Like many American teenagers, Julissa Vargas, 17, has a minimum-wage job in the fast-food industry — but hers has an unusual geographic reach.
"Would you like your Coke and orange juice medium or large?" Ms. Vargas said into her headset to an unseen woman who was ordering breakfast from a drive-through line. She did not neglect the small details —"You Must Ask for Condiments," a sign next to her computer terminal instructs — and wished the woman a wonderful day.
What made the $12.08 transaction remarkable was that the customer was not just outside Ms. Vargas's workplace here on California's central coast. She was at a McDonald's in Honolulu. And within a two-minute span Ms. Vargas had also taken orders from drive-through windows in Gulfport, Miss., and Gillette, Wyo.
Ms. Vargas works not in a restaurant but in a busy call center in this town, 150 miles from Los Angeles. She and as many as 35 others take orders remotely from 40 McDonald's outlets around the country. The orders are then sent back to the restaurants by Internet, to be filled a few yards from where they were placed.
The people behind this setup expect it to save just a few seconds on each order. But that can add up to extra sales over the course of a busy day at the drive-through.
The managerial efficiencies of such an arrangement don't only come from the time savings, however. There is both greater surveillance and control over empolyees and greater specialization of labor tasks:
Software tracks her productivity and speed, and every so often a red box pops up on her screen to test whether she is paying attention. She is expected to click on it within 1.75 seconds. In the break room, a computer screen lets employees know just how many minutes have elapsed since they left their workstations. [...]
Its workers are experts in the McDonald's menu; they are trained to be polite, to urge customers to add items to their order and, above all, to be fast. Each worker takes up to 95 orders an hour during peak times. Customers pulling up to the drive-through menu are connected to the computer of a call-center employee using Internet calling technology. The first thing the McDonald's customer hears is a prerecorded greeting in the voice of the employee. [...]
The call-center system allows employees to be monitored and tracked much more closely than would be possible if they were in restaurants. [The manager's] computer screen gives him constant updates as to which workers are not meeting standards.
Finally, this system also serves to reinforce and reproduce greater polarization between the language and job skills available in various local labor markets:
Often, in California in particular, he said, the employee may primarily speak Spanish, while the customer speaks only English — a problem that can be eliminated with a specialized call-center crew. "We believe we raise the customer-service bar by having people who are very articulate, have a good command of the English language, and some who are bilingual," he said.
Specialization at a centralized call center means there is no need to invest in language training -- either in English or in Spanish -- or customer-service training at local McDonald's sites. Is there also no need to worry about a literate work force at such sites? How much might the distancing of mental and manual labor through realtime information technology be pushed? What might the effects be on the already-limited employment experience that working in such a commercial organization confers on its workers?
No mention is made in the article of the other dangers of such a geographic displacement -- such as that local consumers will feel out of touch with the distant language coming out of the drive-through speakers as opposed to the face they see in the drive-up window, or that the corporation will use such technologies to move its labor force into areas of the globe with few labor protections and poverty-level wages.
I wonder, if McDonald's sets a precedent with such disembodied retail customer interaction services, which companies and industries will follow next? Telepresence at the checkout counter in the supermarket? Or at the Gap? How far is far-fetched here?