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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 November 2007, 00:03 GMT
The after-hours demands of banking
Call centre customer queue screens

By Clare Davidson
Business reporter, BBC News, Leeds

How does it feel to be working while most people are sleeping? In the second of a series following those who drive Britain's 24-hour society through the small hours, we visit an all-night call centre.

Arriving at First Direct in Leeds, the largely empty car park is ill-lit against the night sky. The reception to the firm - HSBC's 24-hour phone banking arm - seems small, with its limited number of red and white chairs.

But entering the open plan office, purpose-built in 1994, the sheer scale of the area is hard to digest. The desks alone cover 11,592 square metres, and it feels more like an aircraft hangar than a bank.

On the night shift

International flags are dotted throughout, reflecting HSBC's global reach, while desks are personalised with photos and well-wishing messages.

But conspicuously absent are workers.

Except for two separate corners that hum with activity. People with headsets tap away on computers while talking to customers, as coloured numbers tick up and down on TV screens indicating call volume and service level.

By midnight fewer than 20 people will field all incoming calls from customers worldwide until the day staff arrive.

Hands-on parent

It is by working at night that Shaun Holmes, 37, can see his three children and avoid expensive childcare. So after his wife Leslie has finished her day's work and his children are in bed, he answers banking queries.

Stephen - Leeds call centre worker
For anyone who likes to talk, this is a good job.
Shaun Holmes, customer service operator, night team
"The whole point of having kids was to bring them up ourselves," says Shaun, crossing his arms.

Half way through a recent training scheme his children kicked up a fuss because he could not collect them from school.

"They wanted to know when I would return to my 'normal' night hours," he says.

But the work is not just a way to pay the bills and enable him to see his children. For Shaun, who started seven years ago in the mail room, the customers are the best part of the job.

"For anyone who likes to talk, this is a good job. No two days are the same. And because people are calling at night you develop a connection with them."

As Shaun completes a conversation with a customer, it is easy to see why a caller would find him engaging.

"Sometimes you find someone has called and it has turned into a conversation and you think - I must find a way to talk about banking," he laughs.

Many night calls come from overseas customers based in different time zones, as well as people on holiday wanting to know how much they have spent.

Varied

The volume of calls at night is far lighter than during the average day. But because the team is small, each worker has to be able to answer a wider range of queries.

Shaun recounts a particularly unusual call he received from a customer in London at about two in the morning. The customer had lost his wallet and had no means to get home, Shaun says, shrugging his shoulders.

"I literally searched 'black cab London' on the internet and found one that would accept advance payment with the customer's bank details."

"I assume he got home safely. He didn't call again."

But working at night takes adjusting to.

As colleagues tuck into pizzas and piping hot Indian takeaways, Shaun resists. "I always have my tea before coming in," he says, explaining that when he started the job he gained weight by eating at night.

But while the hours are at odds with the usual working day, at least they are predictable he says. And after a decade in the pub trade, the hours are an improvement.

Call centre worker eating pizza and chips at his desk
For many nightworkers eating pizzas and junk food is common
He ran two pubs starting with The Waggon & Horses in Drighlington but it came at a price. "I worked seven days a week," he said.

When his first child Conor was young there were times when he barely saw him.

In contrast, what First Direct offers - including an annual salary of 21,000 and a bonus that can reach 1,500 - is decent, he says.

Socialising

Both Shaun and other colleagues reiterate that they enjoy seeing colleagues outside work.

Student relaxing listening to music on his coffee break
I suspect it would be more dilute if I worked during daytime hours
James McNamara, customer service operator, night team

After a full night shift Shaun recently went directly to play golf with colleagues.

Staff concur that because the teams are smaller outside core hours, they get to know each other better.

"I suspect it would be more dilute if I worked during daytime hours," says James, a business student who works part-time.

Real aims

The firm is always trying to find ways to engage staff, says night manager Julie Eason, and workers agree. But much of the work is nonetheless repetitive.

Shaun shrugs when asked what he'd like to be doing longer term.

It is close to midnight and a near-by TV screen reads 98% - denoting the rate of calls answered within target. By morning it is likely that he will have answered more than a hundred calls.

"Once Ella - the youngest - gets to secondary school then I have the question what do I really want to do," he says somewhat puzzled.

Until then he has more immediate concerns.

He will get home and make sure his children have all had breakfast before taking them to school. And, when the house is quiet, he'll go to bed.

SEE ALSO
Britons 'to take their work home'
24 Aug 07 |  Business
Fee prompts First Direct exodus
09 Jul 07 |  Business
Web woes for First Direct users
13 Mar 07 |  Business
Bank closures 'soar since 2002'
07 Aug 07 |  Business

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