Working in a Contact Centre
“You’re Supposed to Collect Money, Not Help People!”
This job was rated by our participants as on average (10 being the best job you can imagine).
Contact centre work often conjures up an image of being attached to a headset at a desk responding to irate, difficult people, attempting to meet impossible hourly targets. A strict daily regimen is often in place, with all breaks logged and timed to the minute, with consequent negative effects for workers. Autonomous, developmental, progressive, work, it is not!
So, when we were invited to spend some time inside an award winning contact centre, we were curious to find out what the work was like.
Tammy has been working at the Centre for several years. Her role involves following up people who have not been able to pay their bills. She is quick to point out the inappropriateness of the term ‘debt collector’, and that the best thing about her job is ‘the chance to help people’. As she says this, Tammy whispers ‘don’t tell anyone!’, whilst looking fervently at her boss… She tells us her boss would say: ‘You’re supposed to collect money, not help people!’
Tammy has a strong sense of making a positive impact she goes about her daily work of helping others to reduce their debt, telling them about benefits they could be entitled to, and even knocking on doors to check that people are okay. Believing that your job is worthwhile and important, referred to as ‘task significance’, is a central aspect of motivating work design. One research study showed that - when call centre workers saw how the donations they collected led to a benefit for others (e.g., by funding scholarships for underprivileged students) - their wellbeing and performance improved, showing the power of task significance in a job.
Tammy also told us how individual and team performance is openly tracked, and showed us the performance charts on the windows and walls. She described how her colleagues pull together to support each other, rather than competing amongst themselves. ‘We are a team, so we should be helping each other to pull ourselves up’ says Tammy. Consistent with Tammy’s views, research shows that social support and feedback-on-the-job can enhance wellbeing and performance.
Whilst Tammy clearly enjoyed her job, rating it an 8 out of 10, she did note some frustrations. For example, she said ‘I have to follow the rules here’, and there is sometimes a lack of autonomy. Tammy also noted that clients can be tough: ‘the challenge is the stubborn (people)… I need to go to their house and visit them’. Time management is important: ‘we have to tell ourselves what is important, prioritise our time’.
Christine, one of the managers, rated her job eight out of ten.
While jobs with low autonomy and high workload are characteristic of poor quality jobs and can lead to stress and ill health, this isn’t the whole story. Social support can buffer the effect of high workload, allowing people to perform well despite the pressure of time and a long ‘to-do’ list. As for autonomy, a little bit of probing revealed that Tammy is actually able to control some important things about her job. She can choose what she says to customers and how she talks to them, and has some control over when and how she carries out different tasks. She can also express preferences for certain tasks to her supervisor.
Tammy’s case shows that – even though the situation is rather unusual in this sector – it is possible to have a well-designed and motivating job in a contact centre.
 Taylor, P., & Bain, P. (1999). ‘An assembly line in the head’: Work and employee relations in the call centre. Industrial Relations Journal, 30(2), 101-117.
 Grant, A. M. & Sonnentag, S. (2009). Doing good buffers against feeling bad: Prosocial impact compensates for negative task and self-evaluations. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 111, 13-22.
 Humphrey, S., E., Nahrgang, J. D., & Morgeson, F. P. (2007). Integrating motivational, social and contextual work design features: A meta-analytic summary and theoretical extension of the work design literature. Journal of Applied
 Parker, S. K. (2014). Beyond motivation: Job and work design for development, health, ambidexterity, and more. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 661-91 doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115208
 For an example of how work in a call centre can be redesigned to be more positive, see Holman, D. and Axtell, C. (2016). Can job redesign interventions influence a broad range of employee outcomes by changing multiple job characteristics? A quasi-experimental study. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 21(3), 284-295
Holman, D. and Axtell, C. (2016). Can job redesign interventions influence a broad range of employee outcomes by changing multiple job characteristics? A quasi-experimental study. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 21(3), 284-295
 Groshek, J., Cutino, C. & Walsh, J. (2016, April 7th). Customer service on hold: we hate phone menus and don’t trust virtual assistants like Siri. The Conversation. Retrieved from:
a little more...
Behind the Scenes
by Caroline Knight
From the outset, our preconceptions about contact centres were shattered. The building is striking as a modern, quirkily shaped, specially designed, one storey workspace, with large glass doors leading to a reception area. Inside, the design features are equally modern, with open plan desks and break out spaces with cheery, colourful chairs. It seemed to us that this was a place where the importance of a pleasant working environment was definitely considered in the building design.
We were welcomed warmly by one of the managers, and quickly made to feel at home, with a tour round the building, introductions to staff, and drinks offered. A general background hum of activity was present at all times, though the volume was pleasantly muted given the number of people on the phones at any one time.
We were lucky enough to interview two very passionate and enthusiastic workers, and a manager. We were particularly overwhelmed by how excited and pleased they were to see us, with one person positively jumping up and down with excitement at getting to meet our Artist in Residence, Lynne. She told us how she’d been reading all about Lynne on the internet. She even insisted we all posed for a photo she could show her family. This wonderful reception, and the colourful, enthusiastic and passionate interviewees we met certainly made a refreshing, lasting impression on us.