Beyond Bureaucracy? Work Organisation in Call Centres.
Call centres are a rapidly growing, IT-based channel for service and sales delivery, particularly in the financial services and telecom industries. Although little research has been undertaken on the human resource aspects of call centres, two contrasting images are emerging. The first emphasizes the bureaucratic, constraining nature of these work settings, while the second image points towards worker empowerment characteristic of knowledge-intensive settings. Which of these two images more faithfully portrays the nature of work organization in call centres is the subject of our paper. Drawing on qualitative research undertaken in six call centres and a survey of front-line workers, we show that elements of both models coexist and that a hybrid model predominates. The theoretical basis for this contention, and its institutionalization as mass customized bureaucracy, lies in management's on-going attempts to reconcile two conflicting principles: standardization of processes and customization of products. The paper also explores, as key consequences of mass customized bureaucracy, front-line workers' satisfaction with various facets of their job and their overall job satisfaction, in addition to discretionary work effort. Only in relation to job security and co-worker relations could front-line workers be considered satisfied. Overall, these employees were ambivalent in their responses. They were however more likely to give more discretionary work effort than indicated by their extent of satisfaction. We conclude that, although the existing pattern of work organization may be superior to more bureaucratic forms, it is by no means ideal from the standpoint of either front-line workers or management.
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