— by guest author Nick –
Outsourcing is responsible for the development of many businesses in Bulgaria, because all international corporations need hundreds of people to support them. Creating working environment for all those employees, securing the necessary conditions for smooth operating processes (SOPs ;)), procuring the respective office supplies for endless rows of cubicles, for cleaning and maintenance; there is a vast infrastructure of workers and suppliers who make it possible for thousands of international calls to be routed through VOIP over to Bulgaria every half hour.
But I am not the bard to tell the story of these unsung heroes, whose voice you’ve never heard over the phone after dialing the toll-free helpdesk number, for I am not one of them.
I am one of the many others who walk daily through the sliding doors of one of the fourteen buildings in Business Park Sofia* to help people from around the world deal with the difficulties they might experience with modern technology and I am going to tell you about what the outsourcing takes from us in exchange for our skills and knowledge. Not because outsourcing or foreign companies are necessarily bad but because of the way they operate almost everywhere around here.
Just like everyone else on the floor, I speak fluently another foreign language, besides English. Quite a few of my forty-or-so colleagues know more languages and some of them are gifted photographers, talented artists, or promising musicians who dedicate most of their valuable time and energy to the call centers. It mind sound a bit sad, but it is also true that they are doing so voluntarily. Nobody forced them into working somewhat meaningless and menial but definitely (well, for our Bulgaria, at least) not meagerly paid job. Who can blame them: it is only natural to seek out for a job that pays well and that you can perform relatively well.
As Marije points out, on average the international companies pay among the highest salaries in the country. What is more, they create constant demand for more and more people. One may think that they would grow to a certain point and then the demand for new employees would stabilize and maybe even dwindle a bit but this is *physically* impossible. On one hand, the sheer number of people working for the international corporations guarantees a statistically calculable amount of people leaving. Another reason for the constant outflow of workers is hidden in the fact that payment is not everything a job could offer. Many people struggle to find meaning and motivation in the job they are doing because there is much more to the equivalent exchange between employee and employer: improvement of skills and gaining knowledge are essential ingredients to any desirable job.
Probably there is not a single employer who would cheerfully share upon hiring: “Look, you can work here for 2 or 4 years, but you will learn everything you need in the first couple of months, tops. After that is only rinse and repeat ad infinitum.” But in many cases this is exactly what happens and that’s the scariest mark a foreign company, which is here “only temporary”, could leave.
Granted, there are possibilities to grow and to substitute one task with another, a better paid one, but often such promotions come without gaining any new skills or improving basic ones like clear communication with the team or simple punctuality. After being part of the industry for over 4 years now I am still shocked to see supervisors and managers who are constantly late and who struggle to convey day-to-day tasks to their subordinates. And these shocks come way too frequently.
By talking with colleagues of mine who’ve already changed a couple of similar jobs reluctantly but inevitably I started to believe that the relative lack of organization, the somewhat lackadaisical and languid attitude toward the job reigns in the majority of call centers in the city.
Managers, supervisors and employees alike tend to do the bare minimum to meet the set standards, service level agreements, call volumes, transactions, quotas for monthly plans sold, etc., and they are quite content with their effort. Instead of searching for improvements of the work flow and motivating the personnel managers tend to plan their vacations during office hours or socialize with other managers in prolonged lunch breaks. Somewhat naturally, the workers pay with the same token, mirroring the lenient approach of the managers. Instead of searching for ways to gain new knowledge and skills they would rather socialize with each other or would use various online platforms to pass the time.
(Departments, let alone entire companies, with different, positive and proactive attitude toward the job at hand are few and far between. They do exist but we will come back to that later.)
It is important to note that neither the employees nor the managers are people who are generally sloppy or predisposed toward sloppiness. Quite the contrary, in their private lives they are passionate about the things they like to do and, as mentioned, some of them are very gifted in various fields. They could both discuss and practice what they like for hours on end, with energy and desire, listening attentively, speaking vividly, constantly looking for ways to better themselves in the respective area, be that arts, sports, or knowledge.
However, for the most part they don’t care enough to bring this passion and focus to work and this is hardly surprising. Money alone is not a sufficient motivational factor – when paid enough to afford the lifestyle they like people are inclined to put enough effort to maintain the income. Being really dedicated, though, is inspired by other factors like mastery and self-improvement. Without being sufficiently challenged and without any sense for achievement one gets bored and disinterested quite quickly. Pair these with the fact that most of the tasks in a call center are aligned to abstract business processes which remove any meaning they might have been otherwise holding and then it is hardly surprising that people don’t really care about their job beyond the bare minimum.
Now, one might be tempted to think that this situation is valid for the majority of office-based jobs and one would not be entirely wrong. But the majority of office-based jobs (for smaller organizations) have one distinctive advantage: the company is not bound to relocate in a decade or so, when the opportune moment arises. Instead, it would stay exactly where it is, possibly sharing the profit with its employees and investing in them so that, in turn, they could make the company prosper.
Indeed, there is no telling whether the smell of greater profit would lure the foreign corporations elsewhere in the foreseeable future, but this certainly is the predominant perception. For many it seems to be more a matter of “when” rather than “whether” and this has quite devastating impact on the morale. The idea that the entire entity you work for might just vanish beyond the border does not breed loyalty.
How could a company which pay a good enough salary*** for you to have the desirable lifestyle and to be motivated enough to give your best day in, day out, still fail to hold many of its employees? We mentioned that a call center job could be highly mind numbing; add to that the lingering fear that you might be abandoned.
Would you be truly loyal and dedicated if you knew that the object of your loyalty and dedication could leave you for no fault of yours? (And there is nothing you can do to prevent it.)
All these factors put together make the work at a call center both desirable and highly demotivating.
Naturally, the salaries are the most tempting part. Scratch that. They are the only tempting part. The job itself often is meaningless enough for many people to look for something more satisfying at all times. Something that might give them additional skills and challenges and something that is here to stay.
The ironic part is that such a thing is achievable even when an international corporation opens an office here. I used to work for an American web-hosting company which opened a small office, with 20-or-so employees, about 10 years ago. Small team, small responsibilities, easy to relocate if need be. However, the manager of the office had a vision.
For starters, he was interested in the provided service and wanted to learn more about it, to understand the technology better. He also realized that if he and his team do a good job the office might grow. So, he found ways to motivate the team, to implement good working practices, to improve them, to create a good climate in the office. Probably his most important achievement was to share his vision with the people around him; some of them embraced it.
Now this company has an office of over 200 employees in Sofia and a significant portion of its infrastructure – servers and technicians who maintain them – is located here. Customer satisfaction has never been higher and the corporate HQ has absolutely no intention of moving operations elsewhere. Moving more operations here is a distinct possibility, though, and recently they raised the salaries.
Of course, being a call center, the entry level positions do see quite a few people coming and going, but practically everyone on slightly higher position has been elevated from within. And this, being a quite technically oriented job, means that any promotion is given only after certain competency is reached, after certain level of knowledge and technical prowess has been demonstrated. One could stay at entry position forever or one could learn and get more responsibilities and tougher puzzles to solve with his improved knowledge.
All this was made possible by one person on key position who adopted, so to speak, the job, and made it his own. He realized that if the work is done well enough more work will come, which will help him and those around him prosper and learn. He cares deeply enough to choose other people who care and who want to improve and learn and that is enough to drive the entire office forward. Of course, this company has its shortcomings, but it also demands – and teaches – quality work, knowledge, professional demeanor. All these are applicable across the board and could be highly beneficial when searching for another job, as my personal experience proved.
This company is one of the few exceptions, but it comes to show that it is possible. A clear vision is a great beginning.
Supported by the right attitude it could lead to unimaginable results but then again – why bother? Why bother when they, the distant foreign owners, pay enough for me to secure the lifestyle I want? Why should I put more effort in the business which makes me do this largely meaningless job and from which they make huge profit?
Again, this resembles the situation in many big companies, which are infamous for crushing the spirit of their employees with the menial nature of the majority of their daily operations. Repetitive tasks that require no skill nor offer one could have devastating effect on one’s mental equilibrium. For the most part, this would be sad but still providing for one’s life.
In case the foreign companies find a safer (read: cheaper) haven for their operations, they would not spirit away their current employees in this dreamland of corporate profits. They would leave behind an army of people who’ve spent the best years of their lives doing tasks that are relevant only to the specific job at hand and utterly useless otherwise. People with very specific employment history and very narrow future perspectives.
Luckily, at the moment these are only fears from the unknown and it would be wrong to say that outsourcing is bringing only negatives. It has created opportunities for many people to work, to start or expand their own businesses, to grow professionally.
But is this the best way to utilize one’s lively mind? Is enough effort put into making one better and more versatile worker? Do the men and women sitting in the cubicles share the vision of the company? Do they have any abstract, bigger-than-life goal to follow in their professional development?
* Business Park Sofia, with its fourteen office buildings and a cute little artificial lake, is probably the place with the most international phone calls per hour in the country. However, it is only one among many.
** The company I work for is of average size, with about 500 employees in the Business Park. The biggest one boasts over 2000 employees only in Sofia.
*** Yes, they pay good salaries. For Bulgaria. The 900 dollars a month on average cannot be even considered a monthly payment (for qualified personnel) in the USA.
Nick is a young professional who has been part of the horde of technical and customer service representatives for the past four years. In his spare time he writes articles, climbs rocks and enjoys fine brews with his friends.