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“An assembly line in the head”: work and employee relations in the call centre.

Based on the article:


The call centre is defined as a dedicated operation in which computer utilizing employees
receive inbound or make outbound calls, with the calls processed by either an Automatic
Call Distribution (ACD) or predictive dialing system.

Organizations are adopting the call centre method as they perceive dramatic savings in
costs and overheads through centralization of the “back office” customer servicing
functions. The driving force in this is the competitive advantage that they seek as other
organizations are doing it as well.

The call centre process integrates telephone and VDU technologies in its operations.
Inbound and outbound operations have different demands and pressures on employees as
both use different combination of the VDU and telephone technologies.

Inbound operations – Makes use of ACD system which receives incoming calls that are
then automatically channeled to waiting operators, based on pre-programmed
instructions, thus removing the need for switchboard operators. In the case where all
operators are engaged, the calls would then be “stacked” and then distributed in sequence
to operators who are subsequently free to answer them.

Outbound operations – Makes uses of “reverse ACD system”, where predictive dialing
systems will dial the number of customers stored in the databases, connecting operator to
customer automatically. The information of the customer is shown on the operator’s
computer screen before or at the precise moment the call is connected.

In both types of operations, operators need to scan and interpret information on VDU
screens, manipulate keyboards to enter or retrieve data and simultaneously communicate
with phone-based customers.

Strengths of adopting the Call Centre method

The assembly line has been shown to result in tight control of the labor process, but in
comparison, the call centre can produce “total control”. In other words, the control that
the call centre can achieve is much higher than the assembly line. This is done through
the use of electronic surveillance thereby creating “total management control”.

Using the Real-Time Adherence module, real-time messages can inform of each agent’s
movement, E.g. log in, log out, time of connected and end of call etc. The manager can
then see the exact movement of each agent at the any time he wishes to. He will also be
able to know which agent is performing below expectations and solve the problem
immediately. This is how “total management control” is achieved.
Weaknesses of adopting the Call Centre method

But when managerial control=electronic surveillance, is there any human touch?
If managers’ supervision skills are lacking, control of the employees will still be
unsatisfactory. Even though the software technology used in call centre operations can
provide extensive monitoring, human supervision is still the most essential in managing
employees. Managers need to be there to coach and also highlight the deficiencies of
operators’ dialogues with customers.

Emotional Labor:
From the article, it is labor which requires one to induce or suppress feelings in order to
sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others……calls
for a coordination of mind and feelings”

Call centre operations performs emotional labor from the scripted greetings and speech,
the list of appropriate behaviors and the ever present necessity to “smile down the phone”
that are required of the operators.

Furthermore, employees have to perform these pre-determined scripts continuous

throughout the work shift, with few breaks in between. This brings on added pressures to
them which are further worsened with the knowledge that they are being monitored every
second. Operators have testified to levels of exhaustions, physical, mental and emotional,
which are directly related to the length of the shift and sheer intensity of the job.

Slide 5“assembly-line in the head” scenario:

Operators are confronted with prominent digital displays which show the visible numbers
of calls being stacked and waiting for them to answer. At the same time, supervisors will
be cajoling them to clear the backlogs as fast as they could. With this, there is the
constant awareness that the completion of one task has to be immediately followed by

High turnover rates:

Due to all the pressures on the operators, the industry has high levels of labor turnover.
Some agents find it difficult to cope and thus switched professions entirely. Most others,
though, simply jumped to another company that offers a salary package that is more
attractive than the current one.

Dilemma of managers
One dilemma that managers face is, Should we drive the operators to work harder or risk
quality of service by not using targets as an output measurement? If managers use targets
and quantitative output measurements to drive operators to work harder, employees will
have a lack of motivation and lesser commitment to the company. However, if these were
not used, the quality of service provided by the employees might be affected.
Out of the article:

Taylorism is job fragmentation, specialization and separation of mental and manual

labour. There’s repetition and specialization of job tasks for each worker, with each task
being carefully measured using time.

Fordism is a production technique to achieve efficiency inspired by Taylor’s ideas

adjusted for mass production era. There are 3 additions to Taylorism, namely
standardized products, single purpose machine tools and the assembly line

Critical thinking:

Call centre operations can be considered an advanced Fordism way of managing

employees, through the use of software technology to monitor the movements and
performance of each employee.
It is also highly popular as companies see it as a way to cope with competition. Why so?
Customers nowadays are demanding and want service right at their fingertips anytime,
anywhere. In short, they want quality service at their own convenience. The company
will lose a competitive edge if it does not provide this service to the customers as its
competitor will highly possibly be providing it.

Call centre operators are simply assembly line operators who deal with service as the
product, with more skills needed than simply inserting a product part on the assembly
line. They have to tackle demanding customers, demanding performance targets, and all
the time trying to fit the pre-determined script into the conversation for fear of letting on
information that is not allowed. Throughout the whole conversation, there’s also a
nagging voice at the back of their heads telling them that one, the call is taped and
anything that they said wrongly will lead to dire consequences and two, there are many
stacked calls waiting for them to end the call, and why can’t this customer just shut up
and hang up?

The tremendous pressure placed on these operators has led to the high level of job
turnover rate in the industry. When employees are replaced, there’s a “take-over” period
where the new staff has to be retrained and thus, the quality of service provided at this
point might not be the optimal standard expected. There is also a kind of pressure on
management to hire the “right” staff who will be motivated and committed to the job.
Absenteeism will also be a means of escape from the pressures of work for the staff. This
can happen when staff are so stressed out that they cannot perform and thus have to take
medical leave. Or when staff deliberately skip work so as to avoid the pressures put on

Supervision is also of importance in the call centre operations. If managers were unable
to coach and supervise well, employees would still provide poor performance. The
desired “total management control” will thus be lost. What good is software technology
monitoring if the human side of the work process has the mentioned “side effects”?