The call center has long been considered the prototype of a work environment that makes employees subject to extensive surveillance and digital control. Calls and other work activities are constantly monitored and assessed down to the second. The recorded data is used to rate, rank and discipline workers and push them to the maximum level of work they can manage. Call centers have become “contact centers” that handle calls, emails, chats and social media messages. Where they handle customer support or helpdesk services, they are also referred to as “service centers”. The work environment pioneered in the call center has spread into many areas, from sales to back-office work, from technical advice to remote nursing. Outsourcing giants with hundreds of thousands of employees, which are referred to as “business process outsourcing” (BPO) firms, handle everything from customer service, sales, claim handling and debt collection to content moderation and “AI” data labeling.
This case study explores software systems, technologies and mechanisms that use personal data on employees to organize, monitor, micromanage and control almost every aspect of work in call centers and similar workplaces, with a focus on Europe. It makes two contributions:
First, it summarizes more than two decades of research on how call centers actually use surveillance and algorithmic control in Europe and in the UK, based on a review of survey-based studies and field reports. The review also addresses how workers are affected, the structure of the industry and the complementary role of precarious working conditions, short-term contracts and low wages.
Second, and this is the main contribution, it examines software that is available on the market for employers to operate contact centers and manage workers, based on a detailed analysis of technical documentation and other publicly accessible sources. The investigation focuses on contact center systems provided by the leading vendor Genesys, but also documents data practices from other companies such as NICE, Verint, Amazon, Cogito and Callminer. Some of these systems unite functionality, which is typically covered by different software in other sectors. The findings show that today’s contact center systems offer a wide range of mechanisms to structure, direct, monitor and control work:
- Performance metrics, targets, rankings and assessments are ubiquitous. Dashboards, reports and alerts help to identify “outliers” and appoint coaching sessions. Real-time feedback on performance ratings and monetary “incentives” can be used to intensify work. Electronic wallboards that show metrics to groups of workers and other “public shaming” mechanisms can create peer pressure. Workers can be obligated to collect “points” throughout the day by behaving as desired and to compete with others in the team, turning the contact center into a Black Mirror episode.
- The concept of the “queue” creates a virtual assembly line with the constant need for immediate action. Notifications and timers can act as virtual whips. Automated call and task allocation can be used to maximize efficiency and minimize idle time. Managers can define key performance indicators that determine how quickly calls and other tasks are assigned to workers based on their skill profiles and past behavior. Workers may have to get in line with rigid scripts and other workflow mechanisms or step in when voice- or chatbots demand it.
- Calls and other communication contents can be fully monitored and recorded in the name of training, quality assurance, customer satisfaction and compliance. Today’s contact center software can automatically analyze and assess what workers say, which phrases they use and whether the sentiment in a call or conversation was “positive” or “negative”. Some systems claim to rate “friendliness” and “empathy” by assessing the tone of voice or even provide automated real-time instructions to workers about how they should speak in order to “implement empathy at scale”, as one vendor states. The recording of screen contents is also offered. Managing “quality” and customer satisfaction can turn into behavioral control.
- Some vendors sell even more invasive surveillance technologies targeted specifically at remote workers, from recording keystrokes and mouse clicks to the use of webcams for monitoring.
- Employers can automatically schedule shifts, activities and breaks to get the maximum out of a minimum number of staff and outsource risks to workers by means of flexible shifts, unpaid leave, overtime assignments and just-in-time hiring. Forecasting and planning mechanisms can directly affect performance targets, work intensity and schedule stability.
Although surveys, field reports and vendor information on the use of the examined systems suggest that many of these functionalities are in use in Europe, it remains unclear how employers actually deploy them. Overall, the findings clearly demonstrate that the design of these systems can shape how they are used by employers and thus how they affect the daily lives of workers. Default settings and recommendations laid out in the software documentation can also have an impact on how employers use them. While a comprehensive legal assessment of the examined data practices is beyond the scope of this study, data protection issues are briefly discussed.
The study also addresses the relationship between some of the examined software vendors and the French outsourcing giant Teleperformance. Furthermore, it shows that several companies, which provide call center technology, originate from the national security sector. Some of them still sell surveillance systems to both employers and governments.
The findings of this case study will be incorporated in the main report of the ongoing project “Surveillance and Digital Control at Work” (2023-2024) led by Cracked Labs, which aims to explore how companies use personal data on workers in Europe. The main report will draw further conclusions.