Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Server central

Got a moment to go round taking pictures of Sampson House on Hopton Street, to the east of the top of Blackfriars Road by the Thames, west of the bling jigsaw Neo development and southwest of that symbol of regenerated industrial heritage, the Tate Modern. It was built in 1976-79 and first used by Lloyds as a processing centre and is now IBM's main data recovery centre. It's a brutalist wonder mixing mini towers with faceless, inscrutable and long floors that for all that is rarely uniform over a large area. There is a 'mutual break clause' on the lease in 2018, at which point i hope it avoids the inevitable drive to knock it down for yuppie flats. Reuse it as a university science building, or a modernist museum.

Fascination with the building can only grow as people make more use of the quiet square behind the Thamesside flats and spot it from the transpontine end of the glassed up station Blackfriars, as well as from new towers throwing shapes either side of the top of Blackfriars Road.

This one from inside Blackfriars station, so excuse the glass glare. Clearly shows how levels protude then recede as they interact with lift or stair towers.
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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Enter Matrix House – the Phenomenon of Nev

Causing a stir in medialand is a BBC3 documentary about a call centre in Swansea. Its lead man is Nev Wilshire, a garrulous yet big-hearted multimillionaire owner of the Save Britain Money operation. Loving his 15 minutes, he is always seen here in the office, rather than discussing workplace issues from afar. Where David Brent so ably reflected a particular type of office manager, Nev is for real, but fed lines by Gervais’ monster (of course Nev denies having seen it and then being like him). Nev displays a range of motivational clichés and acronyms to make you do better. There’s also the occasional fly-off-the-handle shows of controlled aggression to make sure we know who’s boss.

As with many modern fly-on-the-wall programmes most of the staff featured, from Twe the sales manager to Ania the talented absentee, look absolute naturals on the small screen, with their readily-deployed routines and catchphrases, such is the universal capture of experiences of handicams and cameraphones. We may not all have worked in a call centre, but many will recognise the rows and rows of desks, staff tied to a PC and a headset. Or use of a script for telesales in some other less custom-built environment. Or a whiteboard with targets and charts on it. Matrix House is as you expect situated on a business park a few miles north of Swansea (near the new football ground). Present and correct here are all of office pondlife – the swinging dicks, chick with dicks (female managers), honest grafters, show-offs, office clowns, etc.

Turn up, log in, release the #bantz

Yet those looking for the usual DRUDGERY won’t find it here. What many will struggle to recognise is the unconfined joy – and definite sense of community at Save Britain Money, a self-styled consumer champion of anything from boiler replacements to PPI claims with a staff exceeding 700 and a turnover of £25m. Great care is taken to show that Nev runs a fun operation – Having A Laugh At Work While Getting The Job Done (so another area where the cup of David Brent clichés overflows).

The array of afterwork social activities also appears pretty impressive – Hollywood Days, singing auditions, blind dates, band nights (in the office), all added to and mingling with the general crack that we are assured is only ever a few nights away. Sure I have shared the occasional joke and the occasional pint but generally the vast majority of colleagues have been strangers beyond the confines of the office (always been wary of those whose office pals form their main social circle). Nev, however, goes out of his way to track down the outsiders and integrate them into the core working culture of his office.

Most of the staff’s thirst for the boozy social is pretty implicit. I’m waiting for the episode featuring our heroes on a night down the Mumbles. We’ve strayed into stereotypes of Welsh drinkers, but the coverage also cements a more universal link between office life and the need to wind down with 40 units of industrial alcohol two or three times a week (rather than considering any of the other myriad options for downtime). Nev plays a telling role here too – someone who’s been there and encourages (through all the events) a regular night on ‘the pop’ despite its destructive properties.

Such an intervention comes at an inauspicious time in British unemployment, despite flattering numbers just out. With the UK so reliant on financial services, call centres are increasingly the only viable employment option in many areas, especially post-industrial areas, and will continue to be so through “reshoring” as Asian economies become less competitive relative to the west. There’s a sense of ‘there’s fuck-all else around, so we’d better get stuck in here and enjoy it’. But should we believe every call centre is like this? Should we believe this call centre is actually like this? (tbf the bonhomie doesn't look staged) Should we believe Nev is the benevolent all-knowing fun guy as portrayed? Where are the unions for those not flying through to star-salesman status, having disciplinary or illness issues? What pay structure is the firm operating? Is anyone addressing that casual sexism which is never too far away from the surface?

These are all questions that interfere with this harmless slice of ‘modern British office life’ that BBC3 wants to portray.

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