The landline telephone was the first speed-of-light communications technology that anybody could use. The telegraph was invented earlier, but it wasn’t practical to put in every home and office—plus, you needed to learn Morse Code to talk to anybody.
Once you could talk to anyone, anywhere, in any language you pleased, everything about business changed. Entire industries sprang up around the phone—not just to take care of the wiring, but to help facilitate the connections and opportunities that all that unfettered communication brought with it.
But since the rise of the Internet and wireless communication, everything has changed. Many jobs that were once popular, or even iconic, don’t exist anymore. Legions of people still earn a living on the phone, of course, but where and how they do it has been turned on its head. Phones are everywhere, and yet most of them look nothing like they did at the start of the 21st century.
Quick, think of someone close to you – a spouse or sibling or friend. Now, without looking at your phone, write down their phone number. Can’t do it, eh?
Connecting phone calls used to be one part charisma, one part dexterity, and one part endurance. Ever see an old film with switchboard operators frantically swapping wires on an impossibly complicated grid above their heads? Sometimes they even wore roller skates. That was no joke.
The wiring necessary to keep the phone system in major cities like New York running was so labyrinthine, and in such poor repair, that complaints were published in book form. The switching equipment necessary to connect calls to and from some major cities wasn’t fully automated and digital until the 1980s.
As late as 1982, 318,000 Americans still worked as telephone operators. They answered calls for information, took down service requests, and even dialed numbers for people too old-school to punch out the digits themselves. Today, the number of American telephone operators has fallen below 10,000.
It’s not because people don’t talk on the phone anymore: Americans spent nearly 2.9 trillion minutes on wireless phone calls last year, and that doesn’t account for landline calls or data services like Skype. Instead, what changed was the need for the telephone operator. Behind the scenes, digital technology and automation have completely replaced the grunt work that was once required to connect calls. Between search technology and reliable, one-tap contact lists in our phones, the idea of calling someone to help you call someone else is beyond foreign.
Call Centers: Somehow Still a Thing
The peak period of telephone-driven business gave rise to the call center: a focal point where customers could call a single number and, by speaking a few magic words and waiting long enough on hold, be connected with a live agent at one of hundreds (or even thousands) of identical desks. Call centers, at the time of their invention in the 1970s, were a triumph of telecommunications engineering, and the entry-level white-collar work was seen as a positive step in a growing services-based economy.
Today, call centers exist primarily because they are convenient places to manage and monitor employees, not because they are technologically necessary. Instead of being built around heavy-duty telephone company wiring, virtual call centers can connect callers with agents who are sitting at home, or in their cars, or just about anywhere. It takes the agent out of the boiler room environment some call centers can be, and can make for a more pleasant work experience overall. That, in turn, makes for a happier caller.
Because it’s easier to connect agents with callers anywhere in the world, of course, a lot of jobs which were once confined to those local call centers have now moved away. There has been a lot of push and pull over the outsourcing of call center jobs to other countries, but one thing is certain: working on the phone today doesn’t require being tied to a desk.
The workers who have done best as the phone and everything connected to it changed are the ones who had something to offer that their peers didn’t. The idea of a teleconference operator who helps people join a small-group discussion is virtually extinct, but it lives on in high-value, high-touch environments. For instance, almost every briefing call between a corporate executive and the investors and financiers who help determine their success is governed by at least one skilled operator/moderator.
Call center agents who have survived multiple waves of outsourcing and Internet self-services are the ones who can identify a caller’s needs quickly. They can work from anywhere, and they can stay focused even without a supervisor lurking over their shoulder.
Phones are still everywhere, even though the people who connect your calls are nowhere to be found. It’s a reminder that even the most basic infrastructure can be transformed over time.
The workplace changes fast—and just when you think you understand the new normal, somebody changes the rules.