I’ve worked in the same call centre now for around 8 years. We deal with emergency home repairs for a big insurance company. I deal with customers who want to cancel their contract with the company. My job is to persuade them to stay. There are around 250 people working In our call centre, but there are thousands more in the admin offices and other call centres around the country.
Before corona, I worked in a big open-plan office. Telephone lines were open 8am-8pm, but our shifts are 8.5 hours, with a half hour break for lunch and 2 ten minute breaks which are all scheduled. Usually we worked on ‘bays’, which is basically a group of joined up tables, 15 people on each bay. You sat opposite someone plus you had co-workers on both sides of you, so talking to them was no problem, especially in-between calls.
Initially, people at the call centre thought the whole corona thing was a bit of a joke. People were saying, ‘”Don’t stand near me!” and not taking things too seriously. But we knew management were having meetings about it and rumours went round that they’d send us to work from home. By the end of March, we were told that this would happen, team by team. We were half expecting this so it wasn’t too surprising. Actually most of us were relieved because we didn’t want to carry on coming into the office with a lot of people.
Management were prepared for this. A week before they sent us all home, all vulnerable people were sent to work from home, around 20-30 people. People had lots of questions about how we were supposed to work from home, but management told us we’d be given a big monitor, keyboard, dongles for people with no internet at home. At the beginning we were given PCs but now we’ve upgraded to laptops. We were also automatically enrolled onto some scheme, I think it’s a government scheme, something like a work-from-home allowance so we actually get £30 more a month in pay too.
So now everyone, apart from maybe 5 people who can’t for whatever reason work from home, have been working from home since end of March. The workload hasn’t changed, we haven’t had to work extra hours, it has been pretty seamless actually.
Was there no conflict or tension at all over how management handles the shift to home working? Not that I know of.
What’s the work like, and how have things changed since home working started?
On average we get around 40 calls a day, through the computer, usually around 8 minutes per call. When it’s busy, you get call after call. At evenings and weekends there are less calls, so you can sometimes get 10-15 minutes between calls so I usually browse the internet or listen to music. Before corona, we would chat to workmates in this down-time. We wore head-sets so we could even walk around and chat to people from different teams and departments. Now, obviously, you can’t do that, although we have an online chat so we can talk to our direct team members only.
So there were no glitches at all? We did have some IT issues at the beginning actually. We have to connect to a VPN (a virtual private network that gives you online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection). Initially, because so many people were trying to connect, it got overwhelmed, so we couldn’t take calls because the system kept throwing us out. For the first month or two we had issues. For 15-20 minutes once a day we were chucked out of the system so we couldn’t work. Now, all that’s been ironed out. New tech companies like Okta have been doing really well. My company has used them to create a single sign on service. Before, we had to log onto several different applications individually, but now we only have to sign in once which saves us about 5 minutes work. The company have also upgraded google chats so can see each other at our online team meetings now. I’m not sure why they didn’t make these changes before the lockdown, but I think new developments have become more common since then.
I used to go socialising with workmates but that hasn’t happened since we started working from home. Well, a couple of people have tried getting people together, but I haven’t joined because I don’t think it’s safe.
I have a twice weekly phone catch-up with my manager. Although there is surveillance – your screen is shared and can be monitored so they know what you’re doing – there is less micro-management. Sometimes, before corona, when you needed a breather, you’d stop working but the manager would tell you you needed to get back on the phones. Now, if I need a breather, I just take it.
Has the role of the team leader changed after home office started? Yes – they’ve become a lot less needed, their role has diminished. They conduct one to ones with each team member for half an hour a month – and there are only 14 of us in the team. When we were in the office, if a customer wanted to speak to a manager, we’d ask them directly to get on the phone to them. But since working from home, we obviously can’t do that. Now, the customer gets a call back within 5 working days if they want to speak to a manager, so they’re not as urgently needed. Their job was also to improve morale and give motivation plus do some surveillance on us, which they can’t do in the same way anymore. Also, now that we have the group chat function with our team mates, it means we usually solve each others problems, rather than having to ask the team leader. So now, I don’t know what the manager does all day to be honest…
Relationships with customers has changed, especially at the beginning as people were getting used to to the lockdown. I felt more empathetic, especially towards the more vulnerable customers, I would ask them how they were coping and you could tell people were receptive. You can tell as well the people who haven’t spoken to anyone in ages. Now the situation is becoming normalised.
Why do you think the company didn’t start home working before corona?
They were probably worried that productivity would have dipped. But it wasn’t the case. We see all our stats, not just our own, but we can see the whole teams stats too. After a call, we press a button if we don’t want another call straightaway, and they monitor this. The time in-between calls hasn’t changed, and average call times are all the same as before lockdown too. If stats had dipped, they would be on our case. They have threatened us, saying that if there is a drop in productivity or if we keep having IT issues, we’d have to work in the office again. The team leader said this to us in the team meeting. I think that’s fair enough, but I’m not sure if that’s an empty threat though, because I haven’t heard of anyone being moved back into the office.
Do they save on rent by everyone working from home?
Well, they actually own the building. So they don’t have to pay rent, they would have to sell it.
The original plan was to go back to work at the end of October on a two week rotation – so two weeks in the office and two weeks at home, to maintain social distancing at work. A couple of days ago, that was scrapped, so now we are working from home indefinitely. I was looking forward to going back in and seeing people, so that was disappointing. But overall, I think people prefer working from home. I do at least. I save about an hour and a half each day on my commute, that’s around 7.5 hours a week saved in time, plus petrol and lunch money. Most people worked more locally than me, but still, it would take half an hour to get into work so that’s a lot of time saved. Plus, you can now wear what you want, where before you had to wear business wear to work. I can work in my pyjamas.
The only bad thing is the lack of interaction between people. I’ve only been in touch with a couple of friends from different teams, I’ve spoken to them on email and on text, not on the phone though.
And also, now that winter is coming, our energy bills are going to be higher if we’re working from home. I looked into it and apparently the government says that if you can prove your bills are higher you should be recompensed by the company. I’ve raised this with some workmates and they all said they’d be on board if we follow up on this.
Also, some people don’t have the space to work from home really, so they have to use their dining room table or even their bedroom! Still, I think morale is pretty good overall. Nobody’s been furloughed, actually the company have hired new people. New people are on £17,000 a year but the older staff like me are on £30,000. We don’t get an annual pay rise though, only those on lower salaries get a 2% annual pay rise- although they’ll never catch up to the pay us lot are on who have the older contracts. Those on higher pay have higher targets to reach, but actually, if we don’t meet them, nothing happens. I think it’s more used as a justification for the pay gap between us. So those new starters don’t tend to stay long. I think we deserve the extra pay because we have more experience at dealing with customers and are more resilient.
What do your workmates think about how the government is handling the crisis?
People I’ve spoken to in general are all unhappy with how the government’s been handling all this corona stuff. Personally, I think they’re doing okay. The situation is changing all the time, so they’re just responding to those changes, fair enough.
In terms of corona, people are handling it in loads of different ways: paranoia, some don’t care, there’s no homogenous feelings. Even though the company are hiring new people, people are still scared of losing their jobs. As a workforce, we’re doing okay I think but if management would start doing something like redundancies, now we’re working from home, we’d be less strong to fight back. Saying that, there was a round of redundancies a few years ago and we couldn’t do anything about that then either. The company acts within the law so can do what they want.
Was there never talk about the need for a union?
Not that I’m aware of. It’s never come up I don’t think. I feel I get treated fine. If I felt something was unfair, I would chase it up on my own. People complain about trivial stuff.
What kind of ‘trivial stuff?’
That they’re too busy, they’re getting too many calls. I take times between calls when I need to, and we have down time when it’s not so busy. There’s an understanding that when it’s busy, you put in the extra work.
Some people do pay individually for union membership but there is no union for everyone. Those people call their union if they need them for a disciplinary or something. But we have our own employee reps who work for the company who also do that. They’re ordinary workers who are elected every couple of years. They get a bit of extra time off calls to deal with issues.
What kind of people are they? Are they brown-nosers?
Nah, we get to elect them so the good guys usually win the vote. I don’t really know what a union does to be honest. They’re not something I ever really needed. My contract hasn’t changed in years.
Has there been any discussion about Black Lives Matter amongst workmates?
There are only around 3 black people who work in our call centre so there hasn’t been any talk about Black Lives Matter.