2 min read

Deprived of Agency

I’ve had experience working on the phone and in the management of call centers. It’s made me a lot more empathetic to customer service workers - the jobs are designed to create a standard set of outcomes for the business at scale. The people on the line often have very little power or ability to work with you. For me, calling customer support is more about navigating the organization, than working with the person who picks up the phone. I just try to be polite to them, knowing 1) they may not be able to help me, but they can derail me, and 2) they are human beings with feelings who may have just been yelled at for doing their job the way they are required.

In some ways, customer service work is a pre-digital form of automation. By standardizing the expectations and abilities of the workers, businesses set a constraint on what workers can do. That sets a floor preventing bad outcomes (though the inflexibility also can lead to inability to solve for unique situations and thereby create very bad outcomes), and sets a ceiling on how good employees can be.

But let’s leave the business logic behind for a moment. As one of those workers, it’s often a very disempowering experience. You act by rote - you have no room for creativity or thought. You are measured, and your goals slowly tweaked up. It can become an antagonistic competition to game the pay system you are working in. You can try to call it fun, and maybe it sometimes is, but most times it will be about extracting the last ounce of effort out of someone in a standardized way. In most of these rote jobs, there is no agency. Without agency, there is no dignity. Some people may want a job where they can punch in and punch out without thinking, but most people, even people fine with that, would prefer to have some power (another day, we can talk about people who can’t handle power responsibly).

These experiences, where workers are constrained, and made standard, are becoming more common. Workers are asked to imitate computers for tasks that computers can’t tackle yet. Increasingly, standardization os coming for more roles, and workers are being disempowered by design. It’s even coming for customers - forcing consumers to flexibly interact with the business the way the business wants us to. Increasingly, we’re building poor client and working experiences in the name of efficiency.

Does better technology eventually solve this, by saving humans from playing at a computer, poorly? Does someone eventually design a better system, one that relies on AI recommendations and coaching for employees instead of constraints and coercion by over wrought pay plan? I think that could work, but the standard approach is simpler to deploy. Finding a way to help businesses efficiently deliver better experiences, while mitigating the risk of a rogue employee with too much power, seems like a huge business opportunity that would make the work life of millions better.