What Call Centers Can Tell Us About Bleakness and Resistance in the Modern Workplace

Nobody likes being cold called, but spare a thought for the person on the other end of the phone who doesn't want to be there either.

|
Nov 2 2016, 4:00pm

Call center cadres unite against the oppressor! A generic stock image of an office worker using a hands free headset. Image by Lauren Hurley PA Archive/PA Images

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

In the UK, 1 million people work in call centers. That's more than 4 percent of the working population. In some parts of the UK, it's the only big employer in town. Some in the north are, symbolically, built on top of closed coal mines. The call center is an integral part of our lumbering and lurching post-industrial economy. In a country that doesn't even own its famous cultural products, like Marmite, pretty soon this work could be all we have left.

You will receive, on average, 468 cold calls a year. At cold call centers, entry-level workers are paid on average about $16,000 a year, work by commission, and are under immense pressure from supervisors; monthly staff turnover can exceed 50 percent in some places. Somehow, in an age of internet shopping and comparison sites, these phone calls still work, otherwise companies wouldn't bother. No one likes being cold called, but have you ever considered the condition of the workers who make them? Why do we fail to feel sympathy for the caller when we know he or she is just trying to make money and get by like the rest of us?

Jamie Woodcock, an LSE academic, went undercover for a year working in cold call centers around the UK to investigate these questions for his new book Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centers . He told me the internet won't replace the cold call just yet. "Calling exploits and uses people's emotions in a much stronger way than email or instant message," he said. "It takes what's positive about social interaction and warps it into a sales situation." He is careful not to blame the workers, but the system itself.

Woodcock sold "bad financial products, a kind of sub-prime insurance" over the phone, working from a pre-written script. At his call center, workers were expected to make between 300 and 400 calls a day. There is a five-second gap between one call ending and the next beginning, like a telecommunications conveyor belt. This type of work produces something like "an assembly line in the head"—a form of "chain work" rather than "brain work," where you are constantly performing the same cognitive routine for hours on end. Breaks are timed by the second. Once you click "log off" on your workstation, a big counter appears on your screen. When it hits 15 minutes, it turns red, like an alarm. You can be fired on the spot; your contract often stipulates that you agree to not involve a trade union to bargain on your behalf, and there is constant surveillance of your performance.

Woodcock writes of a time he was pressured by his supervisor into making an insurance sale with someone about to go to the hospital for kidney dialysis. "The supervisor started to mouth, 'This person is sick! We offer guaranteed acceptance! This is your next sale!'" The customer said his illness was too serious for new insurance, yet Woodcock, "under pressure from the supervisor, continued to pitch the product, despite the customer becoming upset." The sale wasn't made, but he was "verbally reprimanded for not being persistent enough to close the deal." There are stories like this from all over the industry, such as charity-call-center bosses asking workers to make "ferocious and brutal" calls to pensioners.

Meeting Woodcock, he seems like a sound guy—intelligent and compassionate, not a bastard. But he still managed to become "averagely good" at these sales calls. "It's all the little bits about speaking to somebody, that happen in between the script that make the sale," he says. How is someone like Woodcock, who says cold-call centers demonstrate "how decrepit capitalism has become," able to do this? What happens to you? He says the concepts of "emotional dissonance" and "affective labor" are key.

Affective labor, Woodcock says, "is the way in which you use your emotions at work. It's more than just emotional labor. I think of it as an emotional package—the way you influence other people, interact with them, the social and psychological aspects. This makes it very different to other types of work. You use your social abilities in order to make profit. You are not only disciplining your body but also your mind and your emotions and how you interact with the world. It's exhausting, emotionally draining, and alienating." Affective labor is "historically associated with female qualities and is therefore usually expected of women." It is no surprise that 80 percent of call-center staff are female and many experience sexism and misogyny from a mostly male management strata.

"Emotional dissonance" is the negative feeling you get when your emotions are in contradiction. You can hate your job passionately, yet when you make a call and "smile down the phone" you have to sound upbeat and positive. Most people in any service-sector workplace will have experienced this, but it is the relentless calling at the call center that makes it so intense for staff there. It is a demand not only to be at work but to genuinely enjoy it.

Woodcock stayed at one center for six months before the mental toll was too much. However, of the training cohort he started with, he was the last one to quit.

I ask if there is any hope in changing the culture at a workplace when no one sticks around long enough to demand it. Woodcock found that chatting about making work less terrible actually made work less terrible. "It gave us something to chat about at the breaks. But even though people will leave, and demands such as the right to refuse to pressure someone into buying will never be met, at least the worker has experienced organizing. Hopefully they'll discuss conditions at their next job. The call center may not be the terrain of struggle, but they will take their experiences elsewhere."

Since the deregulation of finance and telecommunications in the 1980s, a cold-call monster has been born. Before we part ways, I ask Woodcock what future call center work might look like.

"There was an inbound university call center for students, but it shut down because no one wanted to call them," he says. "They would tweet them or email. But sales calls, that will continue. You can definitely imagine a future where there is a piece of software on a worker's phone, and you call from home, so you don't have to be in the office. Call centers already call via the internet, so you could easily do that from home. There might well be a horrible cottage industry of a million people working in their living room bothering other people in their living rooms while some supervisor sends some abusive text messages from their house telling you to work harder."

Follow Kit Caless on Twitter.

Working The Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centers is out from Pluto Press on November 20.

More VICE
Vice Channels