Working in a Contact Centre
“JUST a voice at the end of the phone”
Rose rated this job as (10 being the best job you can imagine).
by Giverny de Boeck
As we enter the call center, we are welcomed by Christine, the manager, in a bright, new building. The building centers around two spacious areas for relaxing, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto a patio housing lush green plants. It appears to be a tranquil working atmosphere.
Around the corner, however, the workplace is buzzing with activity. A large open office space reveals a diverse group of employees who, equipped with headsets, are busy answering customer calls, whilst nimbly navigating amongst different information sheets on their double computer screens. One might expect this work environment to be noisy and distracting. Surprisingly, however, the volume in the call center is kept at a pleasant level, thanks to the sound-absorbing materials incorporated in the walls of the building.
At one of the various office ‘islands’ in which teams of employees sit, we find Rose, colourfully dressed in blue and purple. Rose has been working for the call centre for seven years already and she has no intention to leave any time soon. This fact is remarkable given that attrition rates in call centres are notoriously high, rising up to 40% in Australia . High attrition is typically attributed to the low quality of call centre jobs, which often consist of repetitive, scripted interactions that are automatically distributed to workers via technology, with close monitoring by management.
The level of stress in call centre jobs is usually also higher than other sectors, another driver of turnover, in part because workers have to manage the conflicting role expectations of delivering high quality customer service, at the same time as having to handle customer calls in a minimal amount of time to reach imposed efficiency targets [2, 3, 4].
So, again, we are surprised to find that Rose absolutely loves working at the call centre, scoring her job as 10/10. One element that can explain Rose’s love for her job is the way she infuses her work activities with personal meaning—also called cognitive job crafting, a practice often witnessed in workers with unanswered occupational callings [5, 6]. When we ask Rose what it is that she does at the call center, she says that she is paid to do what she loves best: “talking”. She notes the importance of one’s tone of voice, listening in an active way, good timing of questions, and coming across positively, while showing genuine interest. In this way, Rose actively reframes her role at the call center such that it aligns with the skills and knowledge she has gained during her past work experience as a sales person in retail.
Rose also sees her work at the call center as helping others by, for example, educating people on the various possibilities that exist to better manage their day-to-day living costs. Instead of viewing her work as a collection of separate tasks, she sees it as an integrated whole in which she makes a difference to the lives of others, similar to a therapist improving the well-being of her clientele. By linking her work to valued personal skills that she has acquired in the past, while simultaneously transcending the self by viewing her job as a contribution to others, Rose successfully applies two meaning-making mechanisms that help her craft her job at the call center into something personally meaningful .
At the same time, however, Rose’s interactions with customers—one of the greatest sources of pleasure at work—also represents her biggest challenge. Customers who do not seem to want to listen to her, or who get angry with her over things that she cannot control, are worst. In these instances, Rose is confronted with the limits of her autonomy, and the fact that she is constrained as a result of being “at the end of a telephone line” , as well as by the need to follow government-imposed rules over certain matters.
Interestingly, in these instances of challenging customers, Rose actively distances herself from work both mentally and physically. Mentally she convinces herself that it is “not personal” as she is “just a voice at the other end of the phone”. Physically she tries to keep a monotone tone of voice.
It seems that striking the right balance between wanting to help – yet being able to step back and keep a distance when help is not possible - is the key to Rose’s success in her call centre job.
 Union Research Centre for Organisation and Technology [URCOT] (2000) Call Centres: What Kind of Future Workplaces?, RMIT School of Social Sciences and Planning, Victorian Trades Hall Council.
 Siong, Z., Mellor, D., Moore, K., & Firth, L. (2006). Predicting intention to quit in the call centre industry: Does the retail model fit?, Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21(3), 231-243.
 Valverde, M., Ryan, G., & Gorjup, M. T. (2007). An examination of the quality of jobs in the call center industry. International Advances in Economic Research, 13(2), 146-156.
 Hannif, Z., Burgess, J., & Connell, J. (2008). Call centres and the quality of work life: Towards a research agenda. Journal of Industrial Telations, 50(2), 271-284.
 Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of management review, 26(2), 179-201.
 Berg, J. M., Grant, A. M., & Johnson, V. (2010). When callings are calling: Crafting work and leisure in pursuit of unanswered occupational callings. Organization Science, 21(5), 973-994.
 Rosso, B. D., Dekas, K. H., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). On the meaning of work: A theoretical integration and review. Research in organizational behavior, 30, 91-127.