Rise of the white collar `factory'

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The Independent Online
The year 1984 proved to be a bit of a washout for George Orwell, but the world of work might bear investigation for those seeking evidence that the old boy may have had a point.

In particular, "call centres" established by an increasing number of service-based companies have a distinctly Orwellian feel to them. In these "white-collar factories" hundreds of employees are arranged in serried ranks to handle customers' calls over the telephone. The centres have sprung up with the rapid growth of new businesses, such as direct selling of insurance and telebanking.

Take the Nat West "telebanking centre" in Harrogate, where a cast of 100 or more sit under the eye of an electronic box which measures their collective performance. On it are displayed the number of calls waiting to be dealt with and the number already processed. There is no hiding place for employees, because their output is also monitored individually.

On the walls of the vast open-plan office are exhortations to maximum effort. In the canteen there is a notice stating that unauthorised meetings are not permitted.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this seeming industrial totalitarianism is that most staff, largely young and female, feel the working environment is quite normal and rather enjoy it, according to research group Incomes Data Services.

Ann Gunter, head of telephony at Nat West, says her staff in Harrogate are "very, very proud of what they do" and apart from the odd niggle "have an awful lot of fun".

Austin Knight, the recruitment consultants, have found however that employees harbour private misgivings. A survey of 1,000 call-centre employees revealed that more than half felt morale was low.

In many of these new factories - whose numbers are rising rapidly, according to the IDS research published today - staff are stopped from personalising their work area. "That might be seen as a sign of resistance," according to Alastair Hatchett, of the research group.

Edward Humphrey, of specialist publication Call Centre Magazine, believes the phenomenon had emerged because companies are increasingly trying to compete on the basis of service. "It can seem quite Orwellian. Service levels have to be met, calls have to be answered, inquiries have to be dealt with quickly. Companies are also trying to keep costs down so they have to get the maximum out of staff. Call centre employees are the hardest worked in the finance industry."

Call centres effectively made their debut in this country when Peter Wood at the Royal Bank of Scotland had his lucrative brainwave about customers buying insurance over the telephone.

He subsequently sold his interest in Direct Line for pounds 24m.

Mr Hatchett reports that around 1.2 per cent of the national workforce is now employed in such centres - around 250,000 people - and by 2001 it will have increased to 2.2 per cent, reaching one million shortly after.

Most have been established outside London and the south-east in areas where greenfield sites are plentiful, where regional grants are available and where employees are content with lower salaries.

The north of England and Scotland have witnessed a veritable "explosion" in the number of centres, according to IDS.

It may have come as a surprise to customers of London Electricity for instance when a call to query a bill will invariably be answered by someone with a north-eastern accent. The company's billing and administrative centre is in Sunderland.

Salaries for trained operators vary between pounds 9,500 and pounds 11,500 a year, while those with foreign languages or a technical expertise can expect more.

The proliferation of bonuses shift premiums and overtime smack of traditional manual employment, according to IDS. Mr Hatchett believes we are witnessing the "industrialisation of white-collar work".

However, if call centres are seen as depersonalising the relationship between service and customer, there could be worse to come. American business gurus point out that such activity is already passe as the Internet replaces personal telephone contact.