Stop that chatter!


Early on a Friday afternoon and the only audible sign that I’m not alone (which sometimes I am at this time of week) is the occasional clicking of my colleagues mouse. From the sound of it she – like me – is deeply engaged in surfing the internet. Whether its checking the news, online shopping or getting ideas for dinner tonight I can only guess. We haven’t talked for hours.

It’s not that we can’t stand each other. We have a typical colleague-colleague relationship. It’s just that we can talk whenever we want – so we don’t. It’s this which makes me realise how far away from the call centre I now am.

In the call centre talking to your co-workers is a forbidden fruit to be bitten into, to have its juices savoured. You talked whenever you had the chance. The reason for this is that when it is effectively the use of your vocal chords which is being paid for the employer expects them to be used only for the pursuit of their objectives. Using them for mere idle chatter is wasting money.

In my last call centre managers would go to lengths to prevent chatter. Not content with waving monitoring reports at you in your six-monthly review, showing how much time you’d spent not on calls they’d seek to catch you red handed. Moving around the floor with stealth they used the wobbly grey partitions, stone pillars and over-sized pot-plants for cover. Observing for a few moments they’d then leap like a lion on their unsuspecting prey.

There was really nothing worse than getting the unpleasant tap on the shoulder followed by a rebuke of ‘get back on the phone’ so against this threat we deployed several defensive strategies. The first thing to do when coming on shift was to find a seat which faced the managers desk cluster. This enabled you to observer the observer, and prevented any unnoticed approach. Adjusting your chair to sit as low as possible was another strategy. Too high and your head is literally above the parapet. Managers sight-lines could also be blocked by careful positioning of a box-file.

Another trick is keeping your headset on and looking straight-ahead, never looking away from the screen, whilst conversing with your neighbour. It goes against all the usual norms of face-to-face conversation, but it’s much easier to conceal an illicit conversation. Finally there is teamwork, which involves warning each other with nudge, or a head nod that a manager is on the prowl.

In my final year at that particular call centre I only got tapped on the shoulder twice.

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4 thoughts on “Stop that chatter!

  1. I always find it amusing how ‘good teamwork’ is stressed with vital importance when applying or ‘auditioning’ for call centre jobs when it’s actually the least likely skill to make any difference as, after training, you will rarely if ever be involved in any teamwork activities. The ‘team’ is just a convenience which makes it easier for you to be managed, and ranked against your peers.

    • Yes, I think you’re exactly right. In my experience teamwork – as I and most other people understand it – is actively discouraged by management. I remember one incident when I helped a colleague with something they had been having trouble with and my manager (who ironically instituted a ‘best team player’ award) told me off for being out of my seat! It was quite satisfying pointing out that, actually, I was on my break.

  2. You mean they had the nerve to monitor and manage productivity? They wanted to hit their service levels and answer calls before waiting too long. How draconian?

  3. The issue with anything like this is balance. As a worker it’s annoying to be next to two people who spend the majority of their shift in conversation, but a quick five minute chinwag – we’re all human aren’t we? The problem with the call centre is that it’s easy to observe productivity, and then to apply the squeeze, there’s also an asymmetry which means managers can (and do) get away with chatting away among themselves whilst they should in theory be working, yet no one ever seems to rigorously enforce this

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