Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Be yourself, or else: how fun is used in high-control workplaces

Call centres are a world of call stats, cubicles, and scripted encounters, yet in recent years some companies have promoted a credo of fun and individuality. A new article investigates one company to see how deep these currents run. It portrays a darker side to the fun workplace.

Peter Fleming and Andrew Sturdy conducted their qualitative study with an embodiment of the new trend, an Australian call centre they dub ‘Sunray’. Its telephone agents, age averaging at a youthful twenty-three, are expected to live by the 3Fs: Focus, Fun, and Fulfilment, and are continually encouraged to “be yourself”. The company strongly promotes diversity, notably regarding sexual orientation, and dyed hair, piercings and sexy clothing are encouraged. The company promotes itself akin to a permanent party, running training events that involve drinking and scoping out sexual conquests, and extends this atmosphere into working hours, via fancy dress events and a culture of dating and flirting.

So far, so fabulous. But Fleming and Sturdy went underneath the exterior through group and one-to-one interviews with thirty-three telephone agents and managers. Though some were positive, with around half endorsing the 3Fs and a be yourself policy that let them feel “free to be who we are”, a dissenting picture also emerged.

The chief complaints were that the freedoms could be limiting, and the authenticity...inauthentic. According to employees “you have to be able to see the lighter side of things… you have to be bouncy and willing to try anything”; failing to make it to the fun away days could result in penalties. Others felt that claims for a lack of hierarchy simply didn't hold up, and wished managers would “simply tell me the truth”.

According to the authors, these tensions emerge because the claims don't line up with the reality of how call centres operate. Like many industries, their roots are squarely in the command-and-control structure of the military. Sunray exemplifies this through its technological controls like call monitoring, bureaucracies such as strictly defined targets, and cultural edicts that specify “how we do work here”.

As Fleming and Sturdy see it, these stringent controls work to alienate and sap employees, which can lead to them disengaging or even resisting. The solution for these workplaces has been to divert attention from these controls with a parade of exciting things: cleavage, piercings, the chance to bring your surfboard into work. As the authors put it, “employees enjoyed liberties mostly around the work task...rather than so much in the task itself”. Indeed, one HR manager made the telling admission that “we need to make up for the kind of work that is done here”.

By this account, the company does alright, having their monotonous, wearing work completed, and escaping any real backlash by buying the employees off with a facsimile of social life. The young employees do less well. As we see, some are disillusioned that the promises don't line up with reality. Others may be drawn into dependency, as they've been encouraged to draw their social world from the same well as their pay-check. Work equals friends, romance, even identity; for the company, it's ultimately 'just business'. And overall, the individuality culture discourages ways of thinking that cultivate solidarity across the workforce.

It would be interesting to see follow-up work to evaluate some of these claims, such as to look at burnout rates and the consequences of overlapping work/leisure social networks. As it is, the authors suggest that organisations should tackle the root issues of alienating work, by reducing controls, introducing some practical freedoms and making the work more intrinsically rewarding. Until then, they conclude, “the 'humanized' call centre remains some way off.”



ResearchBlogging.orgFleming, P., & Sturdy, A. (2010). 'Being yourself ' in the electronic sweatshop: New forms of normative control Human Relations, 64 (2), 177-200 DOI: 10.1177/0018726710375481

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