Andrew Bibby



Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Flexible Working, August 1996

Leeds: Working life in Call Centre City

It was not very long ago that the jobs section of the Yorkshire Post would have been filled with vacancies for slubbers, worsted rovers, carders, finishers and all the other specific skills required by west Yorkshire's textile industry. These days, the Yorkshire Post is more likely to be advertising work in a Leeds call centre.

Some people are beginning to describe Leeds as Call Centre City. According to the claims of the Leeds Financial Services Initiative (LFSI), the years since 1989 when First Direct moved in to an industrial estate on the edge of city have seen Leeds turned into the largest centre for telephone-based financial services in Britain. "Leeds is becoming the 0800 capital of the UK," argues LFSI Chief Executive John Howley.

It is only fair to say that Leeds' claim is open to challenge. North of the Border, for example, Locate in Scotland is currently running a major campaign to promote call centre development, and Glasgow in particular has already become the location for a number of major call centre projects. In England, places such as Manchester and Bristol also have a case to compete for the Call Centre City tag.

>Workforce growing by 2,000 a year

Nevertheless, the list which John Howley produces to justify his assertion is a long one: as well as First Direct, Leeds is home for financial service call centres for Halifax Direct, Barclays InterMortgage, Direct Line insurance, NatWest Switchcard, Privilege Insurance, Alliance & Leicester/Giro, Yorkshire Bank Visa, GE Capital and Ventura. Green Flag and AA Customer Services, both of whom sell insurance-style products, also sneak on to Howley's list. In total the LFSI estimates that about 9000 people are employed in financial services call centres, with the numbers recently increasing by about 2000 a year.

The city itself is promoting this development. The Financial Services Initiative (initially supported by the local TEC, but now funded solely by subscriptions from its seventy member firms) has set up a specialist Call Centre sub-group which has been running a series of informal seminars for members. At the most recent meeting in May, for example, the topic was British Airways' use of call centres. The LFSI is itself a spin-off of the Leeds Initiative, a joint public-private sector venture to promote economic growth in the city.

>Transforming office life

The development of call centres represents a major change in the way in which many white-collar office-based jobs are structured and undertaken. Call centres are made possible by ACD (automated call distribution) technology, which automatically feeds incoming telephone calls to available agents. Unlike a conventional office, a typical call centre will see staff spending their days seated at consoles, receiving calls through headsets and inputting information on to the PCs or terminals in front of them. (Increasingly, use is being made of new technological developments in CTI, computer-telephony integration). Although structured around the telephone, the one thing never heard at a call centre is the sound of a phone ringing.

Call centre staff are thus controlled by technology in a way which is perhaps more akin to assembly-line manufacturing rather than to traditional office working. There is a paradox here: call centres have encouraged much innovation in various aspects of flexible working (including staffing, management and supervision, and the utilisation of office space) whilst at core being places of relatively inflexible work organisation.

In fact, the paradox is easily explained: it is precisely because of the constraints dictated by call centres (for example, the requirement to have the right number of staff in place at the right times to handle the fluctuations in call patterns and to motivate them in what otherwise can be a numbingly tedious way of working) that new forms of working have had to be devised.

>Halifax gets Direct

For anyone interested in the management, human resources and operational implications of call centres, Leeds is clearly a good place to make a visit. One place to start, perhaps, could be Halifax Building Society's impressive new headquarters for their Direct operation just south of Leeds city centre.

The contrast between the old and new in office life is currently well reflected here. Part of one floor is temporarily being occupied by staff from the ex-Leeds Permanent's Visa operation: here there is the usual clutter of office paperwork to be seen, the pinned-up postcards and personal photographs beside the desks. By contrast, the desks for Halifax Direct staff only a few feet away are spick-and-span, bare of all paper and, in line with company policy, free of any personal belongings. Incoming paperwork is digitised, using imaging scanning technology: staff can view documents as necessary on their 21" monitors. They also have access from the LAN, as appropriate, to Halifax's main computer networks (providing real-time information on customers' details and accounts) and to other databases such as CCN's credit reference information. The centre is equipped with sophisticated CTI software, enabling 'screen-popping' (for example, automatic transfer of customer details from one operator's PC to another when a telephone call is transferred).

Halifax Direct's building was opened in March 1995 and properly got underway last autumn. The service, now with about 400 staff, is still not fully launched and will grow rapidly after a forthcoming marketing initiative. Mike Riley, who heads the operation, says the building has space for 1400 workstations.

Compared with the traditional, slightly stuffy, atmosphere of Halifax's main headquarters in Halifax itself, the new Halifax Direct centre is strikingly different. Mike Riley declined to occupy the large office originally designed for him and instead takes his place at a desk in the corner of the main open-plan floor. There is an emphasis on informality: "If someone called me Mr Riley, I'd think they must mean my father," he says. "We run the place in a different way: with a flatter structure and a more democratic style. You can't be status conscious to work here." He adds that Halifax Direct's mission statement includes 'having fun'.

>Flexible work shifts

Halifax Direct operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Clearly, this poses challenging staffing issues, compounded by the fluctuations in the flow of incoming calls (even though software now, to a large extent, can predict when those peaks and troughs will be). Mike Riley says that Halifax Direct operates a wide range of different shifts. "What we're trying to do is have flexibility in the working patterns. Some people here work 4 days on, 3 days off. A lot of people work on Saturdays and Sundays. A lot of people work evenings. Right now, the majority of people are on 36 hours a week, but that doesn't necessarily mean they work 9-5."

Halifax Direct has been established with different terms and conditions from the Halifax itself. There is a standard hourly rate, with no differential pay rates for evening or weekend working. Staff (the starting salary is about £9500) receive incrementals for additional areas of expertise and participate in the Halifax group bonus scheme. Mike Riley is also about to introduce a points-based incentive scheme, with small prizes.

In common with other call centres, Halifax Direct has recruited many young people in their twenties. The shift patterns also make it attractive for returners with family responsibilities. Mike Riley has other plans to develop a flexible labour pool: he is contacting this year's intake of freshers at Leeds' various universities and colleges, partly with the aim to find students available for vacation work but also so that once they are trained students will be available on hand during the rest of the year to be called up on a stop-gap basis to meet staffing shortfalls.

>Telephone banking at First Direct

The same flexibility in shift patterns is noticeable at First Direct, which operates from two call-centres located to the south of Leeds. On a typical day, there is likely to be about twelve different start times for staff, from the early birds at 6.30am to the night shift start of 10pm. As at Halifax there is no premium pay rate for weekend or antisocial working hours, though staff who are asked to work overtime beyond their contracted hours are paid at a small premium rate. The company recruits staff for particular shifts, but attempts to be flexible if individuals subsequently apply to change their hours. In exchange, employees are expected to be flexible in adapting their hours of work if the company requests them to change. Each call centre site has its own workplace creche.

First Direct says that its corporate culture was designed to be based on 'little hierarchy and much democracy'. The workforce are currently surrounded by posters promoting 'Kaizen', the Japanese term which First Direct interprets to mean continuous improvement by steps taken by each individual.

As at Halifax Direct, call centre staff are based in teams (at Halifax of 8, at First Direct typically of 10-12), with their own team leader (Halifax prefers the term 'team coach'). According to Peter Simpson, First Direct's Commercial Director, the team structure is the best way of promoting individual responsibility and accountability. "Delivering service quality excellence is all about motivating people," he says.

>Self-managing teams dispense with team leaders

For the past year or so, First Direct has been developing the idea of participatory management a stage further and currently has about six self- managing teams operating without team leaders and with minimum supervision. The idea, according to Peter Simpson, was proposed by team members themselves. Introduced as a pilot, it appears to be working well, though the self-management teams faced a challenging time last year when annual staff appraisal time came around and questions of performance- related pay had to be collectively resolved.

Given that First Direct has been a pioneer in the story of Leeds' call centre development, the question perhaps is why the 'Project Raincloud' team at the Midland Bank which first set up and launched the direct banking operation picked on the city as its location. In theory at least, call centres can be located anywhere - telecoms and information technology permit working from geographically remote areas, as Hoskyns has proved by basing its processing centre for parking tickets from four London boroughs in the small town of Forres near Inverness. (By doing so, they were able to benefit from various offers of assistance from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Grampian regional Council.) Other companies have been wooed across the Irish Sea by the generous financial assistance on offer by the Irish government's Industrial Development Agency. Leeds by contrast offers no such carrots.

>Why Leeds?

According to Peter Simpson, the main reason for First Direct's location in the city was simply that Leeds happened to have a suitable building of the right size and with the right facilities at the time it was needed. He adds that the area's large catchment area and good transport links were also important in the decision.

Each of the Leeds call centres have their own reasons: for example, GE Capital, which runs in-store credit cards for retailers such as Debenhams, Dixons, House of Fraser and Harrods, originally took over Burtons' in-house credit operation which was based in Burton's large industrial site in eastern Leeds. GE Capital now has 1400 people working for it, on two sites in the city.

Direct Line, who have located one of their six regional call centres in the city, says that one factor was the presence of experienced insurance workers in the region, available for joining the firm as claims staff. Halifax says that it was looking for a centre close to its historical west Yorkshire base.

>Plain speaking

Clearly, a provincial centre such as Leeds offers considerable cost savings on property costs and other overheads compared with London, but nevertheless Leeds' success in attracting call centres seems in large measure to be the result of chance. There may, however, be another factor: John Howley of Leeds Financial Services Initiative argues that the Yorkshire accent goes down well elsewhere in Britain, and his claim is endorsed by both Peter Simpson and Mike Riley. Both say that they looked at research which suggests that the Yorkshire accent comes over as 'trustworthy'. Scotland, incidentally, also scores highly (sadly, however, Birmingham may have an uphill struggle to market itself as a city of call centres).

Even when business is conducted entirely by telephone, location still appears to matter.

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