), many call centres became large-scale sites of mass service delivery. In Scotland,
three quarters of the workforce have been employed in establishments of 250 or more
employees (Taylor and Bain, 1997; 2001b).
Exceptions to the decontextualised and ahistorical treatment of the call centre
include work by scholars who have identified its organisational antecedents. Bain et
al. (2002) and Taylor and Bain (1999) emphasise the enduring legacy of Taylorism in
clerical work. Similarly, in a sadly neglected paper critiquing the knowledge and
‘weightless’ economy, Huws (1999) sees call centre agents as the Taylorised progeny
of earlier generations of office workers—whether bank tellers, ledger clerks, insurance
salespeople, booking clerks and telephone operators—toiling in ‘white collar facto-
ries’. Batt and Moynihan (2002) argue that, because there were always limitations in
applying mass production principles to clerical work, call centres represent an ‘excep-
tional case’, precisely because they embody a mechanisation of customer contact work.
For these authors, one of the wellsprings for subsequent diffusion was the telephone
operator call centre, which provided a template of efficiency as it evolved from the old
switchboards.
We must heed the danger of technological determinism in explaining why compa-
nies, from the late 1980s, became receptive to adopting the call centre. Growth is
inexplicable without reference to the broader political and economic environments
of neo-liberalism, deregulation, restructuring and financialisation of markets. In UK
telecommunications, the state-controlled monopoly, British Telecom (BT), was exposed
to competition in 1984 by new entrants (Mercury/Cable and Wireless) (Fransman,
2002). In utilities, the Gas Act (1986) and the Water Act (1989) saw the public flotation
of state monopolies and, subsequently, the introduction of commercialisation through
disaggregation and devolved cost centres (O’Connell Davidson, 1993).
In parallel, the 1986 Financial Services and Building Society Acts precipitated an
accelerating sectoral transformation, which facilitated the ‘inter-penetration of the
hitherto discrete markets’ (Marshall and Richardson, 1996: 1848) of banking, insurance
and financial services. Competition rapidly intensified, producing instability, organ-
isational churn, and feverish merger and acquisition activity. Inextricably intertwined
with these developments was the application of sophisticated ICTs (Cressey and Scott,
1992), where data processing was increasingly taken out of branches and concentrated
in dedicated centres. While Girobank and the Bank of Scotland began to offer remote
banking facilities, the watershed was the launching of branchless voice-based
operations in banking and insurance, providing 24/7, 365-day services. Together,
Midland Bank’s First Direct (1989) and Royal Bank of Scotland’s Direct Line (1988) call
centres revolutionised the financial services sector (Bain and Taylor, 2002).
During the early to mid-1990s, there was a rush to catch up with these patently suc-
cessful innovators and to capitalise on the demonstrable cost-cutting and profit-
maximising opportunities the call centre offered. ‘Once First Direct had done it, the
rest of us had to follow’ (Senior banking manager, quoted in Taylor and Bain, 1999:
102). However, emulation took place throughout the economy as call centres became
established in retailing, telecommunications, leisure and entertainment, and
travel/holidays (IDS, 1999). For senior corporate management, such as in British Gas,
considering ways of restructuring work in tightening competitive conditions, the
finance and telecommunications sectors had produced a lean, efficient and profitable
model of customer contact, that proved irresistibly attractive. Integral to the call
centre’s appeal were novel forms of labour utilisation and control, where develop-
ments in the Taylorist tradition meshed with the performance of emotional labour
(Taylor, 1998; Bain et al., 2002; Taylor et al., 2002).
110 New Technology, Work and Employment © 2006 The Authors
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The consequences of introducing call centres have been those usually associated
with pioneering work systems. While those who first adopt such models gain com-
petitive advantage through technical innovation and the enhanced creation and realis-
ation of value, imitation by others can see this advantage eliminated as the benefits
are shared by all. The only way to continue to compete is to use the, now established,
work system more intensively. Thus, particularly within ‘mass production’ type call
centres, externally generated pressures have led to work intensification, the raising of
the ubiquitous targets and, often, the maximisation of call-handling times (Taylor et
al., 2005). From this perspective, the introduction of the call centre does not constitute
an end point, but part of a continuous process of adaptation that cannot be abstracted
from the dynamic of capitalist accumulation.
Methodology and sources
The research setting was British Gas’ Edinburgh location, Granton House. Privatisa-
tion in 1986, and subsequent radical change to company structure and work organ-
isation that preceded and accompanied the arrival of the call centre in the mid-1990s,
saw the number employed double to 1,400. Given the principal objectives of this paper,
to understand the historical nature and impact of this transformation, particularly
in terms of workers’ experiences, two complementary data sets which marry ‘sub-
jectivity’ and ‘objectivity’ are utilised.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with all workers who commenced
employment before 1986, and who were continuously employed in basic grade cleri-
cal occupations, entitled Customer Service Representative and Senior Customer
Service Representative, up to the period of research (2002–04). Forty-three subjects (25
men and 18 women) who fulfilled these criteria provide, from their perspective of
active participants at the point of production, a unique testimony of continuity and
discontinuity in the labour process. Understandably, given that some had as much as
almost 40 years service, interviews typically lasted five to six hours and required two
or three sessions to complete. The interviews utilised a broadly biographical approach
and sought data of sufficient breadth and depth to allow for the reconstruction of
workers’ lives at British Gas. The semi-structured schedule included questions on the
following; recruitment, induction and entry into the organisation; previous work ex-
perience; an anatomy of work organisation of each role; the transformation of these
roles over time and, in particular, the consequences of the emergence of the call centre;
the identification of key organisational events; and, finally, reflections on their experi-
ences of change. Privileged access was gained for one of the authors both because of
his status as a former employee and because of the generous support for the research
project given by the General Manager, who allowed interviews to be conducted during
working hours. Such cooperation enabled the authors to interview all employees who
met the pre-1986 criteria, rather than merely a sample.
The research was informed by oral history methods and techniques (Shopes, 2004),
which have been rarely adopted in industrial sociology. While recognising difficulties
associated with the use of this ‘maddeningly imprecise’ (Shopes, 2004: 1) approach,
we take as a source of strength, oral history’s ability to reveal the meanings participants
attach to events, phenomena and experiences. Further, it should be acknowledged that
‘memory is not a passive depository of facts, but an active process of creation of mean-
ings’ (Portelli, 1981: 101). A unique value of oral testimony lies in participant’s
attempts to make sense of their past and to give a form to their lives.
In order to minimise bias and unreliability, oral historians have long advocated
evaluating the ‘historical accuracy’ of testimony through verification by, and com-
parison with, alternative sources (Schrager, 1983: 87; Thompson, 2000: 273; Lummis,
2002: 279). Consequently, we draw upon extensive hard, or written, evidence: company
documentation, government reports and union bulletins. This permits the establish-
ment of a ‘factual’ timeline of critical organisational events and an ‘official’ record of
changing work organisation at British Gas. However, these should not be seen as
discrete data sets. The research process involved iteration, as issues prompted by
© 2006 The Authors Re-contextualising the call centre 111
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006
documentary investigation stimulated additional questions and further reflection from
interviewees while, simultaneously, insights generated by testimony provoked re-
newed interrogation of the ostensibly ‘objective sources’. We fully acknowledge the
possibility that individual respondents might romanticise their past experiences, view-
ing the past with a halo effect which overstates contrasts with more recent, and current,
experiences. However, we are confident that the iterative and interrogative approaches
adopted, combined with the numbers of respondents and the complementary data
sets, serve to minimise the effects of potential bias.
One final issue, part-methodological and part-evidential, relates to the relative lack
of data in the testimonies on the subject of resistance. What is important in this respect
is the observation that oral histories tend to consist of those events or experiences that
the interviewees perceive as being of significance. Thus, although it is known from
union sources that campaigns were mounted against the consequences, for workers,
of the introduction of the call centre as, for example, against managerial misuse of
‘Planned Flexible Working’, the very fact that these did not stimulate recollection by
our cohort of respondents, would suggest that their impact was limited.
British Gas—from state monopoly to privatisation
External economic and political factors determined the strategic redirection of British
Gas and, over time, generated pressures precipitating the transformation of estab-
lished forms of work organisation. While privatisation and forced commercialisation
by the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s were the decisive environ-
mental factors, it is important to emphasise that no direct and immediate causal chain
linked external shock and internal change in work organisation. The impact of macro-
level events upon the labour process is not direct and simple, but complex and non-
linear. Mindful of Hyman’s (1987) caution to appreciate the gap between strategy and
outcome, salient mediating factors include management’s ability to specify in detail
how workplace change can be effected, the availability (or otherwise) of facilitating
technologies and the feasibility of negotiating change through existing industrial re-
lations machinery at national and local levels.
Following government injunctions to British Gas, to increase gas prices to reflect the
true cost of extraction and supply [British Gas Corporation (BGC) Annual Report,
1988: 259]—moves intended to make the state monopoly attractive to potential
investors—privatisation was enabled with the 1986 Gas Act. Consistent with the gov-
ernment policy to shrink the public sector (Vickers and Yarrow, 1988: 259; Farnham
and Horton, 1994: 13; Saunders and Harris, 1994: 5; Colling and Ferner, 1995: 495), and
following BT’s privatisation, BGC was renamed British Gas plc and commenced
trading as a private company.
However, it was not privatisation per se that provided the real impetus to internal
reorganisation, but rather the consequences of ensuing regulation. The regulatory
regime established by the Office of Gas Supply followed a similar approach that the
Office of Telecommunications had adopted with BT, and centred on price control.
Regulation of maximum average gas prices was imposed in the form of RPI-x, where
RPI was the Retail Price Index and ‘x’, an amount stipulated by the Office of Gas
Supply (Vickers and Yarrow, 1988: 263; Beesley, 1997: 393). The initial control period
(1987–92) set ‘x’ as 2, meaning that increases to gas prices had to be restricted to two
per cent below the rate of inflation (BG plc Annual Report, 1987: 9). The control ini-
tially applied to the tariff segment of BG plc’s market, including domestic customers,
but later included the non-tariff, or contract, segment, which comprised 30 per cent of
revenue (Beesley, 1997: 399).
It is difficult to overstate the longer-term significance of these controls for work
organisation. BG plc was now compelled to focus on minimising ‘internal costs’, in
order to maintain or improve its profitability. Given the price control formula, British
Gas had to reduce its non-gas costs by more than two per cent per annum in order to
increase profits. Put bluntly, the imperative to reduce labour costs became an obses-
sion for a senior management, who believed that the foremost source of savings lay
112 New Technology, Work and Employment © 2006 The Authors
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in what they regarded as the bloated, expensive and labour-intensive clerical oper-
ations. Additional external shocks in the late 1980s and early 1990s served merely to
deepen these concerns. Principally, following a Monopolies and Mergers Commission
enquiry in 1993, the government decided on a more thoroughgoing restructuring of
the gas industry. Many ministers and advisors had always been dissatisfied with a pri-
vatisation settlement that had retained the integrated nature of British Gas. Rather than
pursuing demerger, the government brought forwards the timetable for introducing
competition into the domestic market. The domestic tariff monopoly enjoyed by BG
plc was to be phased out from 1996, and fully opened to competition by 1998, in line
with existing proposals for the electricity market. In order to appraise fully the extent
and nature of change in the organisation of work that resulted, it is necessary to con-
sider clerical work at Granton House as it existed prior to, and following, privatisa-
tion, and the later arrival of the call centre.
‘Before the flood’—clerical work prior to the call centre
Clerical processing
Here we consider clerical work in the three most important departments: Records and
Billing, Metering and Debt Control. For the purposes of our study, these departments
provide an excellent basis for drawing the contrast between back-office and call centre
operations. All records, billing and debt functions, and most of those in metering, con-
tinued to be performed in the new call centre environment, even though the process
changed. The clerical workers interviewed, therefore, typically remained within the
same area of work, although labour process and task performance changed with the
call centre’s advent. In sum, our study benefits from examining discontinuities in work
organisation and task execution within similar broadly defined business functions.
While work organisation was not homogeneous across Granton House and variable
paper-based clerical routines existed, and while differences existed between depart-
ments in terms of inter alia levels of required knowledge and time to complete tasks,
it is possible to provide an archetypal depiction of the nature and experience of cleri-
cal work that prevailed during the 1970s, throughout the 1980s and even into the early
1990s. In the largest department, Records and Billing, 250 clerks were responsible for
creating and maintaining accurate customer records and producing bills. Distinct sub-
processes included metre installations, removals, exchanges and billing. The closely
linked Metering department was responsible for managing metre reading, collection
and inputting data onto customer records. Clerks planned the daily work allocation
to field metre readers, ensured that meters were read twice yearly and dealt with ad
hoc requests such as final readings. Debt Control managed domestic accounts, and
involved issuing letters, replying to correspondence and answering customer phone
calls. As warrants were required to gain entry to customers’ property and disconnect
supply in circumstances of unpaid debt, clerical work here was more regulated by
company procedure than in other departments. Customer correspondence was also
answered in each department.
Until 1993, clerical work was stratified, with several distinct hierarchical grades in
each department, and employees performing tasks commensurate with their senior-
ity and/or level of knowledge. BGC typically recruited ‘new starts’ as juniors aged
15–17 and assigned them to routine activities such as sorting mail and counting job
cards, and only when deemed ‘responsible’ were they moved to customer account
work. This indefinable attribute of ‘responsibility’ was acquired by ‘new starts’
through observations of more experienced colleagues and formal training. It was,
though, more a rite of passage based on the judgement of experienced workers than
the product of formal supervisory assessment. Clerical pay-scales reflected this cali-
brated hierarchy, with grades ranging from S1, for routine batching and counting roles,
to S3 for senior clerks who had ‘team expert’ roles and, perhaps, some supervisory
responsibility. The bulk were within the S2 pay-scale, dealing with routine customer
enquiries and planning work for operational staff.
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Notwithstanding the patently standardised content of many routines, clerks did
enjoy some autonomy, and reported exercising a degree of control over task perfor-
mance. One Records and Billing clerk, when asked whether she found her job satis-
fying, recalled:
I created my own satisfaction...I think it was the fact that I could set my own goals, that was
really everything. It was my own niche and it suited my mind as you were left more or less alone.
Also, in some ways because I knew I was good at it and as time went on management would come
and ask me things as well because they knew I was reliable. You had your own defined job role
and you were in control of it, you felt as though you were treated as an individual. They let you
have responsibility and you were judged by how you responded and what you got done. (Tania
O’Connor, Customer Service Adviser (CSA), aged 51)
Within prescribed parameters, clerks did have the opportunity to fully resolve
queries, seeing tasks through to completion, which both was a consequence of, and
served to reinforce, this sense of control and ‘ownership’, to use what would have been
in the context of this period an anachronistic term of human resource management.
Evidently, the accumulation of tacit and formal knowledge, and progression to expert
status bestowed on clerks a sense of worth. This comment is typical of many.
In those days, if you were very knowledgeable about your job then you could get other staff asking
you for help. You would also help or teach a new member of staff the relevant jobs. You did have
the feeling that they were acknowledging that you knew your job. It gave me more confidence
within myself. (Linda Munroe, Compliance Officer, aged 49)
Supervision and the absence of performance management
With the exception of correspondence, no formal performance measures were given
to individual workers prior to the call centre. Admittedly, clerks completed worksheets
and handed them to supervisors at day’s end, but these were used to compile overall
workflow volumes rather than to manage individual performance.
There wasn’t really monitoring or performance targets. You did a worksheet, but it was just basi-
cally so they could do the figures (clearances), what you got in, what you cleared etc. It was up to
them to make sure that the work was done. If the work was cleared you could relax. The work
always got done [because of] loyalty, basically, to the company. (Nellie Saunders, CSA, aged 51)
The variable volumes of clerical tasks meant that workloads were typically cleared
on a daily basis. Clerks could, and would, vary their pace of work largely because
each morning they were presented physically with the pile of work that had to be com-
pleted by closing time. Further, given sectional autonomy within departments, it was
rare for clerks to be asked to complete the work of colleagues. The supervisor played
a minor role in managing an individual clerk’s workload, acting more as technical
expert, often undertaking clerical duties that required authorisation of expenses, or
the allocation of allowances to customer accounts. There was a tacit understanding
that certain clerical duties took longer than others to complete, and supervisors were
sensitive to the fact that output would vary depending on the particular tasks being
performed.
I think they accepted the fact that you had your good days and your bad days because you could
get work that was more difficult. It depended what area of work you were dealing with at the time.
So people recognised that certain people would do one thing and certain people would do others.
(Tania O’Connor, CSA, aged 51)
The testimonies provide evidence of informal output norms. Many clerks reported
that they had become aware of what constituted a ‘typical’ day’s clearance from the
‘responsible’ clerk who had initially trained them. The underlying purpose seemed to
be to establish an achievable workload but one that would occupy the clerk for an
entire day.2
There was an amount expected from you each day. When you were sitting in with an experienced
[worker] to learn the job, you would be made aware of what was expected [which] remained fairly
constant throughout my time. Your supervisor was aware of the type of enquiries you were dealing
114 New Technology, Work and Employment © 2006 The Authors
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006
with. If you had been given fairly straightforward work to do then the work should be cleared
quickly. He could check the register to find out how much work you had on your desk. If you were
dealing with awkward enquiries then you were allowed more time to deal with them. (Linda
Munroe, SCSA, aged 49)
The role of supervisor differed between departments and was partly a reflection of
diversity in clerical activity, and partly the result of a comparative informality sanc-
tioned by senior management. Thus, supervisors adopted, within the unavoidable
constraint of ensuring ‘the work gets done’, variable styles and approaches. In Meter-
ing, supervisors were frequently regarded as remote but benign figures, as is evi-
denced by the response of this clerk when asked how much contact she had with her
immediate supervisors.
As little as possible. [laughs] They were only really there if you had a problem or needed to book
a holiday. You were in full control of your job and you had a sort of a routine where things were
done on a certain day. You just got yourself through. A lot of it was preparation for the metering
folios coming up, that took up a lot of time. You got left alone to get on with it. (Sally Burnett, CSA,
aged 52)
Work culture
The work culture of Granton House was the product, and legacy, of a nationalised
industry. It also reflected its institutionalised industrial relations framework, in which
trade unionism exercised considerable influence. Without romanticising what was
indisputably the performance of routinised white-collar work, since a premium was
placed on clerical knowledge and professional service, it would be more apt to char-
acterise the labour process as ‘responsible autonomy’ rather than ‘direct control’
(Friedman, 1977). Workers demonstrably enjoyed a level of discretion within their
quotidian work routines, being relatively free to visit the canteen, take comfort breaks
and converse with colleagues.
I think as long as you did your work, they didn’t mind you going to the canteen for whatever, or
going for your coffee. It certainly wasn’t restricted as in, you know, timed at the toilet or some-
body watching. You were free to walk about. (Margaret Norris, Customer Service Representative,
aged 47)
Symptomatic of the relatively relaxed atmosphere were working time practices. For
two decades (1976–95), clerks managed their working hours through flexi-time, pro-
viding that at the end of month contractual obligations had been met. Further, there
was a tacit understanding that clerks could agree working hours between themselves
to ensure sufficient staffing levels throughout the day.
In sum, in terms of the extent of discretion clerks enjoyed within a long-established
and relatively unchanging work organisation, the pattern of informal knowledge
acquisition, the lightness of supervisory touch, the sense of clerical professionalism
and expertise, and the absence of individualised and detailed controls over time and
output, the contrast with the later call centre regime could not be more marked.
‘The old order is rapidly fading’: the emergence of the call centre
In the aftermath of privatisation, two key developments in 1993 and 1997 intensified
BG plc senior management’s preoccupation with cost—particularly labour cost—
reduction. In response to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission Report, BG plc
demerged and restructured its supply and transmission divisions into five separate
businesses. Granton House formed part of Public Gas Supply and was owned by
Centrica plc. From inception, the new organisations had much flatter hierarchies
and utilised generic job descriptions to increase labour flexibility (BG plc Annual
Report, 1993: 2) and to erode the old job grades, perceived as inappropriate for the
new environment. Central to driving the competitive culture and new business model
was a radical departure in customer servicing (BG plc Annual Report, 1995: 10). Major
investment was made in the telephony infrastructure to facilitate a new national billing
© 2006 The Authors Re-contextualising the call centre 115
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006
system, Tariff Gas Billing (TGB), which would replace localised operations and realise
economies of scale. Within three years (1995–98), customer service departments were
transformed from geographically based clerical processing centres into fully blown
call centres with a UK-wide remit. Just as widespread redundancies accompanied the
contemporaneous penetration of the call centre throughout the financial services
sector, so too did BG plc’s restructuring programme involve significant workforce
reduction.
Abilling clerk recalled the occasion when she was informed of the call centre’s
arrival.
I guess it was in ’94 or ’95 when I was on TGB training and my pals were all leaving on voluntary
redundancy. [laughs] They just kept talking about these things that were going to happen, telling
you that you would get a call and deal with it right to the end and used these big words such as
empowerment—these were all buzz words at that time. They didn’t really use the words ‘call
centre’ though, just that you would be on the phones for so many hours a day. I mean they said
that we would be on the phones in the morning and then come off in the afternoon to do
correspondence. Turned out kinda different eh? (Margaret Norris, CSA, aged 47)
The first call centre experience proved shocking for many. In spring 1995, a general
bureau, initially serving Scottish customers, was established to facilitate the down-
sizing of Records and Billing and Metering. The Newcastle office was then closed
and its work migrated to Edinburgh, doubling the bureau’s size. Difficulties with the
TGB system, excessive call volumes and the inexperience of call-handlers resulted
in a precipitous decline in customer service quality. Between late 1995 and spring
1996, it was common for 150–250 calls to be stacked, waiting to be answered, leading
to widespread abuse of call-handlers, particularly from customers in the Newcastle
area, who resented the closure of their local facility. The sharp contrast between this
‘new world’ of the call centre and the ‘old world’ of clerical processing provided
an unwelcome foretaste of how their experience of work was to be permanently
changed.
In 1997, the Performance Enhancement Programme (PEP) benchmarked operating
costs against those of British Gas Trading’s (BGT) principal competitors, the Regional
Electricity Companies. PEP concluded that the cost to BGT of servicing a customer
was £22.10, compared with the Regional Electricity Companies’ £16.30 (PEP presen-
tation, 1998). To reduce this differential, BGT concluded that £104m savings in costs
had to be achieved through applying a ‘best value’ test to every customer service oper-
ation. The ensuing ‘Organise to Win’ (OTW) project completely reorganised BGT’s
eight area offices, which had hitherto performed a full range of services for its regional
customers. As discussed, the ICTs integral to the call centre, facilitate scale economies,
overhead reduction and functional specialisation (Taylor and Bain, 1999; Miozzo and
Ramirez, 2003). In this case, OTW segmented the eight sites into four dedicated
call centres (Edinburgh, Leeds, Croydon and Southampton), three billing offices
(Manchester, Solihull and Barnet) and one national sales office (Cardiff). OTW aimed
to deliver over three years a reduction in the workforce of 927 and net revenue savings
of £15.4 m (OTW Business Case, 1997).
Yet, the call centres were intended not simply to embody the cost efficient logic
(Korczynski, 2002), but were perceived as strategically important sites of revenue
generation. Centrica viewed the customer database as its greatest asset. Paralleling
developments in financial services (Taylor and Bain, 2001a: 53; Bain and Taylor, 2002),
British Gas call centres increasingly encompassed sales and marketing activities, and
agents were now expected to hit sales targets as well as perform quality customer
service (Centrica, Annual Report, 1998).
The wholesale migration of processes between sites (1997–99) intensified and
deskilled work for the overwhelming majority. The existing Automatic Call Distribu-
tion equipment was replaced with BT’s Featurenet 5000 system, creating one virtual
call centre. Although each of the four centres handled a distinct segment of calls, this
new system provided the potential to divert calls to free agents in any of the other
three centres where there was no availability at the appropriate centre. Streaming
116 New Technology, Work and Employment © 2006 The Authors
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specific call types to appropriately trained agents increased productivity, maximised
on-call and reduced ‘idle time’. TGB, utilising a Windows platform, featured exten-
sive online help facilities. The discretion clerks had enjoyed in task performance sud-
denly ended, as tacit knowledge was codified into a series of pre-programmed tasks,
which guided the clerk, step-by-step through menus, screens and dialogue boxes. In
essence, TGB represented an application of the ‘Babbage principle’ (Braverman, 1974:
195) and constituted one of the most significant of several moves towards the degra-
dation of clerical work, which by 1999 also included call scripting.
I felt previously you had to have a good working knowledge to actually do the work. I don’t think
there is that requirement to have this knowledge nowadays. There is a lot more help facilities avail-
able via your computer, like on TGB there is what is called front end call scripting. (Linda Munroe,
Compliance Officer, aged 49)
With the introduction of TGB and the customer-facing ‘Front End’, ‘knowledge’ and
‘professionalism’ were abruptly replaced by speed and efficiency, as the most highly
valued worker attributes within British Gas.
Although the espoused reason for the introduction, in 1999, of call-recording tech-
nology was to enable legally binding ‘verbal contracts’ to be concluded over the phone,
and removing the need for paper-based direct debit forms, the principal objective was
performance improvement. Previously, random call monitoring had been undertaken
in ‘real time’, with supervisor sitting next to agents. Although experienced as intru-
sive, agents did at least know that the frequency of monitoring was restricted by super-
visor availability and that no permanent record of the detail of customer interaction
remained. Now, by contrast, agents knew that every word spoken and decision taken
left an ‘imprint’ that could be later used for monitoring and even disciplinary pur-
poses. In presenting supervisors with opportunities to appraise workers’ performance
remotely and retrospectively, the introduction of recording contributed significantly
to the redrawing of the frontier of control in management’s favour.
With the call centre having become the dominant form of work, clerks were faced
with the choice of transferring to it, or leaving the organisation. Despite considerable
apprehension, the age, length of service, lack of formal qualifications and personal cir-
cumstances of most of the survivors of the voluntary redundancy programme, meant
that exit was not a feasible alternative. The universal refrain of this cohort of em-
ployees was that the arrival of call centre ruined the quality of their working lives.
The following response is succinct and typical.
My lovely quiet life with no hassle whatsoever had suddenly changed. Then you were getting the
odd barney with people and your lovely job that you had liked with no hassle just disappeared.
(Nora Castle, CSA, aged 43)
‘In the wake of the flood’: after the call centre
Working time and work intensification
It is notable how the more optimistic accounts of the call centre (e.g. Frenkel et al.,
1999) make scant, or no, mention of how this organisational innovation transforms
working time. Inextricably bound up with centralisation of function and the achieve-
ment of economies of scale, is both the extension of working times and an intensifica-
tion of working effort as the gaps between tasks during which the body or mind
rests—the ‘porosity’ of the working day (Green, 2001)—are filled. In these lean service
regimes, what matters most is the close matching of staffing levels to the actual,
or anticipated, volumes of customer demand. The emergence of the call centre in
BGT was accompanied by, and dependent upon, the destruction of traditional clerical
work patterns. From 1995, through the ‘Planned Flexible Working’ collective
agreement, management had authority to calibrate working time to meet oper-
ational requirements, to extend weekday hours to 8 pm and to introduce Saturday
working. The net effect was to corrode the hitherto, and much reported, relaxed
atmosphere.
© 2006 The Authors Re-contextualising the call centre 117
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006
Incessant call-flow and claustrophobic monitoring of agents’ availability and output
necessarily restricted their mobility. On pain of disciplinary action, they now had to
enter codes at their turrets, indicating when they were ‘not ready’ to take calls or when
they left their workstation. Comfort breaks were restricted to four per cent of working
time, 15 minutes in a shift of 7.5 hours. These constraints, which appear as contem-
porary expressions of what Thompson (1967) referred to as ‘time thrift’ in his account
of employers’ imposition of temporal discipline in the early years of industrial capi-
talism, were universally detested.
You are talking to an adult, a mother of two grown up kids and people talk to you like a child. I’m
a responsible person. So what if I have been away for 20 minutes, I don’t do it every day. Again
this is where they should understand their staff. (Lesley Jones, CSA, aged 48)
Supervision, performance management, pressure
Clerks recalled the frenzied atmosphere as performance management became a super-
visory obsession. The imposition of monitoring and quantitative targets contributed
further to the degradation of work, stripping clerks of what remained of their sense
of individuality.
[The call centre made the environment] totally impersonalised. You are not a person anymore; you
are actually a badge number. When I started here, you had your own individuality, you had your
own job to do and you were left to carry on with it. You had responsibility. You were a person.
(Maureen Taylor, CSA, aged 56)
Workers, able to make the contrast with the previous work regime, were acutely
aware of the loss of control.
You don’t have control. Your job is to work on the phones as soon as you get in. You have to be
logged on to the phone to take the first call, by the time your shift starts, and as you close the last
call another one appears in your ear. It’s never ending and you just have to sit there and react to
these voices. Pretty depressing really. (Steven King, CSA, aged, 46)
Mechanisation not only degraded work, but also demeaned the quality of customer
service, which deeply offended the professional sensibilities of these experienced
clerks. Socialised, perhaps as little a decade earlier, in an entirely different ethos, some
now strove to humanise their working lives by perpetuating older work practices.
Confronted with complex queries, agents responded by keeping ‘pending’ files open,
working on accounts through meal breaks, and utilising personal contacts in other
offices, in attempts to deliver the kind of personalised resolution that had characterised
the old office. For a management whose ideal was tightly scripted and simplified
agent–customer interaction, these behaviours were regarded as archaic and wasteful.
The call centre dramatically changed the role of the supervisor, from being gener-
ally supportive to being exclusively directive.
Well, they are not expected to know your job anymore, so they can’t really help you with prob-
lems. They are also a lot less accessible; although I never really needed to talk to my Supervisors
in the past, I knew I could if I had a problem. Now...you have to make an appointment. All I can
see of them is that they are there to ensure you meet your targets. They are here to do FARE (time
management system) to tell you if you can or cannot have a holiday and to chase you around the
building if you are late logging onto the phone. (Lesley Jones, CSA, aged 48)
Monitoring and correcting individual performance constituted the most significant
perceived change in the role of supervisors. Individual agent’s output was now strin-
gently measured against aggregate team and centre-wide targets, unlike previously,
where collective output had simply been recorded.
Now you could actually pinpoint to a second what everybody was doing. One situation I remem-
ber was with one of the team who was very thorough at their job...OK they weren’t getting their
hundred calls a day, and were only maybe getting 70, but it was consistent. But the manager wasn’t
very happy about that and was demanding to see an increase in volume. Before, there wasn’t any
emphasis on your call-handling, only that you answered the phone when it rang. They didn’t have
grade of service (targets), you couldn’t monitor how many calls were actually waiting to come
118 New Technology, Work and Employment © 2006 The Authors
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006
through, the phone rang, you answered it. You didn’t know if there was 10 people waiting to get
through, whereas now you do. (Steve Bailey, SCSA, aged 49)
Evidence from a distinct research project conducted during 2000–01 confirms the
new realities of work at Granton House (Taylor et al., 2003). Three quarters of call-
handler survey respondents reported being ‘quite’ or ‘very pressurised’ ‘as a result of
work on a normal day’. The single most prominent cause was ‘having to meet targets’,
identified by 74 per cent as contributing either ‘a great deal’ or ‘to some extent’ to
feeling pressurised. Additional distinctive, and closely related, aspects of the call
centre labour process—lack of time between calls, repetitiveness, call monitoring, lack
of breaks and having to keep to scripts—were cited as significant sources of pressure.
As a consequence, many workers were self-evidently close to exhaustion and emo-
tional withdrawal (Deery et al., 2002; Taylor et al., 2003: 442–444).
The apparent absence of resistance
The depth and swiftness of the transformation analysed above inevitably provokes
consideration of resistance. While we cannot here provide a full account of the dyna-
mics of industrial relations at British Gas, generally, and Granton House, specifically
(see Taylor et al., 2003: 440 for a summary), some explanation of the relative absence
of contestation is obviously required. Several aspects are important. First, in the period
since 1997 when Unison signed a partnership deal with British Gas, the union at
national level acquiesced in accommodating the company’s business case and chose,
on tactical grounds, to cooperate with management’s change agenda. Thus, union
acknowledgement of the pressures of external competition led, logically, to an accep-
tance of the call centre as an organisational innovation which would provide mutual
benefit to company and union. Second, as the announcement of the establishment of
the call coincided with the implementation of the voluntary redundancy programme,
the union, in defensive mode, was in no position to mount opposition, preoccupied
as it was with the detail of an issue affecting many members. Third, the fact of having
neglected to campaign against the call centre prior to its introduction, made it much
more difficult to challenge its operational logic and consequences (targets, pace of
work, pressure) once it had become established. To have done so at this stage would
have required the union to have proposed an alternative form of work organisation
and then to have mobilised sufficient resources in a campaign to have this imple-
mented, a course of action eschewed by Unison.
In overall terms, Unison was not prepared to engage in what has been termed the
new ‘politics of production’ (Stewart and Martinez-Lucio, 1998; Taylor and Bain,
2001a: 62–63), championing those issues of most concern to their members that arise
out of conditions at the point of production or service delivery. Instead, in prioritis-
ing what it regarded as its national and institutional priorities, Unison adopted a
defensive orientation towards maintaining recognition, preserving jobs and sustain-
ing membership. Given the lack of collectively generated resistance, individuals were
left to their own devices, so that a sizeable layer of workers chose exit from British
Gas as an avenue of escape from rigours of the call centre. In this sense, then, the
absence of resistance is not the consequence of the totalisation of managerial control,
as the postmodernists and Foucauldians would have it, but rather the outcome of the
failures of collective organisation.
Conclusion
While the preceding period had witnessed minor, incremental adjustments in work
organisation, the years 1995–98 represented a watershed at British Gas’ Granton
House. Reorganisation was abrupt and far-reaching, constituting a profound discon-
tinuity in clerical processing and customer servicing. More change occurred in this
concentrated burst than had taken place in the previous quarter century. Pivotal to the
transformation was the introduction of sophisticated call centre technologies, which
facilitated radically new job design and social organisation of work. By the early 1990s,
© 2006 The Authors Re-contextualising the call centre 119
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006
when BG plc management was forced to confront the central problem of labour cost
reduction, there were abundant examples from financial services and telecommuni-
cations of the benefits that the lean production call centre model could bring: remote
servicing, economies of scale, an augmented division of labour, the unprecedented
measurement of output in white-collar work, close monitoring of workers and radical
innovation in the use of working time. Yet, this is not a tale of technological deter-
minism. In public utilities, as in telecommunications and finance, the impetus behind
the adoption of the call centre lay as much in regulatory change in the political and
economic environment, and in capitalist competitive pressures operating at macro,
sectoral and inter-firm level, as in the technological availability of an alternative cus-
tomer servicing paradigm. However, mindful of replacing one error, technological
determinism and an internalised focus the workplace, with another, mechanically
imputing workplace change from market change, environmental and competitive
forces are seen to shape rather than determine work and employment relations (Hyman,
1987; Taylor et al., 2005). Significantly, it took almost a decade, from 1986, for the fuller
consequences of privatisation to emerge, and to produce the sharp discontinuity insti-
gated by the call centre.
Our retrospective, longitudinal approach, based on company documentation and
oral testimony, affords a rare opportunity to situate change in work organisation and
worker experience in historical perspective. To return to the paper’s point of depar-
ture, such an approach throws into sharp relief the limitations of studies which con-
sciously or unconsciously eschew the importance of context, and rely solely upon static
snap shots. Although aware of the dangers of generalising from one case study, the
evidence from British Gas does call into question Holman’s (2004) assertion that call
centre work is not different from other forms of clerical work in terms of worker ex-
periences. The contrast between the nature and rhythms of work prior to, and fol-
lowing, the advent of the call centre is striking. This is not to idealise what went before,
for as many studies have demonstrated pre-call centre white-collar work could be a
highly routinised and Taylorised experience (Crompton and Jones, 1984; Baldry et al.,
1998), nor is it to portray work at British Gas as a some kind of clerical craft.
However, for decades clerical workers at British Gas did enjoy a degree of discre-
tion in task performance, did exercise some control over working time and pace of
work, and were able to leverage a sense of professionalism and satisfaction through
acting as expert colleagues and providing good customer service. In harsh contrast,
the call centre abruptly brought targets, monitoring, timed toilet breaks, call queues,
repetitiveness, the removal of informal controls over output and time and dirigiste
supervision. Inverting, if not parodying, Walton’s (1985) leitmotif, longer-serving
workers experienced the arrival of the call centre as a transition from commitment to
control, rather than its opposite. Acutely aware of the degradation of their work, they
might have been less conscious that, directly and indirectly, their experiences were
causally linked to new patterns of accumulation characterised by changes in technol-
ogy, firm structure, the organisation of work and political economy. From this per-
spective, the call centre can be seen as an emblematic creation of a neo-liberalist age,
in which labour has been intensified and the rate of exploitation increased. For some,
in this brave new world, the prospect was bleak.
At the end of the day although you had slaved away, working hard, you had felt
that everything you had done, you know, had been worth it. And suddenly it doesn’t
matter, it doesn’t matter. It’s no longer there. Your job is nothing. (Lesley Jones, CSA,
aged 48)
Notes
1. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive, in dubbing the call centre a ‘unique working en-
vironment’ (2001), succinctly captured the essence of its distinctiveness.
2. Although correspondence teams in Debt Control had formal performance measures deriving
from the terms of British Gas’ licence (90 per cent of correspondence to be cleared within five
working days), these did not lead to strict targets.
120 New Technology, Work and Employment © 2006 The Authors
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006
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122 New Technology, Work and Employment © 2006 The Authors
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2006
... Udviklingen af callcentre beskrives af fl ere for skere som en taylorisering af servicearbej det eller som samlebåndsarbejde for kon tor arbejdere/funktionaerer (Bain m.fl . 2002;Ellis & Taylor 2006;Taylor m.fl . 2002;Thomp son & Mchugh 2002). ...
... IT teknologier har ifølge Ellis & Taylor (2006) muliggjort en tayloriseret model for callcentre, som er blevet benyttet inden for mange forskellige brancher, herunder fi nans og telekommunikation. Modellen karakteriseres ifølge forfatterne af: ikke-lokal service, skalaøkonomi, en udbygget arbejdsdeling, hidtil uset måling af output i funktionaerarbejdet, taet monitorering af medarbejderne og radikale aendringer i arbejdstidsstrukturen. ...
Article
Artiklen diskuterer, på hvilken måde callcenter teknologier påvirker kvaliteten af arbejdet. Artiklen fokuserer specielt på, hvordan mulighederne for at relokalisere opkald internt i callcentre, til underleverandører og til/fra udlandet forøger arbejdsgivernes kontrol over arbejdsprocessen. Teknologiernes mulighed for kontrol og overvågning i arbejdet diskuteres i mindre grad. Det konkluderes, at der er sket en taylorisering af arbejdet, men at billedet ikke er entydigt, hvilket dels skyldes behovet for at opretholdet et højt serviceniveau, dels medarbejdernes og fagforeningernes modstand imod simple, ydrestyrede opgaver og overvågning.
... Performance management system (PMS) has become particularly prevalent in semi-routinised FLSW were front-line workers are 'in direct contact with customers (…) and in a subordinate position in the employment relationship' (Bélanger and Edwards, 2013: 436). Critical employment research indicates that PMS in semiroutinised FLSW feature individualised performance targets, systematic collection, analysis and evaluation of work effort, performance-related pay and punitive managerial practices (Callaghan and Thompson, 2001;Ellis and Taylor, 2006;Korczynski and Ott, 2005). A prime example of an industry in which PMS became a dominating feature is the banking sector in the UK. ...
Article
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Utilising an analytical framework informed by a moral economy approach, this article examines the social relationships between bank workers and customers in the context of changing performance management. Informed by 46 in‐depth interviews with branch workers and branch managers from UK banks, this article focusses on the interplay of the pressures arising from an intensified and all‐encompassing performance management system and bank workers lay morality. The article seeks to analyse why one group of bank workers engages with customers in a primarily instrumental manner, while another group tends to mediate and engage in oppositional practices which aim to avoid such an instrumentalisation. The article argues that moral economy gives voice to the agency of workers and the critical concerns of the social, economic and moral consequences of market‐driven and purely profit‐oriented workplace regimes.
... Neo-liberalizm, piyasanın kuralsızlaştırılması, özelleştirme politikaları, kâr maksimizasyonu sağlayacak her şeyin desteklenmesi gibi uygulamalar aslında çağrı merkezlerinin gelişiminde önemli birer yapı taşlarıdır. Bu anlamda hâkim çalışma sistemiyle ilişkilendirilmesi gereken çağrı merkezleri aslında sermaye birikim dinamiğinden ayrıştırılamayan bir süreç olarak karşımıza çıkmaktadır (Ellis ve Taylor, 2006). Bu düşünceden hareketle, çağrı merkezlerinin hangi iş rejiminin ürünü olduğu sorusunun cevabı, Türkiye'nin özellikle 1980 sonrası ekonomi-politik düzenlemelerinde aranmalıdır. ...
Article
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Ekonomi-politik bir perspektifi merkeze alarak yola çıkılan bu çalışmanın amacı, çağrı merkezlerinde hangi kontrol ve rıza dinamiklerinin ortaya çıktığını araştırmaktır. Çalışmanın temel kuramsal çerçevesi genel olarak eleştirel kuram ve eleştirel yönetim yazınına, spesifik olarak da emek süreci kuramına dayanmaktadır. Çalışmada esas alınan eleştirel bakış açısı, doğası gereği farklı tipte baskı ve rıza süreçlerine odaklanmayı gerektirmiştir. Buna uygun olarak alan araştırmasında nitel yaklaşım uygulanmış, dolayısıyla veriler derinlemesine görüşme ve gözlem yoluyla toplanmış ve içerik analizi ile yorumlanmıştır. Çalışmanın bulguları, doğrudan kontrol, teknik kontrol ve bürokratik kontrol unsurlarının yanı sıra, güvencesiz çalışma koşullarının, çağrı merkezlerinde baskı ve rızaya zemin hazırlayan en belirgin dolaylı kontrol unsurları haline geldiğini göstermektedir The aim of this study, putting economic-political perspective in the center, is to reveal which control and consent dynamics appear in the call centers. The theoretical framework of the study is built on critical theory and critical management studies in general, and labor process theory in particular. The critical perspective adopted in the study necessarily required to focus on the oppression and consent processes. Consistently, qualitative approach was conducted in the field research, and thus data were collected through in-depth interview and observation, and interpreted with content analysis. Findings of the study showed that, precarious working conditions as well as direct control, technical control, and bureaucratic control turn out to be the most obvious indirect control methods that pave the way for the oppression and consent in the call centers.
Article
Technological determinism is a recurrent feature in debates concerning changes in economy and work and has resurfaced sharply in the discourse around the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. While a number of authors have, in recent years, critiqued the trend, this article is distinctive in arguing that foundational labour process analysis provides the most effective source of an alternative understanding of the relations between political economy, science, technology and work relations. The article refines and reframes this analysis, through an engagement with critical commentary and research, developing the idea of a political materialist approach that can reveal the various influences on, sources of contestation and levels of strategic choices that are open to economic actors. A distinction is made between ‘first order’ choices, often about adoption at aggregate level and ‘second order’ choices mainly concerned with complex issues of deployment. This framework is then applied to the analysis of case studies of the call centre labour process and digital labour platform, functioning as illustrative scenarios. It is argued that the nature of techno-economic systems in the ‘digital era’ open up greater opportunities for contestation.
Article
Literature in the Performance Management (PM) field champions a shift to more continual forms of worker assessment. Advances in data analytic technologies are claimed to support such developments. However, critical literature finds that PM technologies induce malign consequences for workers and that unions should seek to organise an alternative agenda challenging employers. Based on findings from an action research project in retail and operations banking, the paper considers whether organising enables unions to curb PM technologies’ more malign features.
Book
So far, platform work has been an important laboratory for capital. Management techniques, like the use of algorithms, are being tested with a view to exporting across the global economy and it is argued that automation is undermining workers’ agency. Although the contractual trick of self-employment has allowed platforms to grow quickly and keep their costs down, yet it has also been the case also that workers have also found they can strike without following the existing regulations. This book develops a critique of platforms and platform capitalism from the perspective of workers and contributes to the ongoing debates about the future of work and worker organising. It presents an alternative portrait returning to a focus on workers’ experience, focusing on solidarity, drawing out a global picture of new forms of agency. In particular, the book focuses on three dynamics that are driving struggles in the platform economy: the increasing connections between workers who are no longer isolated; the lack of communication and negotiation from platforms, leading to escalating worker action around shared issues; and the internationalisation of platforms, which has laid the basis for new transnational solidarity. Focusing on transport and courier workers, online workers and freelancers author Jamie Woodcock concludes by considering how workers build power in different situations. Rather than undermining worker agency, platforms have instead provided the technical basis for the emergence of new global struggles against capitalism.
Chapter
This paper describes an investigation into alternative management models applied to public call centres operations with the aim of delivering significant added value to the overall public firm. Call centres offer significant potential for value creation. However, in practice they are often created as mechanistic organisations and managed in such a way is to inhibit value creation. An investigation in a UK city council was carried out through the means of a case study using both qualitative and quantitative methods to collect data from directors, middle-managers and employees to evaluate the development of a lean thinking type of call centre. The results indicate that by implementing the lean thinking approach to the design of call centre service operations significant, but often counter-intuitive, benefits can be created. Lean thinking was found to yield improvements in service performance, value work productivity, and employees’ affective commitment. Evidence on lean value-added to the public call centres is very limited, this paper addresses this shortcoming.
Article
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This paper is available for free from Wiley https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ntwe.12173 The outbreak of COVID‐19 is having a drastic impact on work and employment. This review piece outlines the relevance of existing research into new technology, work and employment in the era of COVID‐19. It is important to be retrospective and undertake both a historically and theoretically informed position on the impact of new technologies in the current crisis and beyond. Issues of control, surveillance and resistance have been central to work on the impact of technology on work and employment and these themes have been identified as central to the experience of work in the current crisis.
Article
The issue of spaces for non‐organised employee resistance has attracted renewed attention due to the diffusion of new digital technologies in the workplace. The ability of new technologies to measure and restrict employee behaviour in new ways requires explanations of resistance that account for both technology’s material characteristics and employee agency, without descending into technological determinism. This article is based on a case of effective resistance to a new data reporting technology introduced in home nursing in Denmark and explores the causes, forms and outcomes of the resistance. In this study, labour process theory is complemented with Edwards and Ramirez’s classification of dimensions of technological change. The study argues that two dimensions are important for effective employee resistance to technology: contestation of the unintended rather than the intended effects of the technology and the non‐immanence of the effects in the technology, which allows the employees to reconstitute it in use.
Chapter
It is commonplace that the years between 1300 and 1650 saw within the intellectual culture of Western Europe important changes in the apprehension of time. The notation of time has been described as task-orientation. It is perhaps the most effective orientation in peasant societies, and it remains important in village and domestic industries. It is well known that among primitive peoples the measurement of time is commonly related to familiar processes in the cycle of work or of domestic chores. Puritanism, in its marriage of convenience with industrial capitalism, was the agent which converted men to new valuations of time; which taught children even in their infancy to improve each shining hour; and which saturated men's minds with the equation, time is money. One recurrent form of revolt within Western industrial capitalism, whether bohemian or beatnik, has often taken the form of flouting the urgency of respectable time-values.
Chapter
Currently, call centres appear to be the bête noire of organizational types. Call centres have been labelled as ‘electronic panopticons’, ‘dark satanic mills of the 21st century’ and ‘human battery farms’ (Fernie and Metcalf, 1998; Garson, 1988; IDS, 1999). These are hardly the most positive of images. One reason for these poor images is the impact that call centre work is perceived to have on the well-being of customer service representatives (CSRs), that is, front-line phone staff. In particular, attention has focused on the possible effects that job design, performance monitoring, human resource (HR) practices and team leader support may have on employee well-being. However, although such links have been proposed, few empirical studies have examined them in any great depth. The main aim of this chapter is to examine the effects of job design, performance monitoring, HR practices and team leader support on four measures of employee well-being, namely anxiety, depression, intrinsic job satisfaction and extrinsic job satisfaction. Furthermore, given that call centre work has been highlighted as particularly stressful, it is also worth considering whether it is any more stressful than other types of work. As such, the other aim of this chapter is to compare well-being in call centre work to that in other comparable types of work.
Chapter
Organisational sociology and labour process debates on contemporary managerial changes to workplace institutions have tended to view teamworking as either work enhancing or work controlling (Babson, 1995; Waddington and Whitston, 1996). In the first instance we can distinguish approaches to teamworking which see it variously as: a new form of employee representation (Pils and Macduffie 1997); a novel way of organising the production and organisation process (Mueller, 1994); and as directly constituting a new form of employee autonomy (Adler, 1997 and 1998). Moreover, there are also concerns raised about the effects of teamwork and the way it presents us with a new logic of participation and control (Babson, 1995; Lewchuk and Robertson, 1996; Stephenson, 1996). However, there is also a school of thought which argues that we may be overstating developments with respect to discontinuities in this area (Frohlich and Pekruhl, 1995).
Chapter
From the outside, the contemporary office certainly looks good: curtain walling of smoked or reflective glass, a marble-floored entrance area, perhaps an atrium with luxuriant plants (some of them real). It is a built environment clearly designed to impress the passer-by or the visiting client with the suggestion of corporate or organisational prestige and modernity. The office worker, however, sees none of this. For her it is the place where, day after day, she endlessly repeats a series of familiar routines as she handles the mortgage application, the personal loan, the insurance premium, the welfare benefit, or the customer complaint. To do this she will use the telephone, the keyboard and the computer display screen, with few breaks during the working day. Her work is rigidly structured around a sequence of tasks dictated by the software, and to tight time and performance schedules in which she is answerable to her team leader or supervisor. The office space in which this work is done, and which she shares with maybe forty or even a hundred other workers, is likely to be open-plan and will deliver what somebody has decided are acceptable or optimum levels of fresh air, working temperature and lighting. If she experiences these environmental conditions as unpleasant, or if they adversely affect her work, there is no respite as, by design, the windows are sealed and unopenable and she is forbidden by management to bring in a fan or portable heater. In this sealed environment she may experience repeated coughs, stuffiness, sore throat and headache to compound the stresses of the job. For this worker, the office can be hell.
Book
On examining the day-to-day operation of worker resistance and managerial counter-pressure one finds that the proletariat, rather than forming a revolutionary class, often appears to be fighting among itself. Worker resistance is unevenly developed among different groups of workers, and managers use these divisions to maintain their authority and to subdue overall resistance. The first part of this book analyses the capitalist mode of production in general, starting from Marx's framework. The usefulness of the analysis for examining concrete situations is demonstrated in industry-area studies which follow. These include 2 19th century studies (silk-ribbon trade in Hillfields and the Coventry region more generally, and hosiery in Leicester) and 2 from the 20th century (the motor cycle and the motor car industries, both focussing on Coventry and, in more detail, on Hillfields. -from Publisher