The flexible practices


Flexible practices are becoming more and more popular nowadays; these practices are forming part of all aspects of organizations, from the production process to the managerial levels. Flexibility takes the form of just-in-time system, quality circles, decentralization, team working, flexitime, etc. which are affecting the work-life balance of employees. The question is, whether managers are using discourses about flexibility to better enslave workers? Or do they have genuine intentions which will make the workers feel like assets in a high trust organisation? This study will give a thorough outlook on how firms are exploiting and alienating workers using advanced technologies which permeate the workplace. Lastly, Marx labour process will help understand the controlling nature of organisations, and how over the years the aims of the capitalists have remained unchanged.

How flexibility emerged in organisations?

The rise of large-scale firms[1]

With the rise of capitalism, division of labour enabled production to be more effective but it also gave the capitalists the opportunity to better enslave workers and take a greater share of the rewards (Marglin, 1974: 62). The economist Andrew Ure also commented that mechanisation was compulsory since it enabled the capitalists to tie the workers to the 'unvarying regularity of the machine' (Clawson, 1980: 54), rendering their work more perfect. However, it should be noted that the move from small scale production to large bureaucratised organisations was not done smoothly. During this unstable period, different forms of flexibility materialized, examples are contracting and craft control.

It can thus be observed that flexibility is not a new term; it was present in organisations and this was the type of flexibility where workers had the main power to direct and do their jobs according to their rules and regulations. The question which should be later asked, is why would firms want to get back to their old methods of control and flexibility when they abandoned it for hierarchical organizations where power is maintained at the centre?

The fall of bureaucracy and the emergence of the Japanese's modes of production[2]

Although bureaucracy was one famous way of managing firms, its use was not very appropriate when the firms had to adapt to changing environmental conditions. It was known for its red-tapism and also as Weber warned us, 'we, in our desire for organizational order and predictability, tend to focus too much on the rationality of the rules in and of themselves, overintellectualising the moral and ethical values critical to our organizational lives and making decisions according to the rules, without regard to the people involved' (Kalberg, 1980: 1158).

Hierarchical organisation with assembly line workers was not what made firms profitable. Less rigidity was being required to satisfy the fast-changing needs of the customers. This concept, known as flexibility was best implemented by the Japanese at that time; (The difference between the flexible firm and the fordist mode of production is clearly represented in Figure 3.0). For them, the workers not only carried out the tasks but they were also the thinkers; they participated in decision-making and there was the formation of quality circles which enabled ideas to be shared among group members. 'For Taylorism, the self-organisation, ingenuity and creativity of the workers were to be combated as the source of all dangers of rebellion and disorder, for Toyotism these things were a resource to be developed and exploited.' (Andr Gorz, 1999)

The first industrial divide was the era of mass production, division of labour and economies of scale. Firms were characterised as being low trust and having high degree of control. With the use of scientific management, tasks were fragmented resulting in workers having very low autonomy.

With the development of globalisation making the Fordist system of mass production incapable of permanent innovation, arises the second industrial divide. This new epoch is well characterised by Piore who states that the traditional highly integrated, corporate structure is converted into a more supple organisational form capable of responding quickly to shifting market conditions and product demand (Piore, 1986: 146).

What is flexibility?[3]

According to Smith (1989, p.203), ''flexibility' can be summarised as labour market and labour process restructuring, to increased versatility in design and the greater adaptability of new technology in production.'

To better understand and interpret the term 'flexibility', the flexible firm model, developed by Atkinson (1984) and the Institute for Manpower Studies (IMS) will be described. According to this model, the workforce is divided between the core workers and a cluster of peripheral employment relations.

Numerical Flexibility[4]

This refers to the ability for firms to vary their workforce according to production demands so as to get a perfect match between numbers needed and employment. The rise in numerical flexibility has been due to the post-bureaucratic period where there are less formal rules of recruiting, mobilising and regulating labour (Felstead and Jewson, 1999: 9).

Functional Flexibility[5]

The focus of functional flexibility is to remove barriers among the different levels of hierarchies in an organisation. This is achieved mainly through job rotation and merging of production grades; 'functional flexibility is often assumed to lead to higher levels of skilled labour' (Ackroyd and Proctor, 1998: 179).

Temporal and Financial Flexibility[6]

Pay structures and bargaining power have been simplified. Now, performance-related pay and career progression linked to the level of pay are more widely used as compared to the traditional notion of a specific 'rate for the job'. Variations are also on the time workers come and leave the workplace. Workers have greater control over the scheduling of their working hours.

The Atkinson model embodies these three types of flexibility nevertheless there are other models such as the rhine model[7] which illustrates how family businesses in Italy make effective use of flexible practices. Also flexible specialisation[8] which is beyond the scope of this study is a good example of flexibility in production processes.

Functional and Numerical flexibility - substitute or complement?[9]

Depending on the structure of the organisations, some are better able to combine both forms of flexibility while others adhering mainly to the Atkinson model will have clearly divided work groups; the highly skilled forming part of the core workers and the peripherals engaging in low-skilled jobs. Nowadays, flexibility cannot only be associated with temporaries carrying out unskilled jobs since many companies are making use of contractors who are highly skilled individuals. Consequently it becomes an advantage to employers to invest in the integration and in the flexible workers' competencies so as to maximise knowledge creation and integration which will be of benefit in the long-run.

Another factor influencing the use of both numerical and functional flexibility is ICT. Due to the volatility of technologies, firms are compelled to use flexible work practices; this involves the use of temporaries who can be easily recruited and this provides volume flexibility. Then again, 'at the higher-skill end, we find increased use of flexible workers with a broader range of skills, which provide management with an opportunity to tap into a broader knowledge pool' (Miozzo and Ramirez, 2003).

As referred to above the first industrial divide no more fits this new era where everything is changing so fast. The Mc Donalization thesis is an extension of the scientific management approach and properly fits this new epoch. Through the practices of Mc Donalisation, a replication of fordism is observed. Nevertheless, with the use of advanced technologies, the capitalists are able to take their exploitation of workers one step further. While the panopticon was of the period of fordism, it is the electronic panopticon which suffuses the workplace nowadays. Discourses about flexibility are frequently used by managers to better attract workers, however the worker soon loses his own personality and no more recognises his own self. An alienated and exploited individual who is internalising control, that is the new worker of this new century. As will be seen below, call centres[10] are expansions of fordism, with very rigid human resource practices where no flexibility is present.

The "McDonalization" thesis[11]

George Ritzer defines McDonalization as 'the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world' (G.Ritzer, 1998). These principles are mainly predictability, calculability (an emphasis on quantification), efficiency and control (by means of non-human technologies).

The process of McDonalization consists of taking a task and breaking it down in several smaller tasks. This is done for all the various tasks that exist in the production process. The broken down tasks are then rationalized so as to find the sole most proficient method to complete each task; the other methods that exist are considered to be inefficient. The resulting effect is one which is very efficient; there is a logical sequence of methods that can be completed the same way every time so as to reach the wanted outcome. These outcomes are predictable, all aspects of the production process are easily controlled and calculability becomes the measurement of good performance. The work is knowable and workers are controlled by non-human technologies, rendering them robot-like.

From this type of society emerge low-trust organisations where workers with the same skills are available in bulk; employers just have to choose from a sea of 'mass intellectuals.' Very often those workers find themselves carrying out low-skilled jobs where they can be fired anytime. Only the few highly skilled employees or those possessing the means of production have the opportunity to move up the ladder.

The Panopticon and its adaptation to the workplace

The Panopticon[12] was designed in the late eighteenth century by Jeremy Bentham who had significant interest in penal institutes. It was based on the basis that the prisoner cannot know whether he is being seen. Each prisoner has their own cells; they are individualized. Thus in the prisoner's mind, he is always being observed even though he might not be. Anyone can come in the supervisor's place and the power exerted will be the same, it will produce the same effects on the prisoners; that is the seen and being seen dyad. That is what is so marvelous about the Panopticon; it assures the automatic functioning of power without it being exerted directly. The surveillance is permanent even if it might be discontinuous in its action, keeping the power relation constant. The observed will always behave and be on his guard since he never knows when the observer is studying him. Visibility is what matters most in the Panopticon; universal transparency, as Bentham called it. This clearly resembles the workplace where the architecture has been raised in such a way that enables the supervisor to check from his office if discipline is reigning without the workers being aware that they are being observed.

Shoshana Zuboff took the Panopticon a step forward, for her it is the electronic panoticon[13] which prevails in the organisation of today. Different from Bentham's Panopticon is that the information Panopticon is freed from the constraints of time and space and does not require the presence of an observer. Information systems can be made to record almost everything, all depending on the designers' wish. The central tower as described before is hereby replaced by the video screen. Hence the workers are constrained from all sides since there are cameras recording their every move; they have no choice but to abide to the rules. Whilst, it may be believed that working on a flexible hour basis gives the workers more independence, various measures are taken to ensure that even though not at the workplace, the work is still being done. Electronic mails and telephone calls ensure that the objectives set are being met even when away. As has been found from many studies, the surveillance of workers is more intense for those absent from work than for those who are present (Richard Sennett, 1998).

While management uses the soft human resource management's discourse to make workers believe that they will be more autonomous and self-managed, the workplace is filled with disciplinary power. Employees have no choice but to accept this totalitarian system of control which is at the benefit of the capitalists.

The construction of control in call centres

The physical environment of call centres emerges as being one immense source of control. Houlihan (2002: 75) observes that even though limited reflection has been made on the terrible working conditions of call centre workers and how these impacted on them; some centres did try to make the physical environment more pleasant so as to communicate the value of its employees. Then again, Rose (2002: 41 - 42) advocates that 'a relatively opulent working environment together with the provision of certain benefits such as free private medical and dental care do not detract from the "sweatshop conditions" which prevail'.

Baldry et al. (1998: 164) sustain that 'work buildings are structures of control' - they embody the labour process which results in enhanced control by the way the space is organised. For them the building is not just a technical system but the way it operates, how it is designed and configured reflects the priorities of the social system. The open-plan offices which resemble factories allow for better visual control and this 'intelligent building' where most elements are mechanically determined lessens the employees' capacity to control their work environment. As Baldry et al. (1998: 165 - 166) note, 'the appeal of open-plan layout to management lies in the low cost of setting up such offices and the capacity to 'greatly facilitate visual surveillance of the labour process'.'

Even though the open-plan offices were designed in such a way to give the impression that employees were better able to communicate and work in groups, the focus on the statistics and the technology used hindered this interaction. 'Designing an office space in order to facilitate employee communication would have been inconsistent with company objectives' (Alison Barnes, 2007).

Furthermore, one common practice in call centres is hot-desking; this refers to 'non-territorial offices', meaning that employees work from any desk that is available to them. For management this is a huge cost saving practice especially in call centres where most employees work on flexible contracts. Another benefit is the reduced employee resistance since it becomes difficult for employees to socialise and conspire against management. But from the workers' point of view, having a personalised space is according to the psychologist Andrew DuBrin one way of 'fighting to maintain identity and their own uniqueness' (Brindley, 1997: 70). Wells maintains this by saying that individuals who are able to personalise their work environment feel better instead of feeling like 'cogs in a machine', it also helps in reducing the stress level since workers sense that they have more control and finally having a pleasant and familiar workplace increase job satisfaction (Wells 2000: 240).

Wallboards are one of the control factors which are most visible to employees. The boards signal the number of calls being on hold, the longest wait time and the number of neglected calls. All these increase the stress level of employees, accentuating the need to be quick and effective in managing calls.

'Management deliberately choose a technology that has been designed to limit worker autonomy and are conscious of the power of the call queue in maximising production pace - the workers are almost seen as part of the machine - of a technology which continuously 'fires' call at them' (G.Callaghan and P.Thompson, 2001).

Therefore this clearly represents the technologies of spaces and gazes[14] where the way the building has been designed acts as a control device to better know and discipline the workers.

Maintaining the subject in call centres

Call centres are saturated with disciplinary power. For control to be effective capitalists need to have power over its employees; this power is obtained by gaining maximum knowledge[15] over the workers and this leads to the creation of power relations[16]. In most work situations if not all, there is an oppressor and the oppressed that is, where one is exercising power over another. Exercising power is a form of control where workers can be made to achieve what is wanted by the organisation. For the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci (G.Danaher; T.Schirato; J.Webb,2000) the oppressor does not necessarily have to impose his values onto the less powerful groups, but instead the latter accept the differences in the levels of power and economic wealth within the society as being just and normal and so they assent to the rule of their 'betters'. This concept known as hegemony can be linked to Karl Marx's notion of false consciousness; the dominant ideology is accepted as being the one and the proletariat fail to recognise that they are being exploited.

Gaining knowledge on workers is one dominant factor in call centres. There are various measures as mentioned before which are used so as to get to know all the bits and pieces concerning the employees' lives, their performance, their thoughts etc. Employers/oppressors use this knowledge for the formation of scientific 'truths' which help constitute various forms of power relations. Michel Foucault identifies two forms of power relations, disciplinary and governmental. Disciplinary power manifests a 'bio-political' force upon individuals that makes them conform to a certain extent to particular rules. Such power can be found in call centres where individuals are separated in various cubicles and all have a computer screen and scripts enabling them to perform the job in prescribed ways. Secondly there is governmental power, also known as 'governmentality' since it is a mix of governance and rationality. Here power is manifested as a psychological force to 'conduct the conduct' of individuals by persuading them to accept a particular rationalisation which will guide their actions.

Ever since the 'truth' value of data collected at the workplace has been linked to the previously accepted authority of statistics and scientific methods; the objectives of profitability and the fact that the employers have the right to arrange work according to their own standards and workers do not have much choice than to abide to the rules to earn a living, this makes the whole structure of the workplace as being 'natural'. In call centres, workers constantly stress themselves by looking at the displayed statistics to ensure that they are complying or even exceeding the accepted standards. These governmental statistics are aimed at convincing the operators that their worth as a worker is equal to their statistical productivity and quality ratings.

Workers are made to internalise control; Michel Foucault explains this as agents developing technologies of the self[17]; they examine, analyse and act upon themselves in order to produce the desirable outcomes. Diverse norms are set by the employers so as to enable employees to know how the work should be carried out. While supervisors do discipline workers when not abiding to the norms, Michel Foucault sees workers as responsibilising themselves, they internalise the norms set by the experts that is they come to accept these standards as being 'normal'. This is known as the technologies of responsibilisation[18].

There are some operators who do not follow the norms, they engage into conversations with customers without following any scripts, they take more time on the phone so as to please customers but at the end of the day they are tagged as the low-performers. When seeing their statistics as compared to the high-performers they come face to face with a statistical subjectification of themselves (Foucault, 1988a; Power, 1994; Kinnie et al., 2000). They are then compelled to internalise norms and change their behaviours to come to terms with what is being expected from them.

'These ways of seeing and measuring workers and creating them as subjects also demonstrate how organisations make use of scientific means of observing, inscribing and examining individuals such that those individuals are rendered as 'objective' numbers in a chart' (D.Winiecki and B.Wigman, 2007).

Discourses have changed, with flexibility being the new term which attracts workers. However has it really changed since the time of the first industrial divide or is it the same dark satanic mills?

Dark Satanic Mills

Marx notes: 'the fact that labour is external to the worker, does not belong to his essential being; that he therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labour is therefore not voluntary but forced, it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but a mere means to satisfy need outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists it is shunned like the plague' (Ibid, 1998: p326).

This describes the dark satanic mills of the 19th century; they produce alienation and destroy human lives. According to Marx, workers in capitalist societies are stripped of or separated from what should be meaningful in their lives and that is what fuels their exploitation. In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx identified four specific ways in which alienation pervades capitalist society. Firstly, people are alienated from their labour since their job does not fulfil their own needs and creativity but instead satisfy the capitalists' desires. This obviously resembles the call centres where operators have no choice but to stress themselves to increase the quantity and quality of calls which increases the organisation's profitability.

Workers are also alienated from their produce which benefit the capitalist and emerge as commodities which they have to purchase. Statistics are displayed to make operators internalise norms and the benefit of which is collected by the capitalist while the worker is being paid less than the value of his own creation.

Thirdly, employees are alienated from other people since the exchange of money and commodities alter social relationships. Parallel to this statement, the jobs of call centre workers plainly distort their social relationships. Not only are they individualised in office cubicles but they make use of telephones to carry out their jobs; no social dealings exist since they never meet the customers. The situation at the workplace is worst as all communications are dealt by making use of information and communication technologies.

Lastly, people are alienated from their species being, since the loss of meaningful productive activity removes one of the main capacities that make us human. Here again the comparison with call centre workers can be made. Adopting various technologies to internalise and discipline themselves workers have no choice than to finally adapt to the rules set by the capitalists. While resistance does appear for a short period of time, in the end the worker himself wants to increase his productivity when he compares himself to the others. He no more is a subject with personal feelings and opinions but is only a docile body or an object being exploited to serve the capitalists.


Moving from the dark satanic mills to fordism[19] and then to the McDonalized society and call centre work, the aims of the capitalists have not altered over the years. The aim of the 'scientific' organisation of work was to squeeze the maximum output from workers by imprisoning them in a system which constrained them in all ways and so eliminating all scopes for initiative.

Just like in a McDonalized society, call centre workers are required to provide the same type of service again and again. Not many skills are needed and scripts are provided to reduce the thinking time and to carry out the task according to what the employer wishes. Employees do not have much scope for involvement in decision making. These are some reasons why 'job commitment among call centre agents traditionally is considered low' (Rose, 2002).

The four dimensions described by George Ritzer can here also be applied. Every aspect of a call centre work is calculated, predictable, efficient and, controlled. Various measures are taken to achieve these results; one example is the built-in environment in the call centre. Both the McDonalized society and call centre work are extensions of Fordism. All these jobs are alike and work is performed similar to an assembly-line.

Edwards sees mechanization as 'the result of the particular [capitalist] design of the technology and not as an inherent characteristic of the machinery in general' (Edwards, 1984: 122). The whole production process is embedded in the technology itself; it is not the supervisor or the boss who push and pace work flowing, but instead these are done by the ACD (Automated call distribution system). Even though workers know that these various technologies are controlled by the managers, they very often direct their anger and resistance towards the machines. Since the system of control is robustly entrenched in the physical fabric of production, it is less obtrusive and power relations are more invisible.

However as compared to the assembly line, work in call centres is more exploitative since the worker is not producing one part of the product and passing it to the next worker as in the assembly-line but instead, he is completing the whole production cycle.

It can therefore be concluded that the three processes are reproductions, each in different environments but all being similar to each other. Fordism and F.W.Taylor's scientific management approach helped create the assembly line and McDonalization and call centre work are just extending these concepts using more advanced technologies which are more manipulative. The brain is taken out of the work and employees are treated as objects - mindless machines.

The second industrial divide is characterised by job intensification where the capitalists are using hard versions of human resource management to exploit the workers. However, they are masking this hard reality with the soft discourses of HRM. Control is at the heart of all organisations, and with the new technologies even the more intimate side of the employees are known. With the various types of flexibility being used, workers no more have a proper work-life balance. Rather than enhancing skills, managers are using various schemes so as to extract more and more surplus value from the workers. This gives employees no other choice than to resist to management.

Worker resistance in call centres

What management would like to achieve and what they actually accomplish is far from being the same. According to Fernie and Metcalf, worker resistance is nonexistent in call centres since the effect of the panoptic gaze ensures that 'surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action' (Foucault, 1977: 201); that is exactly what management wants to achieve. However, the objectives of management should not be misinterpreted; the workplace remains a site where the employment relationship is not as simplistic as Fernie and Metcalf declare. The main purpose of the capitalist remains profitability and this should not be replaced by control.

Call centre workers actively engage with the various elements of control present in their work environment. Very often those escaping from the rigid control are the more experienced workers. With time they have come to know when their calls are being taped, which codes to use if they want some free time, how to manage their emotions, when to use scripts etc. Evidence of these practices have been found by Taylor and Bain (2000: 15), who found that workers were giving the impression that they were engaging on telephone calls but in fact there were no such interactions taking place, also some agents reported that to some extent they were able to disengage from the waiting of queue calls.

These statements challenge the assertions that the electronic panopticon renders management's power perfect; experienced agents are able to avoid the carceral gaze. Besides while the supervisors may want to better control their subordinates, they also do not want to have bad statistics which will ruin their own reputations thus this creates gaps allowing workers to breath. If workers are individualised in their workplace they still do meet after the working hours and so widening the breach between Bentham's Panopticon and the capitalist's workplace; here the inmates are able to leave their cells at the end of their shifts. These social interactions do create more collective actions as agents are able to plot once away from the gaze and being part of a union enable them to take actions against top management.


So far as the capitalist will exist, the labour process[20] will remain unchanged. Control will always be a major feature of the workplace. From various features of the buildings to making workers internalise control, employers go to high extent so as to cage their employees and make them achieve the goals set. While flexibility might be thought to enhance the work life balance of workers and making them more autonomous, it has been seen that the work being carried out is no more different from that of the employees working on Henry Ford's assembly lines. With the continuous development of scientific methods and high technologies, new ways are being sought to imprison the worker and turn him into an object. In these dark satanic mills of this new century, exploitation and alienation are at their peak.

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