Jamie Woodcock (interviewed by Mark Carrigan)
How did the 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.
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.
Jamie Woodcock is the author Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres. His current research focuses on the digital economy, the transformation of work, and eSports. He has previously worked as a postdoc on a research project about video games, as well as another investigating the crowdsourcing of citizen science. Jamie completed his PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and has held positions at Goldsmiths, the University of Leeds, the University of Manchester, Queen Mary, NYU London, and Cass Business School.