Call Volume

A review of Jamie Woodcock’s Working the Phones

It was with unconcealed glee that my colleagues and I watched our line manager suddenly become inundated with cold calls to his cell phone. We worked in software telemarketing, and on that day we were given a chance to watch our job from the other side. After each call we teased him that the caller was “just looking for a few minutes of his time” or perhaps failing to “show him value,” echoing what we hear every day. After he eventually hung up, we goaded him that the cold caller was “only looking to put their block on the board,” just like we did to keep track of how far off our sales targets we were.

Jamie Woodcock, Working the Phones. Pluto Press, 2016. 272 pages.

At first our boss tried to be polite to the callers, showing sympathy as they were doing a job that he used to do too. Unfortunately, his politeness probably led to him being marked as a warm or receptive lead in the sales database; he became a regular target, and proceeded to get increasingly irritated. I felt a mingling of sympathy and satisfaction, knowing someone else was finding it as difficult as I was to sell on the phone.

Jamie Woodcock’s Working the Phones is a workers’ inquiry into cold calling in the UK. “Workers’ Inquiry” is a technique which has its roots in a survey Karl Marx proposed in 1880. The premise was that “statements of labour's grievances are the first act which socialist democracy must perform in order to prepare the way for social regeneration.” Later, the concept was taken up by socialists in the US and Europe, who either asked workers to contribute to their publications or took up work themselves, as Woodcock did. The author’s website provides an excellent resource, including key examples of workers’ inquiry. In his own “undercover” research (becoming a salesman himself), Woodcock searches for resistance among call center employees. In the author’s estimation, call centers are “emblematic of the shift towards a post-industrial service economy” in which they “have flourished,” while also representing “the desperation of capital [and] the struggle for companies to remain profitable.” In this sense the call center is the example that other workplaces are set to follow.

Woodcock begins from a “workerist” perspective, drawing on late 20th-century Italian Marxism which asserts that an “anti-work” drive is real and positive, and from David Graeber’s idea of “bullshit jobs.” In a similar vein, Woodcock asks, “What would the achievement of workers’ control look like in a call centre?” before answering that most workers would probably “like to stop making unsolicited phone calls, turn off the system and leave.” He reclaims this desire as Workerist, as it “shifts the interpretation of workers in the call centre from being marginalized, only able to run away from the job, to active subjects refusing the current organization of work.”

The book takes the analysis beyond simply looking at the final refusal of work which comes with quitting by using Kate Mulholland’s concept of “Slammin’ Scammin’ Smokin’ an’ Leavin’.” These are refusals of work which are both less intense than handing in your notice and more damaging to the company, but which are almost always not collective. “Slammin’” and “Smokin’” are particularly important concepts. The first describes the act of faking calls, either to get your call count up or to buy you time to slyly look at Facebook on your cell while pretending to be on hold. A canny salesperson knows which automated messages can be made to endlessly repeat by dialing ‘0’, and will deploy this a few times a day. “Smokin’,” quite simply, is taking as many cigarette breaks as you can get away with. One of the advantages of the smoking ban is breaks have to be taken out of the office, away from management. Woodcock writes of these breaks that “the importance of these as moments of resistance was clear from the fact conversations would be cut short the moment a supervisor joined for their break.”

Woodcock details a variety of these small resistances which can best be categorized as misbehavior. Another example he gives is a Plug Plot style act of sabotage—damaging the headset cables so that you are unable to make calls altogether while a new headset is tracked down. He argues that these petty acts of resistance, though not enough to produce systemic change, “hold[…] the potential to re-assert a critique of work” that could be channeled elsewhere. The strength of his approach is that it allows us to look beyond traditional trade union organization to see how control is contested in highly precarious workplaces where difficult employees can be easily replaced, adding to the critical toolkit. The focus on individual, unorganized workers, however, leaves a blind spot in the analysis.

The technique of workers’ inquiry has a fraught history, and there has been debate about how close to the realities of work it can get when it is being made by politically motivated outsiders. Woodcock identifies the chapter on the working day in Capital as the prototype; As the title suggests, Capital is interested in capital, so workers are almost a secondary interest. Working the Phones wants to “re-emphasise the role of the worker” so “it is necessary to focus on […] actual struggles.” But Working the Phones is, ironically, too focused on workers. The prioritization of the day-to-day reality of work and the theory of work misses out on what a worker’s perspective can teach us about management and its respective theory.

My own time in telemarketing has come to an end. I was made redundant while preparing this review for publication, in no small part because management were repeating the same mistakes even when they could see that they were returning ever-poorer results. The repetitiveness of telemarketing demonstrates a perverse logic on the part of management. In short, individual managers come into an already fully-formed workplace, so they are unable to shape objectives and are rather shaped by them. They are not there to ensure results and innovate; Their job is primarily to manage contradictions, and so they repeat whatever perceived wisdom says works while struggling to address failure or diminishing returns.

Managers are unable to assess or even describe a good performance. As a result, they become increasingly stressed out as they can’t actively produce good results and must watch their bonuses disappear. As Woodcock writes, “getting workers to achieve targets [is] not straightforward. There [is] no one thing that supervisors could do to ensure [that they are achieved].” To deal with this, they measure arbitrary but easy to quantify statistics around call rates, which take on an almost superstitious significance.

One initiative in my work was to increase the number of calls where the outcome was ‘deferred.’ This was because management had observed that we had a very high ratio of ‘negative’ to ‘positive’ call outcomes. In theory, this would lead to workers changing the way that they spoke on the phones, focusing on the future rather than making each call a make-or-break. In practice, we just started marking our calls as ‘deferred’ instead of ‘negative’. Still, the management were pleased to see the change in statistics, and it wasn’t ever clear if they realized that there was little qualitative change.

Qualitative change was harder to achieve than quantitative change because cold calling is a blunt instrument. It doesn’t respond to the needs and desires of prospective customers, but rather attempts to forcefully generate demand and attention where it doesn’t exist. The customer is only right when they say yes. The ease of monitoring call outcomes and the difficulty of improving them brews a tension between workers and management, but it is management who are put on the winning side. Woodcock writes that “quantitative variables are often context free. They appear as something that cannot be debated.” Workers are unable to argue back when the numbers are stacked against them, and management can always indulge in whatabouttery.

Woodcock’s experience is uncannily close to my colleagues’, which confirms that the same logic is being applied over and over again across industries. To assess job quality, Woodcock references Holman, Batt, and Holtgrewe’s grid, which maps workers’ experiences on two axes: “the ‘extent of discretion at work’ and the ‘intensity of performance monitoring.’” In my experience, telephone jobs are always high scoring on the intensity of monitoring, with the level of discretion ranging from completely scripted conversations and automatic dialling to the freedom to decide who to call, when, and what to discuss. However, this freedom is always with the caveat that you are being monitored.

Monitoring is appealing to management because it is so easy to do, and produces a lot of data that can both occupy a line manager’s time and give them objects to manipulate or hide when things aren’t going well. Importantly, there are different layers of management, all of whom are also being monitored to a certain extent. Like us, they were pursuing performance-related bonuses, so, “there was not much difference between their material conditions and those of low-level workers.” Supervisors are not the personification of Capital, the pursuit of company profit is not really their concern; They work with our call rates and outcomes, not the company’s product (like the software I sold).

There are lots of computer programs on hand to provide data to management. Woodcock’s call center used a system that measured the intervals between calls to establish who was taking overly-long breaks, and he tells an amusing story about workers making a fake call moments before their breaks were meant to end in order to artificially extend them. Other systems are harder to get around: whenever Slack is used in a company there is speculation about how private messages actually are, and there are add-ons which purport to be able to track the general mood of a company by analyzing what people talk about on the platform. These technologies of control can’t actually improve morale or productivity, but they give management a sense of having taken action. In our company an infamous HR initiative was to conduct surveys asking how well we aligned with company values: One month we were told no one aligned at all; The next, we were all highly “aligned.”

On a microcosmic level, individual managers have inherited a market and work structure they have little power to influence. However, at the macrocosmic level, as these technologies become industry-standard, they change the relationship between employer and employee. As Woodcock observes, without formal union organization, “many of the technologies and practices have been implemented without collective resistance.” Not only does a lack of formal organization rob workers of a means to prevent encroaching control of their behavior, but it also implies that management don’t need to go through any critical reflection, and so may be introducing these technologies without fully understanding their consequences. Once they are in the mix, they become best practice almost de facto and so are repeated elsewhere.

When management use monitoring as their primary technique it leads to peculiar methods for motivating the workforce. Across call centers and telemarketing teams the same methods crop up, ranging from mundane things like one-to-one meetings to discuss outcomes and rates to extraordinary ones like telling us that we are the company’s bloodline and the well-being of other people’s children rests on our shoulders (both of these happened in my workplace and are mentioned by Woodcock.)

The crucial motivational problem for management is that no one actually likes taking cold calls. But despite innovations in targeted online advertising, there are certain transactions, say, between businesses or for relatively obscure services, where it is still necessary to sell on the phone, whether for the “personal touch” or for negotiating. Encountering disdain for our calls day-in-day-out is exhausting, so management need to maintain an illusion that what we are doing is meaningful, productive, and worthwhile so we don’t “turn off the system and leave.” At the same time as they control our professional relationships with one another, management encourage us to invert our relationship with the people that we call. When we were blocked by receptionists, our line managers described them as subhuman, trolls, the enemy, or bitches; When we did speak to “leads,” anyone who wasn’t receptive was described as old, or backward, or damningly obsessed with competitors.

None of this makes the job any better, but it does sometimes make it easier to pick up the phone again. As Woodcock experiences, cold callers are always told that “this is not like other places,” a tacit acknowledgement of our work’s bad reputation. When a manager says this, it’s because they want to believe that they are exempt from the perverse logic of other sales teams, but in practice, they can’t ever really break away. They can only convince themselves that their team is different, and even that only sometimes; Any lingering belief in our workplace’s exceptionalism was dispelled when we got to watch our line manager fail to engage with cold calls to his cell even when he knew what was going on at the other end.

Woodcock’s emphasis is ultimately on re-evaluating what it means for a worker to quit. He recounts fledgling attempts at unionization, but also details the challenges. Among these are the precariousness of most contracts, increasingly severe UK trade union laws, and, worst of all, a general lack of enthusiasm toward organized labor. I was open with my colleagues about my trade union membership, yet this was regarded as an amusing quirk rather than a potential political avenue for the team as a whole. In light of the difficulties of organizing, Woodcock positions quitting as a meaningful critique of work available to individual employees as the ultimate form of resistance. It may be the case that an individual employee can re-assess their relationship with workplace politics or the work ethic by leaving, but I don’t think it will ever be interpreted by management as such. The reserve army of labor is enough of a buffer for them to continue to replicate at a micro and macro level the techniques of control which have squeezed out formal organization.

The book closes with a call for further workers’ inquiries, which I believe stand a better chance of fermenting effective resistance to control at the macro level whilst encouraging individual workers to recognize what they have in common with one another. In the context of cold calling, the final coup would of course be to design a system that distributes resources without the need for coercion, and this needs a detailed critique of the failures of the current approach as much as it needs workers who stand up for their personal privacy. In the end, it needs the middle layers of management to come around to a critical point of view as well. I hope we can disprove the claim made by Socialisme ou Barbarie when they assessed their attempts at workers’ inquiry, and raised again by Woodcock as a concern, that “Workers simply [do] not write.”