Working scientifically

In America, work is often who we are. Some might take issue with this. By-and-large, we are what we do. If you think something different, ask yourself why, when attending parties or the requisite networking after hours some of us are subjected to, why the line of first questioning always settles on, “What do you do for work?”

Our current cultural norm places a positive moral value on doing a good job. This is rooted  in the Protestant Reformation, which made physical labor acceptable for all persons, even the wealthy. Prior to the 16th century, working hard (in the absences of compulsion) was not the norm for Hebrew, classical, or medieval cultures.

Efficiency, and in particular, the scientific dimensions of work and measuring productivity originated in the early 20th century, especially in the scientific theories of work developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor in fact is regarded as the father of scientific management, believing that everything—every movement, motion, and the various processes of work—could be measured and calculated to achieve maximum efficiency, and by extension, maximum profit.An excellent 21st example of Taylor’s legacy is the call center, or “customer care center” as some prefer to label those places where calls are fielded by a sea of agents sitting in a “cube farm,” where every moment of time on the phones is scrutinized and tracked. Taylor’s model is prominently present at some anonymous “call center east of Boston” where I’m on assignment for the holiday season.

I fully accept this model and recognize the Faustian transaction inherent with accepting this seasonal assignment—no illusions and unrealistic expectations for the JBE! Actually, I’ve had several moments of clarity over the past few weeks—times when it became crystal clear that this worker is a different person than the one (pre-JBE) who used to balk every time he was made to feel  like some  “cog” in some sinister wheel of capitalization. He still is—he’s just better at recognizing that he lacks the power to alter the landscape of American work.

Work continues to change and evolve. Much of the work that I derive most of my income from is eons removed from the scientific management theories of Taylor. Rather than rote and programmatic responses, my daylight hours consist of operating on the fly, shifting gears moment by moment and doing what feels like a tight wire act at times; think flying the plane while simultaneously building it.

I welcome the little box that Frederick Winslow Taylor assigns me for 4-8 hour increments each night, chatting with customers from across the country. Almost every call comes from a fellow human happy to be talking with me and having me assist them, acquiring some of our quality merchandise.

Interaction with external customers is enjoyable and I think I’m really good at engaging them and providing them with world class customer service. My recent quality assurance sessions bear this out. At the same time, operating with eyes wide open, I see the chinks in the armor, especially when it comes to interactions with some of the company’s internal customers, especially relative to supporting each other.

This week has been my most challenging. After spending the first six weeks of my assignment establishing my rhythm and finding that equilibrium rooted in comfort—that zone where I ‘m no longer thinking but reacting and experiencing each call with my customer—I’m finally there.

Monday, when the entire universe was placing online orders in deference to the gods of commerce, I was enjoying each and every frustrated customer’s call, seeking my assistance and helping them place their order. Ironically, this was one of my most challenging days navigating the internal labyrinth of what is a very sophisticated center.

I won’t bore you with the details, but know that I’m no longer operating under any false expectations that each and every regular, full-time employee has the same level of professionalism that I bring as a part-time seasonal employee.

This is not a complaint. I’m actually really reveling in the experience this year, just like I thought that I would, but even more than I expected to. My own personal journey over the past decade has prepared me to deflect technology glitches, the ghost of Frederick Winslow Taylor, and being left to fend for myself by internal customers, people paid to provide support, but who haven’t yet embarked on their own journey of self-improvement like I have.

We’re all in this together.

2 thoughts on “Working scientifically

  1. Now, it’s been nearly twenty years since I worked in the anonymous call center east of Boston, but I recall it being north, not east. Do they still tell you to pretend that you’re really just upstairs of the greatest gross-sales-per-square-foot shopping mecca in the world, like you’re answering the ringing phone on the wall?

    To be honest, it was good work for the money, it could engage you (as it obviously did you). My favorite was the grandma octogenarian who was planning her trip to Antarctica, and I’m still amazed that a former student of mine from Washington, DC, recognized my voice on the line, so we chatted for quite some time (I called it customer relations building, but apparently that call wasn’t monitored)–there was some stunning serendipity in that place.

    Taylor, meanwhile, is one of the most amazing frauds in American history, and is very significant in understanding why our schools make people so stupid. A complementary fraud is the myth that Ford paid his workers enough to buy their own car by choice, and not because of the complete failure of Taylor’s theories on Ford’s assembly line. Anonymous call center is a cog in a machine, certainly, but it’s not quite as mind-numbing as one would expect, not at all. Where, though, are you getting your real satisfaction in your work–anonymous call center or JBE?

    • The JBE for sure.

      I concur about Taylor and his fraudulent theories and why are schools are structured like they are. Given that work continues to change and evolve, you would think companies would move past Taylor and his theories, yet they are still choreographing workplaces across the post-industrial world. Treating people like cogs is a lousy way to motivate.

      Technically, my anonymous call-center is northeast of Boston, looking at a map, so the “east of Boston” moniker is not entirely inaccurate.

      I enjoy that probably 95 percent of the callers are truly happy to have you taking their calls and placing their orders for merchandise. Very few pissed off customers, which makes this an above-average seasonal gig, and the discount ain’t a bad thing, either.

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