CALL CENTRES are offices dedicated to delivering services to customers over the telephone. Call centres are used across a range of sectors, including financial services, travel and transport, information technology, marketing and retail. Call-centre staff, or "agents", typically spend their working hours seated at their desks in constant contact with customers, making or receiving telephone calls and processing information.
Europe has seen a huge growth in these call centres over the last 10 years. One study has claimed that at the end of 1997 there were as many as 3,560 call centres in the UK alone, employing a total of approximately 163,000 staff. This growth looks likely to continue into the next century.
Call centres have recently captured the attention of the media and the academic community. It has been argued that they are the "new sweatshops", and that they offer us a disturbing vision of the shape work will take in the future. Women outnumber men in virtually all call centres. At the lowest, they make up 40 per cent of employees; at the highest, 90 per cent. There are some differences between sectors, with males better represented in IT call centres than in others. On the whole the staff employed in call centres tend to be young, aged between 20 and 30. The research seems to suggest that employers often consider females to be more suitable for call-centre work than males, mainly because they are regarded as having "natural" communication skills and the ability to "smile down the phone". In our research, this was a typical response: "I do think that there are advantages being in this business if you are female, because, in general, females are better at communicating - and it is all about communicating - making people feel a part of the team and making them feel as if they belong." Call centres employ a range of the latest management techniques. In particular, team working and "empowerment" are widespread. The majority of call centres have flat organisational structures with three layers - agent, supervisor and manager. The relationships between staff and management in the call centres that we studied were on the whole described positively. Most agents are on first-name terms with managers, and some described their centres as "family- like" environments. …