The supermarket worker

www.nesta.org.uk/feature/workers-take-on-change/supermarket-worker/
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I found my current job working for a major supermarket through an outsourcer in 2018. I’d recently lost a job in retail and was looking for something applying a similar skill set. Initially, I was on the social media side, then I was switched to answering calls about home delivery.

The character of the job has changed quite drastically in the last month. But before that, typically a third of calls would be customers wanting to place orders on the telephone. About a quarter of other calls would be dissatisfaction with the order. Then the rest, issues with payments, refunds, and technical support – orders not being processed properly. That all had to be passed on to the people who maintained the website, and we did this from a central call centre.

Initially I was supposed to be voice support for in-store customer complaints and queries. Last autumn they automated a lot of queries — for example, the lost property, the store opening hours, those kinds of things. Since we don’t have to answer these routine queries anymore the job is more interesting, more of a mix. Automation has helped us in home deliveries, where I am now, as well. Now because it’s online we can see what’s happened, if payment is an issue, or see their pick list, if a delivery was wrong.

When I worked on the social media side, I was fed customers via a system and had to interact with them via text before we would have a real conversation. The quality people said that I was too formal for this – I am in my 50s. The decision was made to move me and about a dozen others to the telephones.

I prefer to be on the telephones because you are having a real conversation. About 50% of what you get in a face-to-face conversation is body language, 40% is tone of voice, and only 10% is words.

On the phone you at least have tone. With social [media], it’s only words. It’s hard to determine tone. Because we deal now with customers when things have gone wrong, we do get the fallout for when automated systems haven’t worked. People are upset by the time they reach us, they want a real person to solve their problem. Some people are apologetic and some are entitled, but most are in the middle.

Two things have changed since the lockdown began. Where I do my job from – everyone on my team is now working from their living rooms – and the nature of the job. Our chief executive, back in the third week of March, said that we would have a scheme to provide home deliveries for elderly, disabled and vulnerable customers up and running by the following Monday. We managed that. But since then it’s been massively oversubscribed. The initial plan to constrain customers to one order a week has been dropped, and we seem to have no capacity, when in fact we’ve made an awful lot of capacity available. People who were never home delivery customers now want to be. So you spend a lot of time now telling people to check back for future availability. Sometimes kids or grandchildren of people who deserve to be registered ask to register on their behalf, and that’s against the data protection act, so we have to say no.

At work one of the best things was a space called the zen room, where you could go away from calls, have a recharge, debrief. There’s nowhere I can go for that now. I can’t even take the dog for a walk as we’re still under the same tight, tight time control as we were in the contact centre, and every call is still recorded.

The training for this current situation has been virtually non-existent – it seems like we’re the beta test team for a lot of this. Certainly the software has changed dramatically. We’re now using our own mobile phones. The software calls our mobiles with the calls from the call centre. In theory you can transfer calls, hold calls and do everything you can do at the call centre. These phones aren’t designed for commercial use. I’m worried that when it breaks, there’ll be no help from the employer. I’m sure they’re not going to help with the cost of that.

I know that since this rise in demand, my employer’s been recruiting people as home workers on three-month contracts, using their own equipment entirely. I can’t see much of a team spirit being fostered. I can see these people feeling incredibly isolated. When I have a look at the WhatsApp for work, I know who’s who, I know the issues they’re facing, and if there are problems, I try to speak up on their behalf. With these remote workers, no one will know.

I’m worried [the COVID-19 crisis] is the biggest chance for abuse by employers in a long while. They can say, ‘oh, we’ll change your eight o’clock start to a six o’clock start, it’s not as if you have to commute anymore’. Those sorts of things can happen, unless we have someone to stand up for our rights.

I am hoping I’m still in post in August. By then I’ll have statutory employment rights, and some protection from dismissal. In the past, when we have brought in fixed-term workers to cover high volume, some of them become permanent. In this case probably some of them will never set foot in the main office. It’s all very dependent on long distance software right now. It could be that even after Coronavirus, certain things will never be done in the office again.