A new message frequently punctuates the muzak as customers wait to speak to a call centre worker nowadays: a recording warning them to expect “home life noises in the background” once someone answers.
“A friend of mine heard splashing water when she called her bank,” said consultant Ursula Huws, a long-term advocate for staff to be allowed to do their jobs from home and who coined the term teleworking in the early 1980s.
“The agent revealed she was in the bath. For an industry historically so resistant to remote working, that speaks volumes about how far things have come in the past 12 months.”
Before coronavirus arrived in the UK, only 3.8 per cent of the country’s 812,000 call centre workers were based at home, according to research group ContactBabel — below the 5.1 per cent average for the working population.
But as the government introduced sweeping restrictions in March last year, the pendulum swung. By November homeworking was almost twice as common among call centre staff as the general workforce with about three quarters of 139,000 agents surveyed saying they were home-based.
This looks set to remain. A recent poll of 107 call centre managers and directors conducted by industry bodies found just four who anticipate a full return to the office.
HSBC has confirmed its 1,200 call centre staff will remain at home permanently. Outsourcer Capita has said many of its 16,000-strong call centre workforce in the UK can do the same, while rival Teleperformance has indicated many of its 10,000 employees will be allowed to continue working remotely once the pandemic subsides.
The shift will have far-reaching consequences: for the working lives of hundreds of thousands of people employed in the sector, for commercial landlords and for customers relying on their services.
Working the phones
The earliest known example of a call centre in the UK was in the Birmingham Post and Mail building in 1965, but it was not until the establishment of Direct Line in 1985 that they became more widespread. From 63 staff at the insurer’s call centre in Croydon, the industry has since mushroomed into one of the UK’s largest.
For a sector weighed down by a reputation for frenzied offices, distrustful management and high attrition rates, the post-pandemic world in theory offers a chance for a reset.
“Call centres are . . . a fun punching bag for a lot of people,” admitted Gary Slade, Teleperformance’s UK chief executive. But he insisted that a hybrid working model will offer his employees “more choice” rather than simply being an opportunity “to squeeze the staff by cutting costs and removing benefits”.
Yet half a dozen staff who spoke to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, two of whom are Teleperformance employees, said remote working had made their jobs more difficult — or alleged they were being denied the right to do so.
One 26-year-old, who works for an online travel platform, described the stress from solving more complex customer queries from home as “all-encompassing”, while a 21-year-old Teleperformance agent said virtual training was “difficult to absorb”, adding that he often “had to wing it”.
Two are office-based, one of whom is working for an outsourcer in Liverpool having had repeated requests to do so remotely rejected for “no apparent reason”.
Privacy is another concern. Teleperformance has already butted heads with Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, and the Communication Workers Union over concerns about a plan to issue remote workers with webcams.
Slade said reports they will be used to monitor staff at will are “absolutely not true”. He said webcams will be used to replicate “the checks and balances” that are normal in the office.
The FT has seen an internal memo sent to Teleperformance staff suggesting video calls could be mandated to “conduct clean desk audits” and “[detect] unauthorised objects in [an] employee’s workspace . . . such as a mobile phone”. Slade said “occasional checks” are essential to “avoid data breaches”, adding that the webcams are “not designed to be remotely activated”.
But Jamie Woodcock, who went undercover in a call centre for his book Working the Phones, fears what he describes as “callous management practices” mean the chance to improve the workplace culture with the adoption of remote working will be “squandered”.
“Managers in call centres rarely ask workers what will improve their work, instead they simply rely on ever stricter targets and monitoring to get results,” said Woodcock.
Aimie Chapple, Capita’s executive officer for customer management, insisted she was “always checking in” with staff such as during virtual coffee mornings but that a balance has to be struck between “what employees want [and] what clients want”.
Others are more optimistic. The migration of consumers online during the pandemic has prompted a hiring spree to meet demand for helplines. “Thanks to the work from home model, they’ve been able to tap into wider talent pools,” said Leigh Hopwood, chief executive of Call Centre Management Association. “A call centre in Bradford can now easily hire an agent in London.”
Landlords put on hold
The prize for call centres allowing staff to work from home is the freedom to shed costly office space.
Capita saved £10m from office closures during the first UK lockdown and has now permanently closed 49 sites worldwide, nearly a fifth of their commercial real estate holdings, with plans to offload more.
In the UK, Santander has scrapped plans for a £75m call centre in Merseyside that would have housed 2,500 workers, while travel group Saga has put a 600-capacity call centre in Kent up for sale.
That could pose a problem for landlords in regions where call centres are a major employer. “Are they lettable? It hangs on the location. Some of these [operators] went to locations which had high unemployment and not a lot of other industry,” said Mat Oakley, head of UK and European commercial property research at Savills.
In the north of England and Scotland more than 6 per cent of the local population are employed in call centres, according to ContactBabel.
They are often thought to be unappealing workplaces. “Secondary office buildings in Dundee, Prestwick, East Anglia . . . on business parks like the one where [TV show] The Office was filmed,” said one analyst.
Many suffered during a wave of offshoring in the early 2000s but customer preferences led to a return, said Oakley, who also argued that concerns about high staff turnover led to improvements in office quality.
That will increase their chances of being re-let to other businesses or to the government as part of its drive to disperse employees around the regions, he added. “Many of these centres are in the north of England, I expect quite a few will get taken up as part of the government’s move of civil servants away from London. That’s the obvious tenant.”
Both Slade and Chapple insist productivity, as measured by metrics like average call handling time and first call resolution, have remained consistent or even improved despite homeworking.
However the shift has presented new dilemmas for satisfying customers and maintaining data security.
“At very least, a dog barking or a baby screaming in the background [of a call] will come across as unprofessional,” said Teresa Cottam, chief analyst at telecoms consultancy Omnisperience. “But if [the agent is] handling sensitive medical or financial data and their flatmate is next to them that opens the door to fraud and crime.”
Call centres are able to remotely monitor technology “to the nth degree”, she said, but adds the “human factors” remain “very risky”.
Huws forecasts that, regardless of the great WFH experiment, employees will eventually be asked to return to the office. “Face-to-face meetings and handshakes are in call centre managers’ muscle memory,” she said. “Juggling a hybrid workforce requires good management and they’re not really allowed to be good managers.”
Sir Peter Wood, who co-founded Direct Line, rues that the heyday of the call centre “has long gone”. “I used to man the phones just for fun and sometimes call customers back . . . when they were rude to my staff,” Wood recalled. “But the romance of call centres is a thing of the past.”