You may have seen in the news last month that thousands of Jobcentre call centre staff went on strike, with the aim of ending a target-driven culture, improve working conditions and introduce proper flexi-time arrangements.  One of the Union’s main concerns was the rigorous monitoring of ‘average’ call times which means that staff feel unable to deal properly and professionally with queries, instead having to ‘fob’ customers off in order to spend as little time on the phone as possible.  The knock on impact of this target-driven culture, was that things that ‘interfere’ with productivity, such as loo breaks, are also rigorously monitored!

Without needing to know much more about the business model the Jobcentre has adopted, it’s easy to see that it’s pretty far away from ‘best practice’ and creates real risks not only to their staff’s levels of stress and sickness but also – contrary to the Jobcentre’s overall purpose of finding and keeping people in work – their morale and retention.  The impact of this is unlikely to be longer-term value for money.

Productivity is a tough one that Industry has grappled long and hard with.  Tailorism (and Fordism), the scientific management of workers, is a principle adopted by many, but which also comes with inherent risks.  The approach aims to optimise workflow by breaking tasks down to the smallest denominator, so that individuals can be trained specifically to perform this task in the ‘best’ way – think of a car production line (hence Fordism).  Clearly, the limitations of Tailorism are that by driving such extreme efficiency, jobs become more monotonous, more prescriptive and controlled and less intrinsically motivational – more mechanistic.  The success of this approach (and technological advancement) on car production lines, is such that much of the work is now done by machines – it has been almost completely dehumanised.

My work on wellbeing focuses on creating workplaces that champion an individual’s need for control over how work gets done (within reason), diverse and intrinsically motivating work, and a clear sense of purpose.  These conditions also create a high performing culture as well as a sustainably engaged and ‘well’ workforce – a much nicer working environment than the one Jobcentre call staff are experiencing at the moment.  

It stands to reason that some working environments will be more target-led than others.  However, a balance needs to be struck between targeting quantity with quality.  Given the interface in call centres isn’t between predictable machines, it’s between less predictable human beings, it stands to reason that dehumanizing the workplace won’t work (and don’t get me started on timing loo breaks!).

Professor Sir Cary Cooper

Professor Sir Cary Cooper

Co-founder of Robertson Cooper, Cary set up the business with Ivan Robertson in 1999. A Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School, he is recognised as a world leading expert on wellbeing. Cary is also the media’s first choice for comment on workplace issues. He remains an active member of the Robertson Cooper team, focusing on strategy, external relations and PR activity.

All author posts