In May-June Hamish and Sophie are spending time in a London Borough call centre. We’ve been meeting staff and talking to them about their experiences of working there, specifically the work of receiving difficult, abusive calls and the physical and mental reactions they have in these moments. The hand gestures, body stretches, leg shaking. We’ve been giving out mini succulent plants to the staff along with the instruction to try and care for it in the office. In a hot-desking environment where personalisation of desk space is not permitted, the care of a living thing becomes quite a challenge.
Through our conversations with people, we have become interested in the invisible procedures that go unspoken and unnoticed in the work place. Some people refer to the walls, doors and barriers that go up. These are learnt behaviours to distance themselves from angry callers, used as a form of protection and self-preservation. And then there are many references to the need for compassion, patience and empathy to do the job. When to display compassion and when to shut the door?
There is also talk of the knock on effect of the cuts to public services – this job involves communicating those cuts and being on the receiving end of the implications of those cuts. Callers might relay practical issues of broken doors, leaking pipes and old boilers that need fixing. The same voice might portray feelings of anxiety, depression and stress. The concrete, structurally broken bits of our lives intersect with our emotional states. How do we acknowledge these aren’t isolated cases, going into the ears of individual workers, but shared experiences connected to systemic problems?
There might be a humiliating, dehumanising effect of receiving stressful calls, but the customer is always right. The emphasis is on dealing with the caller in more efficient ways. Through eye contact, an arm on the shoulder, a chat over coffee, some of the co-workers provide informal support for one another.
Our conversations and interactions will continue over the next few weeks.