An interview with Jamie Woodcock about Working the Phones

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How did call centre emerge and proliferate? Would it be a mistake to see this as solely a matter of technological feasibility?

The growth of call centres in the UK is a result of two factors. The first are the technological possibilities offered by the combination of computers and telephones. The meshing of the two allows for an extraordinary level of electronic surveillance and control, along with the automation of the pace of work through the automatic dialling software. These make the call centres an appealing way for capital to organise communication, particularly in relation to sales. However, before the technology allowed this phone rooms (with workers dialling the calls themselves) were widespread. It is therefore important to see what kind of roles (and therefore labour processes) call centres are replacing, because there is not only one type of call centre.

The second is the set of broader political economic factors that have developed since the 1980s. The privatisation of British Telecom and the deregulation of financial services in the 1980s were important catalysing changes. The use of call centres in these new sectors provided examples of low-cost and highly profitable use of new technology. This was followed by a rush from others under competitive pressure to copy the organisation and techniques of call centres, both within these sectors and more broadly in the economy. The problem here is identifying exactly what is meant by a call centre. The book focuses on high-volume sales call centres, but there are a wide range of other inbound and outbound applications, from local government, advice lines, to booking services. The intense pressure of sales means that these are the first to adopt new technologies and management strategies that then become used more broadly.

How has the spread of call centres changed the internal operations of corporations?

Call centres have allowed a centralisation of particular internal operations of corporations. Rather than having people to contact across various sites, the call centre format allows for communication to be routed through a single site. This provides opportunities for greatly reducing costs and increasing pressure on individual workers. Alongside the broader competitive pressures of reducing backroom costs, call centres have therefore become one way to reduce or outsource parts of a corporation. This is most often represented in the tropes about Indian call centres, although in reality a comparatively small amount of call centre operations have been outsourced to this degree. Large organisations have consolidated their call centres, while many choose to outsource parts or all of this. Charity fundraising provides an interesting example, with a new industry emerging of separate companies that provide fundraising as a service to charities – while not having anything to do with charity themselves. This is mirrored by many insurance sales call centres that simply repackage insurance products from existing companies – they sell them to consumers and then any issues with the policy or potential pay-outs are handled by the insurance company. This is a sign of the sclerotic nature of contemporary capitalism: using call centres to try and further reduce costs or to realise profits from other company’s products and services through cold calling.

Work in a call centre is often presented as akin to work in a factory? Is this analogy accurate?

The factory analogy for the call centre is useful, particularly as across the UK many call centres have been established in areas that used to have heavy industry. This decline in manufacturing has been replaced for many people with low paid work in the service industry, of which call centres have become emblematic. However, there are important differences. Unlike the assembly line with its physical demands, the requirements of a call centre are quite different. It is not the same repetitive movement, but the demand to repeat an ephemeral performance that tries to part customers from their money of the phone. Workers are required to do more than just go through the motions at work. Instead a complex package of affects is required to make sales, bringing with it further pressures and stresses for workers. Call centres are therefore a new kind of work, different to the factory in many respects – but still subject to regimented work, technologies of control and managerial supervision.

How many people work in call centres in the U.K.? How does this compare internationally? How do pay and conditions vary?

There are estimates of over a million people working in call centres in the UK. It is difficult to gain exact figures for total numbers or pay and conditions because they are not a single industry, but often attached to an integrated into others. It is certainly true that conditions vary inside the UK, with some inbound types of work having comparatively better pay or conditions. The global spread of call centres involves similar forms of organisation, use of technology, and management techniques. Unlike manufacturing, the spread of call centres follows lines of imperialism and common language, resulting in geographically specific patterns. This means that call centres take on national characteristics, but like the UK are shaped by low pay, precarious conditions, and features like high turnover.

You’ve talked about this electronic surveillance and control as “computerised taylorism”. How does this differ from older forms of Taylorism? Is it continuing to develop and mutate? For instance the role of gamification in call centres seems sinister and interesting in equal measure.

Call centres are particularly susceptible to the introduction of digital technologies for surveillance as the labour process is organised over telephones integrated with computers. This produces easily quantifiable outputs that can easily be collected, stored, and analysed. There are clear similarities here with Taylor’s desire to eliminate ‘soldiering’ (slow-down from workers) by understanding, measuring, and controlling the labour process. However, unlike the figure of the technician with the white coat and stopwatch, the computerised methods automate much of the process. This strict monitoring of exactly what workers are doing provides a powerful way for managers to deal with the indeterminacy of labour power, the difference between what capital (the purchaser of labour power) expects and the worker selling their labour power is prepared to do.

It is important to remember that technology is only one response to this. The collection of data alone is not enough, it needs to be parsed and acted upon by human agents (at least for now). This addresses the quantitative demands of the labour process (the number of sales), but creates problems for the qualitative demands (the customer experience and so on). In addition to these monitoring methods, other approaches like buzz sessions were used to motivate workers at the start of a shift, various incentives were offered, and the introduction of gamification. The gamification starts early on in the call centre, and is pushed through the targets and incentives. Above the call centre floor hung a large TV that displayed live sales statistics, comparing the performance of every worker in the shift. This approach of gamification is an attempt to take elements of play – or at least game design – to convince workers to motivate themselves. Another form of gamification took place in the call centre from the workers themselves, seeking to make the work fun – or at least less onerous – by playing word games while on calls, for example. The persuasiveness of the former, along with the existence of the latter, makes gamification a far from straightforward phenomenon. We should celebrate the moments of gamification-from-below (those used by workers as a practice of resistance), but further critiques are required of managements attempts to co-opt these impulse to exploit workers, particularly when it starts from neo-Taylorist and technofascist impulses.

Could we imagine the digital technologies of performance monitoring and surveillance seen in call centres spreading to other forms of work? Would it be overstating matters to see the call centre as a testing ground for new ways of exploiting the minds of workers as a productive resource?

It is interesting to see how quickly technological methods of performance monitoring and surveillance have been taken up in call centres across the world. In this context it is attractive and relatively cost effective for management to employ these methods, despite the ramifications it has for worker’s experience of the labour process and the high turnover. Call centres are particularly well suited to this kind of performance monitoring as the labour process has a clear and quantifiable output. The conceptualisation of this mode of surveillance and control as an electronic Panopticon is an important way of understanding this and call centres have proven successful testing grounds for this method. In increasingly broader contexts, new methods of management to control and exploit labour are being experimented with, often including the introduction of metrics. However, unlike call centres, examples of digital labour, teaching (in both schools and universities), care work, and so on are much harder to boil down to comparable metrics. This comes back to the key problematic of management, the indeterminacy of labour power discussed earlier. Increasingly, the demands of new performance management systems are brought in by layers of bureaucracy that are removed from the work and the labour process. This represents an attack on the autonomy of workers as performance is reduced to metrics which remove the complexities and nuances of cognitive, emotional, or affective labour. These kinds of measurements need to be contested and opposed, something which so far has not been successful in call centres.

You find methodological innovation for your study in Marx’s early work, as well as the autonomist tradition. Could you say a little about these influences and how it shaped your approach?

The study draws on a methodological approach of workers’ inquiry, a disparate tradition of researching work. This starts with Marx’s call for a workers’ inquiry, published after – and possibly a corrective to the one-sidedness of – Capital. The ideas of connecting a process of knowledge production to one of workplace organising was taken up by the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the USA, Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, and then later by the Italian Workerists and Autonomists. This approach gives primacy to the experience of workers, situating them as able to both provide an understanding of the work and conditions, but also capable of transforming these. This involves a focus on the labour process and resistance, or examining class composition at different points. The development in the Italian tradition involved conceptualising the inquiry as a kind of co-research, breaking down the distinction between activist researchers and workers. This takes the moment of organising at the factory gates and seeks to develop it into a longer project of organisation. In an ideal situation, this co-research unfolds into an inquiry-from-below, but this requires existing contacts and workers that are self-organising. In other contexts, it is suggested that sociological tools can be adapted in an inquiry-from-above, gaining access and contacts in the workplace with the intention to move into a -from-above approach. Although now the factory gates are no longer so easy to find, I took up these inspirations and combined them with examples from the sociology of work to undertake a study of call centre work.

Was the decision to do an undercover ethnography a difficult one to make? How did this shape your approach to the research? It sounds like your PhD experience was perhaps atypical in some respects.

The decision to go undercover was not a difficult decision at first, because there would be no other way to gain access to the workplace in this way. There is a long and rich tradition of undercover research into work in sociology (and more broadly) that has justified this approach, and contemporary analysis has suffered from this becoming less common. It is important to note that this is more the result of the institutional fear of litigation than a concern for research methodology. I had very supportive supervisors and a department, without whom it would have been very difficult to carry out a project like this. The experience of going undercover did shape the experience in particular ways, however I was very clear that I would not lie to people I met during the research. It may come as a surprise (although perhaps not) that no one in the call centre was particularly interested when I said I was doing a PhD, particularly as many people had other projects they would rather be doing. The only question I was asked was what discipline the PhD was in, and this was more than a month in. As we began to organise in the call centre – something that I was careful not to lead, but engaged in as part of the research intervention – I discussed the project with some of my co-workers. This was met with disbelief at first: why would someone choose to study call centres? I offered to send parts of my writing with other workers, but no one wanted to read about call centres after a shift. Instead, we discussed ideas and arguments that later went into the book, along with the writing up our collective experiences. The approach of workers’ inquiry has always been about more than just producing knowledge of workplaces or the experiences of workers. I positioned the project from the beginning as an intervention, understanding work, practises of resistance, and forms of organisation. The book is a thorough re-write of the PhD, trying to make it accessible outside of academia. I also hope that the PhD and the book shows the importance of this kind of method and can act as a call for more workers’ inquiries, both inside and outside of the university.

Do we know who works in call centres in demographic terms and what does this tell us about contemporary capitalism? It was striking how prominently the employer in your study seemed to accept the extremely high turn over rates for the job.

The focus of my research was call centres in London, which have different demographic characteristics to other call centres across the UK. In particular, the workforce was young and predominantly female. As with many low-paid and casualised jobs in London, many were current students, recent graduates, or had moved to London from either the UK or other countries. The main requirement for working in the call centre was a high level of spoken English, and while this was not necessarily with English as a first language, there were certain accents that were valorised as being particularly suited to sales. The high turnover is a problem across high sales call centres, again like with many low-paid and casualised jobs. What was particularly remarkable in this call centre was that the high turnover was not only accepted, but turned into a motivating incentive. Supervisors would let workers leave early once they had reached their sales targets. This was the most popular incentive, proving far more motivating than shopping vouchers or anything else. This created problems with the management in the call centre when they discovered that only 79% of paid time was actually spent on the phones. This a clear indication of how many people feel about the stressful, low quality, and emotionally draining work, supervisors included. This widespread refusal in the workplace signals the need for a broader discussion, which is starting to begin, about the future of work.

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