My Word: On Hold

11 February 2014 Will Cox

My Word: On Hold

Will Cox, Ed#449, January 2013

Your call may be important, but other call-centre matters also deserve attention.

I had precisely 19 seconds. This was the ‘after call-work time’ that the department could not take away from me. Although taking the full freedom of this privilege was discouraged, I cherished it.

Nevertheless, I soon discovered that this break was scarcely long enough to have a sip of water and draw a deep breath before…


“Welcome to B Customer Service, you’re speaking with Will, how can I assist you with your enquiry today?” …and the flow of complaints, enquiries and disputes continued.

There are roughly 198,000 ‘seats’ in the Australian call-centre sector. I was one of them. I had been in the Resolutions Department of what I’m just going to call B Insurance for six months, fielding calls from disgruntled customers who, despite relief that they weren’t talking to someone on the Indian subcontinent, regarded me with a disdain reserved for heartless bureaucrats.

Each ‘call type’ was dealt with via a Best Practice Procedure, complete with recommended phrasing. Nothing was left to chance. Everything, where possible, was automated. All one had to do was “control the flow”, diverting the conversation down pre-ordained rivulets. The algorithms calculated that this would take 450 seconds.

My entire worth was understood in such figures, each ‘consultant’ a monetised commodity. The pay was below average, the conditions stressful, and the consultants perpetually dissatisfied, making surveillance of staff a key managerial priority. As a colleague was told by her team leader, “Be careful what you put in your private emails – we can see everything you’re doing.”

To counteract this, there were non-financial incentives: laminated certificates for adherence to key performance indicators, and birthday cakes so consultants could mark another passing year in an unchanging environment.

I comforted myself with books. I read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, giving the duration of my 15-minute break to the exotic squalor of between-the-wars Paris, in which Orwell describes working 15 hours a day as a breadline-earning hotel plongeur (literally, ‘diver’, one who washes dishes and performs menial kitchen tasks; in other words, a dish pig). After my reading break I returned to my desk, hitting ‘ready’ and preparing to exert what control I could over the ensuing flow. At least I was not working down the mines, or as a Parisian plongeur. There was very little chance of contracting the black lung, or dying of consumption.


LAST OCTOBER, A visibly panicked colleague pulled me into a dusty alcove. Her team leader had taken her aside and said her performance was deemed unacceptable. Her fate would be decided by the end of the day. My colleague could not afford to lose her job. An out-of-work schoolteacher, this was her stopgap, too. She told me that her personal breaks often exceeded 10 minutes a day. Her adherence statistics had fallen below the golden 90% mark. She took too many sick days. The pressure and frustration, she told me, had become too much.

We theorised. Perhaps she would be put on an ‘action plan’ to get her back on track. Perhaps she’d merely be ‘marked down’, potentially failing her monthly assessment. Though team leaders often caught the ire of staff, they, too, were at

the mercy of a set of arbitrary rules, and were merely attempting to guide the flow of complaints, frayed tempers and discontent. The call centre is a living, breathing organism, and we each had a part to play.

It became clear to both my colleague and myself that we were reaching the end of our tethers. We made our separate exit plans, escaping into financial insecurity. Some months later, I wrote to ask her: what are your prevailing recollections of that time, now that you’re out of it? Jovial comparisons to both post-traumatic stress disorder and the Vietnam War aside, we both agreed that the months, minutes and micro-managed seconds had simply washed away; that overheated, windowless room was just a frozen moment in time.

I left the call centre a few weeks before Christmas, and at the end of my last day, I was allowed a 10-minute reprieve for a farewell team meeting. We were each permitted a slice of blackforest cake.

» Will Cox is a Melbourne-based writer who focuses on film, music and offbeat fiction. Follow him on Twitter, @dazzleships or visit


This article first appeared in Ed#449 of The Big Issue magazine.