Smile Down the Phone: An Attempt at a Workers’ Inquiry in a Call Center

I chose the site for my work­ers’ inquiry the way most peo­ple find casual employ­ment: by respond­ing to a generic inter­net adver­tise­ment. The adverts con­tained few details other than pay and hours, and a num­ber of them led to pre-inter­view screen­ings. The advert for the job that I even­tu­ally got directed appli­cants to ring a voice­mail num­ber that instructed them to leave a mes­sage with their name, num­ber, and why they would be good at the job. I received a call the fol­low­ing day and was invited to come in after the week­end for an inter­view.

It became clearer at the inter­view what kind of call cen­ter I would be work­ing in. The intro­duc­tion explained that the com­pany sold insur­ance to trade union mem­bers. The group inter­view involved a series of ice-break­ing games to learn each other’s names, and a team build­ing exer­cise. At one point the trainer asked the appli­cants: “does any­one know what a trade union is?” This is not a com­mon job inter­view ques­tion. What fol­lowed was an extended awk­ward silence, punc­tu­ated by semi-encour­ag­ing com­ments for peo­ple to have a guess. We then moved onto fairly straight­for­ward indi­vid­ual inter­views, with ques­tions about pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence and skills. There were also ques­tions about how we deal with the fact that “it is a really bor­ing job”; we were warned that we would fre­quently get rejected while mak­ing calls. I got a call by the end of the day to say that I had got the job.

Trade Union Cover, we learned dur­ing our train­ing, has “part­ner­ship” deals with ten dif­fer­ent trade unions.1 It effec­tively acts as the insur­ance bro­ker, arrang­ing var­i­ous poli­cies from dif­fer­ent insur­ance com­pa­nies and then sell­ing them to union mem­bers. This involves han­dling sales, cus­tomer ser­vice, and claims, but not pay­ing out the pol­icy. The basic premise of the busi­ness was to call union mem­bers to mar­ket a free insur­ance offer with a low pay­out, and then attempt to up-sell addi­tional paid options. The trainer pointed out that because the mar­ket­ing mate­rial included the union logo, the “cus­tomer will think it is from the union.” He then awk­wardly added:  “but, um, we never lie about who we are.”

The train­ing process began with a pro­ba­tion­ary period called “The Acad­emy.” This phase was divided into three lev­els, each with sales objec­tives required for pro­mo­tion. The pay was based on three lev­els: a basic pay rate of £7 per hour, then two bonuses rates of £9 and £11 per hour.2 There was an addi­tional com­mis­sion of £3 per sale. It would only be pos­si­ble to get bonus pay rates after “grad­u­at­ing” from “The Acad­emy,” but it was not imme­di­ately clear how to reach the bonus pay lev­els. They were assigned on the basis of a cer­tain level of sales per hour (which could change) and meet­ing qual­ity tar­gets, but only at the dis­cre­tion of the man­agers. After hav­ing seen a poster list­ing those who had made the bonus lev­els (only six and four respec­tively), I asked why so few callers achieved it, given that the trainer had stressed how achiev­able the tar­gets would be. The trainer ner­vously attempted to claim that the poster only listed the new peo­ple to meet the tar­gets. When another trainee pointed out that a pre­vi­ous month’s poster was still up in the office and listed the same names, the trainer became quite eva­sive and sug­gested that maybe it was in fact only the top sell­ers.

viewpoint ill 3(660 x 500) cc pattern3

Undercover Boss

One atten­dee of the train­ing ses­sions was notice­ably out of place. This was appar­ent quite early: he was much older than the other trainees, and wore a smart suit with a big watch and expen­sive shoes. Although he did not say this straight away, he even­tu­ally explained that he was a con­sul­tant employed by Trade Union Cover to assess their strat­egy by going through the train­ing, work­ing on the phones, and speak­ing to employ­ees. The com­pany wanted to “stream­line” the inbound cus­tomer ser­vice side of the call cen­ter, so the con­sul­tant would com­pare both inbound and out­bound calls and find ways to improve. He was meant to be doing the inves­ti­ga­tion under­cover, and although he had con­fessed to our train­ing group – which seemed to be mostly so he could dis­tance him­self from the other young and low-paid work­ers – the cus­tomer ser­vice team was not aware of his role.

The con­sul­tant con­sis­tently took astound­ingly reac­tionary posi­tions through­out the train­ing ses­sion. These ranged from deny­ing cli­mate change, insult­ing stu­dents, and even argu­ing that pris­on­ers should be forced to work.3 While the trainer was out­lin­ing the data entry process required to col­lect details for call­ing, the con­sul­tant inter­rupted: “that’s a lot of work, can’t it just be scanned?” The trainer replied that this would mean they lost their jobs. The con­sul­tant laughed and said: “but all I want to do is save the com­pany money!” At one point a trainee asked if, since Trade Union Cover sold to trade unions, “was there a trade union at the com­pany?” The trainer bizarrely pointed out that “com­pa­nies can­not join a union” and received the imme­di­ate sup­port of the con­sul­tant, who con­tin­ued to rep­ri­mand the trainee: “don’t ask ques­tions like that, you don’t want to lose your job do you?”

To explain the con­cept of insur­ance, the trainer used an imag­i­nary model rem­i­nis­cent of an eco­nom­ics text­book. There are five farm­ers, who each have one cow that costs £100. Each of the farm­ers pays the insurer £25, which allows for the com­pen­sa­tion of one cow per year, with a sur­plus of £25. I pointed out that instead of pay­ing the money to the insurer, each of the farm­ers could take turns col­lect­ing the money, then choos­ing what to do with the sur­plus. The con­sul­tant argued that this would not be pos­si­ble, since the farm­ers needed the insurer’s cap­i­tal to start up the insur­ance scheme. How­ever, the insurer had cal­cu­lated the risk as ¼, and had there­fore charged each of the farm­ers £25. If the farm­ers ran their insur­ance coop­er­a­tively, I argued, they could build up their own reserves, which would oth­er­wise be expro­pri­ated by the insurer as profit. At this point the con­sul­tant got quite annoyed and said: “well, it just wouldn’t be pos­si­ble” and “that’s just how it works.”

The real­ity TV show Under­cover Boss demon­strates how inquiries can be con­ducted from the per­spec­tive of cap­i­tal. The premise: “high fly­ing exec­u­tives take extra­or­di­nary steps to ensure their com­pa­nies are fight­ing fit by going under­cover in their own busi­nesses.”4 The episodes gen­er­ally involve a series of com­mon ele­ments. The under­cover boss, dis­guised in a new hair­cut, is sur­prised at how dif­fi­cult the work is, and shocked at the inef­fi­cien­cies. The work­ers the boss comes into con­tact with suf­fer from adverse con­di­tions, have dif­fi­cult life sto­ries, and can­not com­mu­ni­cate with those at the top of the com­pany. Some have inno­v­a­tive meth­ods for improv­ing pro­duc­tion, which are ignored. The boss returns to the head office to reflect and sum­mons a worker from each of the depart­ments they worked in. The boss’s real iden­tity is revealed, and they dis­cuss the prob­lems in the com­pany and how they will be improved. This involves imple­ment­ing the new sys­tems that work­ers may have devised, offer­ing train­ing, and pro­mot­ing work­ers the boss was impressed with. A series of rewards is then offered to the work­ers who have impressed the boss.

The process of going under­cover in the com­pany gives bosses a new per­spec­tive. They are able to “find out what’s not work­ing, fix it and reward employ­ees who deserve recog­ni­tion.”5 There is no attempt – and of course this is hardly a sur­prise – to under­stand the antag­o­nisms present in the work­place or the con­tra­dic­tions in the process of pro­duc­tion under cap­i­tal­ism.

Under­cover Boss shows that the method of work­ers’ inquiry is not the sole pre­serve of those seek­ing to under­stand exploita­tion and resis­tance on the part of work­ers. There are instances in which man­age­ment will use some­what sim­i­lar tech­niques to gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the pro­duc­tion process. For exam­ple, Tay­lor began lay­ing the basis for his sci­en­tific the­ory of man­age­ment by tak­ing “the step, extra­or­di­nary for any­one of his class, of start­ing a craft appren­tice­ship in a firm whose own­ers were social acquain­tances of his par­ents.”6 Through these inves­ti­ga­tions, and in par­tic­u­lar the vast num­ber of tests at the Mid­vale Steel Com­pany, Tay­lor argued that “man­agers assume… the bur­den of gath­er­ing together all of the tra­di­tional knowl­edge which in the past has been pos­sessed by the work­men and then of clas­si­fy­ing, tab­u­lat­ing, and reduc­ing this knowl­edge to rules, laws, and for­mu­lae.”7 The moti­va­tion for these stud­ies was an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the labor process, the dis­cov­ery of meth­ods for over­com­ing the “uni­ver­sal preva­lence and in fact inevitabil­ity of ‘sol­dier­ing’” on the part of work­ers – which can be defined as the delib­er­ate attempt by work­ers to slow down the speed of work and there­fore not to reach their pro­duc­tive poten­tial.8

The coin­ci­dence of hav­ing two under­cover researchers in the train­ing ses­sions, albeit start­ing from dif­fer­ent posi­tions, raised inter­est­ing method­olog­i­cal con­cerns. The method for this project begins from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive to the Under­cover Boss. It takes inspi­ra­tion from Marx’s Cap­i­tal and his sub­se­quent attempt at a postal inquiry.9 The start­ing point for those inter­ested in con­duct­ing such sur­veys is that they “must wish for an exact and pos­i­tive knowl­edge of the con­di­tions in which the work­ing class – the class to whom the future belongs – works and moves.”10

The exam­ples in the Trot­sky­ist tra­di­tion and the breaks from the Fourth Inter­na­tional over the analy­sis of Stal­in­ist Rus­sia develop this fur­ther: the John­son-Forest Ten­dency in the USA and Social­isme ou Bar­barie in France.11 The John­son-Forest Tendency’s approach, on dis­play in stud­ies like The Amer­i­can Worker, put for­ward a par­tic­u­lar vision for a work­ers’ inquiry.12 Paul Romano describes the expe­ri­ence of work­ing in high speed mass pro­duc­tion in rich, con­tra­dic­tory detail. The sec­ond part, and analy­sis by Ria Stone, begins by argu­ing that it is “only by under­stand­ing the actual con­di­tions and the actual striv­ings of an actual work­ing class at a cer­tain stage of its devel­op­ment, can the prob­lems of human­ity as a whole be under­stood.”13 It is there­fore a method that takes the work­place as the start­ing point and seeks to develop the argu­ments put for­ward by Georg Lukács: “the Marx­ist method, the dialec­ti­cal mate­ri­al­ist knowl­edge of real­ity, can arise only from the point of view of a class, from the point of view of the strug­gle of the pro­le­tariat.”14

Experience of working in the call center

“Smile down the phone, the cus­tomer can hear it!”

The call cen­ter was located in the base­ment of an old fac­tory which had been con­verted into office space. The entrance to the office was a non­de­script door off to the side of the build­ing, which descended down into the lower level. The call cen­ter floor was a loud and busy envi­ron­ment. Although there was the poten­tial for nat­u­ral light, the small win­dows located along the top of walls were cov­ered with blinds, so instead flu­o­res­cent strip light­ing beamed down from the ceil­ing. The call cen­ter is organ­ised into rows of desks with com­put­ers. The out­bound sales teams have one half of the office, and other half has desks for cus­tomer ser­vices, qual­ity con­trol, and space for giv­ing feed­back, with approx­i­mately one hun­dred desks in total. There are meet­ing rooms off the main office and a small kitchen with a break area and lock­ers. The IT and mar­ket­ing teams have a sep­a­rate office.

The main office is dec­o­rated with posters, some of them pro­fess­ing the val­ues of Trade Union Cover. One wall has a dis­play with the logos of all the trade unions the com­pany works with. There are a num­ber of white­boards scat­tered around the office, with caller’s names and sales tar­gets, and two large flat screen tele­vi­sions, one for cus­tomer ser­vice and one for sales. The cus­tomer ser­vice screen cycles between dis­play­ing what each per­son is cur­rently doing and the num­ber and type of inbound calls suc­cess­fully answered. The sales screen dis­plays the total num­ber of sales and then sales by team on one side, while the other side promi­nently dis­plays the top seller fol­lowed by each caller ranked by the num­ber of sales.

The start of each shift at the call cen­ter begins in the break room. The super­vi­sors lead a “buzz ses­sion,” which is essen­tially an oppor­tu­nity for the com­pany to remind callers of the dif­fer­ent rules, stress the impor­tance of qual­ity, and then attempt to encour­age some kind of enthu­si­asm for the upcom­ing shift. The con­tent of these ses­sions varies, but most involve play­ing some sort of game. These range from com­pe­ti­tions test­ing pro­duct knowl­edge (per­haps not the most excit­ing) to word games – for exam­ple, each per­son in turn shout­ing out the name of a coun­try, fol­low­ing alpha­bet­i­cal order with no rep­e­ti­tion until only the win­ner remains. Although being made to play children’s games was some­what demean­ing, it did offer the ben­e­fit of stretch­ing out the time before we had to be on the call cen­ter floor. Some callers tried to extend these ses­sions by ask­ing lots of ques­tions and pre­tend­ing they needed more help.

The phone calls are struc­tured by the com­puter script. The trainer had argued that “it is not just what you say,” but that callers must think about their “pace, tone, con­ver­sa­tion style, lis­ten­ing skills.” This is par­tic­u­larly impor­tant when using a stan­dard­ized script, as as the train­ers insist that your own per­son­al­ity should come across dur­ing the call. Appar­ently the Man­ag­ing Director’s favorite catch­phrase was that “peo­ple buy peo­ple”; he believed that the best sell­ers used sim­i­lar tech­niques over and over again. If new callers had trou­ble with this, the trainer had some illu­mi­nat­ing advice: “just use a bright and enthu­si­as­tic tone… and if you can’t, three words: Put. It. On!”

The script is com­posed of five dif­fer­ent hyper­linked sec­tions, some with mul­ti­ple pages.  The trainer pointed out: “we need peo­ple to make the sales; oth­er­wise we would just use an auto­mated sys­tem.” Callers are encour­aged to build rap­port with the cus­tomer, to learn addi­tional details which can then be used as a basis for impro­vi­sa­tion later on in the script. This impro­vi­sa­tion was pri­mar­ily expected dur­ing the descrip­tion of the fea­tures of the insur­ance, a process called “fea­tures-to-ben­e­fits.” For exam­ple, one of the five main ben­e­fits is that the cus­tomer is enti­tled to a rebate at the age of sev­enty if they have not claimed. The caller is expected to go fur­ther than sim­ply read­ing out the com­puter gen­er­ated fig­ure. This involves using hypo­thet­i­cal con­nect­ing phrases like: “which means that you could…” The caller impro­vises a ben­e­fit for the fea­ture, hope­fully using some of the addi­tional infor­ma­tion gath­ered in the ear­lier rap­port-build­ing. The trainer described this as “paint­ing a pic­ture,” which is appar­ently the way to make sales.

Jokes were also a fun­da­men­tal part of elab­o­ra­tion on the script. At two points on the script, callers are encour­aged to try jok­ing with the cus­tomer. The first is on the con­fir­ma­tion of details. There are two eli­gi­bil­ity ques­tions to con­firm: “that you spend 7 out of 12 months a year in the UK?” and “that this is where you pay your taxes?” These ques­tions allow two jokes: “no long hol­i­days planned this year then?” and “no escap­ing that is there?” The sec­ond is later in the script, with the exclu­sion “that you won’t be cov­ered for death as a result of … par­tic­i­pa­tion in any ille­gal acts,” to which almost every caller adds: “so if you were plan­ning to rob a bank we wouldn’t be able to pay out! [Fake laugh­ter.]” While this is pre­sum­ably a new joke for the cus­tomer, callers will enjoy it over and over again through­out the day.

The first full shift I worked ended with no sales. I man­aged to pitch the pro­duct in full three times, and reached the Direct Debit pay­ment page of the script. The first time the cus­tomer objected, “isn’t this just the free offer? Why do I need to pay any­thing?” The sec­ond got very defen­sive when asked for the bank details: “why would I give you those when I haven’t seen any­thing in writ­ing!” The third said they did not have their bank details with them. I asked whether it was on their card (“no, I’ve lost my card”), their check­book (“don’t have one”), online bank­ing (“don’t use it”). At no point did they say they were not inter­ested in the insur­ance. These would become com­mon objec­tions that had to be han­dled over and over again.

Dur­ing breaks, trainees often dis­cussed the prob­lems of clos­ing. Time off the phone became an oppor­tu­nity to vent about dif­fi­cult the phone calls are, and to swap advice about how to fin­ish a sale. In one dis­cus­sion we all agreed that none of us would ever give out our details or agree to buy insur­ance over the phone.

Super­vi­sors began coach­ing dur­ing the first shift. Every sin­gle call, whether a suc­cess­ful sale or not, was dig­i­tally recorded and stored for play­back. Each sales call and a ran­dom selec­tion of non-sales calls would be lis­tened to and graded by the qual­ity con­trol team. They would be graded as either green (pass­ing qual­ity stan­dards), green D/N (passed but devel­op­ment needed), or red (fail­ing to meet stan­dards and there­fore no com­mis­sion). The super­vi­sors would reg­u­larly lis­ten into calls, and ana­lyze how callers could be more suc­cess­ful in future. Dur­ing weekly one-to-one meet­ings with callers, super­vi­sors would grade their per­for­mance and provide instruc­tions on how they could improve. While the super­vi­sors stressed that these were for train­ing pur­poses, they pro­duced print­outs of the com­puter data which could also play a dis­ci­pli­nary role. Each week I was given a grad­ing and a series of instruc­tions about how to improve. These were always quite vague but in gen­eral involved remarks about being more “assertive,” “give 110% to every call,” or even par­rot­ing Alec Baldwin’s rant in Glen­garry Glen Ross: “remem­ber your ABCs – Always Be Clos­ing!” The one-to-one advice was always sup­ple­mented with the advice: “remem­ber every ‘no’ is one step closer to a ‘yes!’”

There is a con­stant pres­sure to make sales on the call cen­ter floor, which feels like a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of Robert Linhart’s var­i­ous unsuc­cess­ful attempts on the assem­bly line.15 The tele­vi­sion screen on the wall is con­stant reminder of how an indi­vid­ual caller com­pares to oth­ers. It was nerve-wrack­ing as I strug­gled to get sales while watch­ing the more estab­lished, Stakhanovite callers. How­ever, after a month or so I began to reg­u­larly make sales, not quite enough to “grad­u­ate,” but enough to keep work­ing at Trade Union Cover.

The inquiry was under­taken over a period of five months, and the results dis­cussed here rep­re­sent only a por­tion of an ongo­ing project. How­ever, draw­ing on the a method­olog­i­cal approach of work­ers’ inquiry, a few fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tics of the labor process can be iden­ti­fied and stud­ied.

Computerized Taylorism and the Labor Process

Con­trol is ever present in the call cen­ter. From the con­stant pres­ence of super­vi­sors, the record­ing of phone calls, to the auto­mated elec­tronic logs, meth­ods of con­trol and sur­veil­lance are com­mon dur­ing work. The effect of this con­trol on the labor process can be under­stood through an exam­i­na­tion of the Tay­lorist man­age­ment prin­ci­ples. This includes the com­put­er­ized super­vi­sion, which is per­haps anal­o­gous to the tech­ni­cian in a white coat with a stop­watch, but also in the sense of Harry Braverman’s argu­ment that behind the tech­ni­cian “lies a the­ory which is noth­ing less than the explicit ver­bal­iza­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion.”16 The the­ory involves three prin­ci­ples: the first is “the gath­er­ing and devel­op­ment of knowl­edge of the labor process,” the sec­ond is “the con­cen­tra­tion of this knowl­edge as the exclu­sive province of man­age­ment,” and the third is the “use of this monopoly over knowl­edge to con­trol each step of the labor process and its mode of exe­cu­tion.”17

The third prin­ci­ple stems from the orga­ni­za­tion of tasks by man­age­ment. For Tay­lor “this task spec­i­fies not only what is to be done, but how it is to be done and the exact time allowed for doing it.”18 The process of read­ing from a script and then ask­ing for pre-set amounts dur­ing the phone call is a clear exam­ple of the sep­a­ra­tion of con­cep­tion from exe­cu­tion. The neces­sity of closely fol­low­ing the script was reit­er­ated con­tin­u­ously through­out the train­ing and first shifts. One of the super­vi­sors sug­gested that if you stick to the script, “all the work is done for you!” The con­cep­tion, in terms of the prepa­ra­tion of the script, is entirely removed from their exe­cu­tion on the call cen­ter floor. Very lit­tle was said about how the scripts were devel­oped, other than that Trade Union Cover spends a lot of time writ­ing them. Braver­man antic­i­pates this process when he that argues that men­tal labor, after being sep­a­rated from man­ual labor, “is then itself sub­di­vided rig­or­ously accord­ing to the same rule.” The pur­pose of this divi­sion is “to cheapen the worker by decreas­ing his train­ing and enlarg­ing his out­put.”19

The use of a com­puter sys­tem linked to the phones allows for a sig­nif­i­cant degree of con­trol. Callers have to sign onto the com­puter sys­tem in order to make phone calls. The com­puter sys­tem logs the exact time that the worker starts their shift. There is an unpaid hour break between the two half-shifts, and two fif­teen-min­ute breaks half way through each half-shift. The com­puter sys­tem logs the start and end time of the break; if the break exceeds the limit, the sys­tem noti­fies a man­ager. Dur­ing phone calls, the com­puter sur­veil­lance sys­tem will dis­play three states: “Previewing/Dialing” for the time when the auto­matic dialling sys­tem is ring­ing through the list of num­bers; “Connected,”when the caller is talk­ing to some­one on the phone; and “Wrap­ping,” which pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity to record the out­come of the phone call and take any rel­e­vant notes. This is described as “non-pro­duc­tive” time, only to be used when needed, never exceed­ing five sec­onds.

The labor process in the call cen­ter can there­fore be under­stood as a kind of com­put­er­ized devel­op­ment of Tay­lorist man­age­ment prin­ci­ples. Philip Tay­lor20 and Peter Bain argue that the “dri­ving force” behind the growth of call cen­ters – whether as the “ratio­nal­i­sa­tion of back office func­tions or as entirely new cre­ations” – results from the “pur­suit of com­pet­i­tive advan­tage.”21 The call cen­ter there­fore comes under the pres­sure to min­i­mize costs and max­i­mize prof­its, which means that those run­ning the call cen­ters are “under con­stant com­pet­i­tive pres­sure to extract more value from their employ­ees,” which “from the point of view of cap­i­tal” is a “far from straight­for­ward project.”22 The dif­fi­culty stems from the con­tra­dic­tion between the quan­ti­ta­tive and qual­i­ta­tive objec­tives of the labor process, which became appar­ent dur­ing train­ing: the con­stant focus on the qual­ity of the phone calls as the most impor­tant aspect of the job sat uneasily alongside the strict quan­ti­ta­tive tar­gets for the num­ber of phone calls per shift. Tay­lor and Bain argue that “even in the most qual­ity dri­ven call cen­ter” – and the call cen­ter I worked in claimed to put a great impor­tance on qual­ity, given its reg­u­la­tion by the Finan­cial Ser­vices Author­ity  – “it is dif­fi­cult to escape the con­clu­sion that the labor process is intrin­si­cally demand­ing, repet­i­tive and, fre­quently, stress­ful.”23

This ten­sion between quan­tity and qual­ity in the call cen­ter struc­tures the rela­tion­ship between worker and man­ager. The inte­gra­tion of the tele­phone and com­puter sys­tems in the call cen­ter pro­vides the oppor­tu­nity for “extreme lev­els of sur­veil­lance, mon­i­tor­ing and speed-up,” which nev­er­the­less cre­ates another con­tra­dic­tion in the work­place.24The “inten­sive sur­veil­lance can be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive,” as it is “costly in terms of work­force moti­va­tion and com­mit­ment.” How­ever, “aban­don­ment” of sur­veil­lance is not pos­si­ble, as these meth­ods are “inte­gral to the oper­a­tion of the call cen­ter.”25 These two related con­tra­dic­tions have a strong effect on the expe­ri­ence of call cen­ter work­ers:

It may be dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble, for the oper­a­tor to speed up, yet s(he) is con­scious that the cur­rent call must be ter­mi­nated promptly, in order to take the next one. We describe this as a sit­u­a­tion in which the oper­a­tor has “an assem­bly-line in the head,” always feel­ing under pres­sure and con­stantly aware that the com­ple­tion of one task is imme­di­ately fol­lowed by another.26

Stress, often the result of this pres­sure to ensure that quan­ti­ta­tive objec­tives are reached, reduces the abil­ity of work­ers to achieve the qual­i­ta­tive objec­tives, which include what Tay­lor and Bain describe as the demand to “smile down the phone.”27 In a famous account of flight atten­dants, who are expected to main­tain a per­pet­ual smile, Arlie Hochschild defines emo­tional labor as “requir­ing one to induce or sup­press feel­ing in order to sus­tain the out­ward coun­te­nance that pro­duces the proper state of mind in oth­ers.”28 The method by which this can be achieved over the phone rather than in per­son is dif­fer­ent. Tay­lor and Bain argue that the “appro­pri­ate tele­phone man­ners and behav­iours” alongside the pre­vi­ously men­tioned need to “smile down the phone” can be included within Hochschild’s def­i­n­i­tion of “out­ward coun­te­nance.”29

The demand for call cen­ter work­ers to engage in emo­tional labor means that they are sub­jected to an addi­tional set of pres­sures. Kerry Lewig and Mau­reen Dol­lard char­ac­ter­ize the dif­fer­ence between the actual feel­ings of the call cen­ter worker and the emo­tional labor that they have to carry out as a kind of “emo­tional dis­so­nance.” Mod­eled on cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, in which two con­tra­dic­tory ideas are held simul­ta­ne­ously, this con­cept refers to emo­tions and explains the feel­ings of guilt and stress callers expe­ri­ence as they try to con­vince cus­tomers to buy insur­ance while main­tain­ing a pos­i­tive, enthu­si­as­tic demeanor on the phone. Lewig and Dol­lard warn, in a paper about call cen­ters in Aus­tralia, that “emo­tional dis­so­nance may ulti­mately lead to low­ered self-esteem, depres­sion, cyn­i­cism, and alien­ation from work.”30

This alien­ation has a con­crete expres­sion in the high staff turnover in call cen­ters. One response to this has been the “grow­ing pref­er­ence for part-time per­ma­nent staff” as they are “seen as able to deliver opti­mal per­for­mance for the entire dura­tion of a shift.” All of the posi­tions open at the call cen­ter were part-time, with min­i­mum weekly require­ments and options to work longer if wanted. This flex­i­bil­ity cor­re­lates with “the desir­abil­ity of shift pat­terns which cor­re­spond to the peaks of cus­tomer demand,” rather than sched­ul­ing needs of the worker.31 There were a num­ber of non-finan­cial incen­tives used in addi­tion to the bonus struc­ture at the call cen­ter to encour­age work­ers. The main incen­tive was leav­ing early from a shift if a caller reached their tar­gets; an insight­ful strat­egy, since the best reward was to no longer be in the call cen­ter. It was fairly com­mon to hit tar­gets and leave early, espe­cially in the final half hour of the shift, when super­vi­sors would shout out “get a sale and go!”

The manip­u­la­tion of the work sched­ule returns to the key prob­lem of the cap­i­tal­ist enter­prise, which bosses have grap­pled with since the incep­tion of cap­i­tal­ism itself:  how to extract the max­i­mum amount of sur­plus value from work­ers dur­ing their time on the job. In this regard, the the­o­ries of Tay­lorism are “an answer to the speci­fic prob­lem of how best to con­trol alien­ated labor – that is to say, labor power that is bought and sold.”32 The mea­sure­ment of the length of the work­ing day is a basic attempt to ensure that work­ers ful­fill the sale of their labor power to the cap­i­tal­ist. By allow­ing work­ers to leave early once they had met their sales tar­gets, man­age­ment pro­vided an incen­tive to inten­sify time work­ers remained on the job. How­ever, dur­ing my time at the call cen­ter the higher lev­els of man­age­ment cal­cu­lated that only 79% of paid time was spent on the phone, and intro­duced a rule that no worker could leave ear­lier than that final half hour.

Sim­i­lar incen­tives were prizes awarded for mak­ing sales, usu­ally vouch­ers for High Street shops. Every Fri­day Trade Union Cover paid for lots of junk food to be deliv­ered to the office which every­one could eat in the final break. Once every two months the com­pany paid for a free night out with a large bar tab. All of these incen­tives aimed to keep callers work­ing at the com­pany and try to reduce the large turnover.

In these ways man­age­ment attempted to rec­on­cile the con­tra­dic­tion between qual­ity and quan­tity, through both incen­tives and the appli­ca­tion of processes of con­trol. How­ever, I also observed exam­ples of reduc­ing explicit con­trol in the call cen­ter in order to encour­age higher qual­ity. There was an insis­tence on elab­o­rat­ing on the script at cer­tain points to make it sound more nat­u­ral, but this always hap­pened within cer­tain defined lim­its. The same is true of the process for deal­ing with objec­tions called “clar­ify and reas­sure” (C&R), a par­tic­u­lar form of emo­tional labor. Thought this is not scripted on the com­puter, two paper sheets were pro­vided – “basic” and “advanced” – which explained how to deal with objec­tions. This was only to be done in accor­dance with strict rules: a max­i­mum of three attempts, the first attempt­ing to han­dle the objec­tion, the sec­ond offer­ing a quote but then try­ing to C&R again, the third (if unsuc­cess­ful) end­ing by send­ing a quote.

Some reports on these forms of labor con­trol have gone as far as to label call cen­ters the new “dark satanic mills,” or a mod­ern ver­sion of Jeremy Bentham’s “Panop­ti­con” model for prison sur­veil­lance.33  Accord­ing to this “Fou­cauldian” con­cep­tion, an “elec­tronic Panop­ti­con” char­ac­ter­izes the “nature and expe­ri­ence of call cen­ter work.”34 Sue Fer­nie and David Met­calf argue that the “pos­si­bil­i­ties for mon­i­tor­ing behav­iour and mea­sur­ing out­put are amaz­ing to behold – the ‘tyranny of the assem­bly line’ is but a Sun­day school pic­nic com­pared with the con­trol that man­age­ment can exer­cise in com­puter tele­phony.”

This con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the call cen­ter as an “elec­tronic Panop­ti­con” draws heav­ily upon the work of Fou­cault, but neglects to note that “the fac­tory and the office are nei­ther prison nor asy­lum, their social archi­tec­tures never those of the total insti­tu­tion.”35 Tay­lor and Bain argue that the dif­fer­ence is due to the “dynamic process of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion” that takes place in the work­place; the Fou­cauldian approach “under­states both the vol­un­tary dimen­sion of labor and the man­age­rial need to elicit com­mit­ment from work­ers.” This leads to a prob­lem­atic analy­sis, one which can “dis­avow the pos­si­bil­i­ties for col­lec­tive organ­i­sa­tion and resis­tance.”36

The preva­lence of tech­no­log­i­cal meth­ods of con­trol in the call cen­ter does not solve all of management’s prob­lems. The meth­ods of col­lect­ing sta­tis­tics and record­ings of phone calls still require human input to inter­pret and act upon. This is evi­dent in the num­ber of super­vi­sors employed in the call cen­ter. Man­age­ment requires this human com­po­nent, since “no elec­tronic sys­tem can sum­mon an agent to a coach­ing ses­sion, nor high­light the defi­cien­cies of their dia­logue with the cus­tomer.” It is there­fore pos­si­ble to say that call cen­ters “rely on a com­bi­na­tion of tech­no­log­i­cally dri­ven mea­sure­ments and human super­vi­sors.”37 The use of scripts for tele­phone calls is “an attempt to struc­ture the very speech of work­ers into a series of pre­dictable, reg­u­lated and rou­tinised queries and responses.” Scripts are a log­i­cal exten­sion of Tay­lorism, as “they rep­re­sent a qual­i­ta­tive trans­for­ma­tion in the degree to which man­age­ment attempts to exert con­trol over the white-col­lar labor process.” It is this which Tay­lor and Bain argue “rep­re­sents an unprece­dented level of attempted con­trol which must be con­sid­ered a novel depar­ture.”38


An impor­tant aim of this inquiry was to uncover the pos­si­bil­i­ties for resis­tance and orga­ni­za­tion in the call cen­ter. The nature of the Trade Union Cover call cen­ter and its par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship with trade unions had an ambigu­ous effect on the work­ers employed there. It became eas­ier to dis­cuss unions with the other work­ers, but the detach­ment of the call cen­ter envi­ron­ment meant that there was lit­tle actual engage­ment with labor orga­niz­ing.

The pos­si­bil­i­ties of union­iza­tion in the call cen­ter have to be put in the con­text of very low union­iza­tion in the UK pri­vate sec­tor, and the impact of neolib­er­al­ism. Through­out my time at the call cen­ter, only one other worker I spoke to had ever been a mem­ber of a union. I spoke reg­u­larly to him about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of orga­niz­ing in the call cen­ter as we both trav­elled back to the same part of Lon­don on the under­ground. Our dis­cus­sions focused on the like­li­hood of get­ting sacked, what kinds of demands we would have, and the dif­fi­cul­ties of get­ting other peo­ple on board.

It was hard to talk about trade union­ism with other call cen­ter work­ers, but this did not mean that pol­i­tics was absent from the work­place. For exam­ple, after the events in Wool­wich, anti-racism and anti-fas­cism became com­mon point talk­ing points dur­ing the breaks.39 Some of my co-work­ers were inter­ested in oppos­ing the Eng­lish Defence League, and although no one had been on a demon­stra­tion before, there was a good dis­cus­sion about going to one together in the future. These polit­i­cal inter­ven­tions began to open up a space to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­i­ties for resis­tance, and also helped me iden­tify peo­ple to speak to fur­ther.

One of the trainees who started at the same time as me passed me a hand-drawn car­toon of the con­sul­tant, with a speech bub­ble say­ing “you’ll lose your job son!” This was the begin­ning of more seri­ous dis­cus­sions about how we could orga­nize in the work­place. He said he did not care whether he lost his job, and sug­gested that we could meet some other peo­ple in a pub after work.

The dis­cus­sion in the pub started with one per­son argu­ing that the job wasn’t really that bad: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” and “I’m wor­ried about ruin­ing the atmos­phere in the office.” The car­toon­ist said he had “always been in the union, you don’t want to wait until it is too late.” He elab­o­rated that “the worst thing about work is when super­vi­sors are rude to you. When I was at [a dif­fer­ent com­pany] they wouldn’t do it because of the union. To me, join­ing a union is about respect.” We dis­cussed who else we could get together for another chat after work.

The next time we met was after a Sat­ur­day shift. We opted for a pub lunch nearby. The dis­cus­sion began by explain­ing what being in a trade union would involve; some peo­ple were put off by the clan­des­tine nature required. One per­son said that the union would be “like Dumbledore’s army.”40 Another per­son had been involved in the staff forum – a kind of man­age­ment-run scheme to dis­cuss prob­lems at work – and had been argu­ing for the Lon­don Liv­ing Wage.41 He agreed that orga­niz­ing col­lec­tively might be a good idea, but wanted to try the staff forum first.

My attempt to build some kind of orga­ni­za­tion began by join­ing a trade union.42 I emailed over my appli­ca­tion and did not receive a reply for a few weeks. Even­tu­ally I got an email con­firm­ing my mem­ber­ship, with the tele­phone num­ber for a branch orga­nizer. After miss­ing each other a few times, due to the nature of shift work, I finally made con­tact with the orga­nizer. She informed me that I had been added to a con­glom­er­ated geo­graph­i­cal branch that cov­ered a wide area and num­ber of dif­fer­ent employ­ment types. Unfor­tu­nately I had missed the last branch meet­ing a few days ago, which had been can­celled any­way for low atten­dance. I was shocked to find out that the next meet­ing would not take place for three months. After a brief dis­cus­sion the orga­nizer offered to pay for a room in a pub near the work­place to host a meet­ing. She also offered to mail mem­ber­ship forms; three arrived in a hand­writ­ten envelope a few days later.

The union that I joined also worked with Trade Union Cover to provide insur­ance to its mem­bers. This close rela­tion­ship between the call cen­ter and the union opened the pos­si­bil­ity for what the trade union Unite has recently begun to label “lever­age.”43 It is defined on their web­site as “a process whereby the Union com­mits resources and time to mak­ing all inter­ested par­ties aware of the treat­ment received by Unite mem­bers at the hands of an employer.” This can involve the use of addi­tional forms of protest alongside the threat of indus­trial action, or in its place where such action is dif­fi­cult to mobi­lize. Unite explic­itly states that “lever­age does not offer a solu­tion that excludes the crit­i­cal need to organ­ise work­ers.”44

At this par­tic­u­lar call cen­ter it was pos­si­ble to imag­ine a “lever­age” cam­paign devel­op­ing. The con­tract I signed spec­i­fied that my “terms and con­di­tions of employ­ment are not sub­ject to the pro­vi­sions of any col­lec­tive agree­ment.” In most work­places this would not provide a use­ful basis for a cam­paign involv­ing cus­tomers, but given that the call cen­ter worked with unions, cus­tomers could be used to force open a space to orga­nize. Expos­ing – or even just threat­en­ing to expose – the anti-union atti­tude of Trade Union Cover to the trade unions that it relies on for cus­tomers could be a poten­tially pow­er­ful bar­gain­ing tool.

The attempt to orga­nize the call cen­ter remains at a nascent stage. Devel­op­ing a suc­cess­ful orga­ni­za­tion will have to uti­lize all the options avail­able, while still bas­ing itself on a robust analy­sis of the lim­its and pos­si­bil­i­ties for labor orga­niz­ing today.

The End of the Line

The final part of my work­ers’ inquiry was par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult. I had begun to aver­age a rea­son­able num­ber of sales per shift, and was on the cusp of “grad­u­at­ing.” How­ever, on Fri­day night, all my shifts for the fol­low­ing week were changed: instead of three day shifts I received five nights and a Sat­ur­day shift. The next Fri­day, all of my shifts were again changed to the same pat­tern. Work­ing every evening at the call cen­ter, while read­ing and writ­ing about call cen­ters dur­ing the day, began to take its toll. I went through a num­ber of shifts with no sales what­so­ever. Mean­while, the gen­eral atmos­phere in the call cen­ter also began to dete­ri­o­rate. The num­ber of “red” calls increased to the point that the super­vi­sors lost their monthly bonuses. One of the other call cen­ter work­ers men­tioned after a shift that she was gen­uinely con­sid­er­ing ask­ing some­one to “punch her in the face halfway through the shift” so she could “leave early.” A num­ber of callers – includ­ing the one remain­ing caller who had trained with me – were placed on pro­ba­tion for fail­ing to meet sales tar­gets. At the end of the pro­ba­tion period I had fal­len far short of the tar­gets I had been set. After an HR meet­ing – which included the super­vi­sor attempt­ing the C&R process dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion – I was no longer employed by Trade Union Cover.

This exit from the call cen­ter – slightly ear­lier than orig­i­nally planned – still meant that I was one of the longest last­ing work­ers in my train­ing cohort. I am still in con­tact with a num­ber of work­ers at the call cen­ter, and the project for devel­op­ing orga­ni­za­tion is ongo­ing.

Just as the “under­cover boss” started from the per­spec­tive of cap­i­tal and sought to inten­sify the labor process, inquiry from the work­ing-class per­spec­tive allowed for an engaged analy­sis of class strug­gle in the work­place. The ques­tions of con­trol and super­vi­sion have been impor­tant points of dis­agree­ment in the soci­o­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture on call cen­ters. Con­crete expe­ri­ence of these in prac­tice shows that elec­tronic super­vi­sion is far from total, and still requires human inter­ac­tion – there­fore still leav­ing space for poten­tial resis­tance. How­ever, the pres­sure of emo­tional labor, expe­ri­enced as “emo­tional dis­so­nance,” expresses itself in the high turnover of staff in the call cen­ter. This intro­duces con­sid­er­able dif­fi­cul­ties for the pos­si­bil­i­ties of orga­ni­za­tion, espe­cially in the con­text of low union mem­ber­ship.

This ini­tial attempt at a work­ers’ inquiry is intended as part of a larger project to under­stand the chang­ing nature of class today. The decline of tra­di­tional work­ing-class employ­ment oper­ates alongside the growth of new forms of ser­vice work. In the UK, trade union mem­ber­ship is at his­tor­i­cally low lev­els and is con­cen­trated mainly in pub­lic ser­vices, with very lit­tle orga­ni­za­tion in the pri­vate sec­tor. Work­ers’ inquiry, as a process of both knowl­edge con­struc­tion and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, has the poten­tial to play an impor­tant role at this moment. It takes as its start­ing point that the rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal and labor is fun­da­men­tally antag­o­nis­tic: new forms of resis­tance and orga­ni­za­tion will emerge in new con­texts, but these can only be dis­cov­ered through an active engage­ment with the chang­ing world.

  1. Trade Union Cover is a pseu­do­nym for the call cen­ter com­pany.  

  2. The cur­rent min­i­mum wage in the UK is £6.19 per hour for work­ers aged 21 and over and £4.98 for those aged 18-20. See: 

  3. This was in ref­er­ence to “Pris­on­fare” – the attempt to make pris­on­ers work in call cen­ters. See “Right to Work South Wales Protest Tomor­row against ‘Pris­on­fare’.” 

  4. Stu­dio Lam­bert, Under­cover Boss, Chan­nel 4 UK, 2010. 

  5. Stu­dio Lam­bert, Under­cover Boss

  6. Harry Braver­man, Labor and Monopoly Cap­i­tal, (Lon­don: Monthly Review Press, 1999), 63. 

  7. Fred­er­ick Winslow Tay­lor, The Prin­ci­ples of Sci­en­tific Man­age­ment, (New York: Nor­ton, 1967), 36. 

  8. Braver­man, Labor and Monopoly Cap­i­tal, 70. 

  9. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal: A Cri­tique of Polit­i­cal Econ­omy, Vol­ume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, (Lon­don: Pen­guin Books, 1976); Karl Marx, “A Work­ers’ Inquiry,” New Inter­na­tional 12, no. 4 (1938): 379–381. 

  10. Marx, “Work­ers’ Inquiry,” 379. 

  11. Marcel van der Lin­den, “Social­isme ou Bar­barie: A French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Group (1949-65),” Left His­tory 5, no. 1 (1997): 11. 

  12. Paul Romano and Ria Stone [Grace Lee], The Amer­i­can Worker (Detroit: Fac­ing Real­ity Pub­lish­ing, 1947). 

  13. Ria Stone [Grace Lee], “Part 2: The Recon­struc­tion of Soci­ety” in The Amer­i­can Worker, 2. 

  14. Georg Lukács, His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, trans. Rod­ney Liv­ing­stone, (Lon­don: The Mer­lin Press, 1971), 21. 

  15. Robert Lin­hart, The Assem­bly Line, trans. Mar­garet Crosland (Amherst: Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Press, 1981). 

  16. Braver­man, Labor and Monopoly Cap­i­tal, 60. 

  17. Braver­man, Labor and Monopoly Cap­i­tal, 82. 

  18. Tay­lor, Prin­ci­ples of Sci­en­tific Man­age­ment, 39. 

  19. Braver­man, Labor and Monopoly Cap­i­tal, 79,81. 

  20. Philip Tay­lor, not to be con­fused with Fred­er­ick Tay­lor from whose name Tay­lorism is derived, is a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Strath­clyde. 

  21. Philip Tay­lor and Peter Bain, “‘An Assem­bly Line in the Head’: Work and Employee Rela­tions in the Call cen­ter,” Indus­trial Rela­tions Jour­nal 30, no. 2 (1999): 102. 

  22. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 115. 

  23. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 110. 

  24. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 108. 

  25. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 116. 

  26. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 109. 

  27. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 103. 

  28. Arlie Hochschild, The Man­aged Heart: Com­mer­cial­iza­tion of Human Feel­ing (Berke­ley: Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1985), 7. 

  29. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 103. 

  30. K.A. Lewig and M.F. Dol­lard, “Emo­tional Dis­so­nance, Emo­tional Exhaus­tion and Job Sat­is­fac­tion in Call cen­ter Work­ers,” Euro­pean Jour­nal of Work and Orga­ni­za­tional Psy­chol­ogy 12, no. 4 (2003): 368. 

  31. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 111. 

  32. Braver­man, Labor and Monopoly Cap­i­tal, 62. 

  33. Income Data Ser­vices, Pay and Con­di­tions in Call cen­ters, (Lon­don: Income Data Ser­vices, 1997), 13.; Sue Fer­nie and David Met­calf, (Not) Hang­ing on the Tele­phone: Pay­ment Sys­tems in the New Sweat­shops (Lon­don: LSE Cen­ter for Eco­nomic Per­for­mance, 1998). 

  34. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 102. 

  35. Michel Fou­cault, Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheri­dan (Lon­don: Allen Lane, 1977); Alan McKin­lay and Phil Tay­lor, “Fou­cault and the Pol­i­tics of Pro­duc­tion” in Fou­cault, Man­age­ment and Orga­ni­za­tion The­ory, ed. Alan McKin­lay and Ken Starkey (Lon­don: Sage, 1998), 175. 

  36. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 103. 

  37. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 108. 

  38. Tay­lor and Bain, “Assem­bly Line,” 109. 

  39. The killing of Lee Rigby and sub­se­quent Islam­o­pho­bic back­lash, see the Wool­wich Attack page of The Guardian

  40. I was not aware of this ref­er­ence at the time; for more infor­ma­tion, see the Wikipedia page

  41. The Lon­don Liv­ing Wage is cal­cu­lated as £8.55 per hour (and £7.46 for the rest of the UK) by the Liv­ing Wage Foun­da­tion. 

  42. The name of the union, like that of the com­pany, will remain anony­mous. 

  43. Unite, “Lever­age,” Unite the Union, 2012. 

  44. Unite, “Lever­age.” 

Author of the article

is a graduate student at Goldsmiths.