01 January 2000

A ‘MODEL OF BEST PRACTICE’ for call centres was agreed between BT and the Communications Workers Union, averting the national one-day strike scheduled for 9 December. Prior to the deal, three one-day strikes had been called by the union, the first of which took place on 22 November.

The dispute, which hinged on call centre working conditions, was triggered by allegedly ‘oppressive 19th century-style management’, inadequate staffing levels, excessive pressure and stress, profligate use of agency staff; and deadlines so tight that they prevent calls being answered in a professional manner.

Both sides claim that the agreement will lead to BT call centres becoming ‘the hallmark by which other com-panies will be judged’. BT will step-up the recruitment of permanent (as opposed to agency) staff and will set performance criteria for teams rather than individuals. BT and the CWU will work together on a stress man-agement programme.

Aware that the UK call centre industry at large is now under investigation by the Health & Safety Execu-tive, both sides have invited the watchdog to monitor progress in implementing their agreement.

Meantime, news of the H&SE probe was met with anger by some sections of the call centre industry. DMA Telecommerce Council member Natalie Calvert was decidedly unenthused: ‘The industry does not need this sort of bad press’, she fulminated. ‘The HS&E has a moral responsibility to ensure the issue is not blown out of proportion.’ The inquiry, which began in December, will question staff about their daily routine, shift requirements and training. It will also look into health issues including alleged back and voice disorders, noise levels and stress. Its findings will not be announced before January 2001.

In the interim, the government hopes to give a lead to the private sector with the introduction of new mandatory standards for state-owned call centres such as NHS Direct. Phase one of the initiative includes:

- Use of independent ‘mystery callers’ to ensure call processing standards are met.

- The setting performance targets to ensure prompt and customer-friendly service. - Increasing the use of aids for the deaf such as Type Talk.

- Hiring staff fluent in the most common languages in each locality;

- Commissioning a study to ensure appropriate levels of pay and working patterns for staff.

It will also address health and safety advice, motivation and job satisfaction.