Sat, Nov 03, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Meet the remote receptionist: Outsourcing reaches new sectors

Outsourcing is branching out from customer services and technical support to secretarial positions, sparking skepticism, warnings and enthusiastic support

By Andrew Shanahan  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Even if you've never heard the phrase Business Process Outsourcing before, you will almost certainly have been annoyed by it -- especially if you have ever had to explain to an inaudible teleworker that your TV is on the blink.

But while the outsourcing of customer service functions to India is perhaps the most widely publicized example of this trend, in the UK, many other outsourced jobs remain within the country's boundaries.

And it's not just customer services being outsourced: payroll, health and safety, and human resources work have all been farmed out. Are secretaries, receptionists, administrators and personnel assistants (PAs) next?

"The outsourcing industry for secretarial work is exploding at the moment," said Richard Phillips of Outsec.co.uk, which offers transcription and typing services via the Internet. "We are doubling in size about every five months at the moment -- our turnover is now in excess of ?1.25 million [US$2.6 million] and it was half that in May. Outsourcing has moved from being a rather quirky cost-saving enterprise to being mainstream business thinking."

"Outsourcing was besmirched by the rather poor use that it was put to in the early days, and we've found that when we were trying to market our services there were a lot of negative feelings we had to overcome," he said.

These negative feelings are largely connected to offshoring, where work is outsourced to countries that can provide labor at a cheaper rate. Think that isn't a danger in the administrative world?

Research for the UK's Unison trade union carried out in April suggests that hundreds of medical secretarial positions have been lost in the country's health sector. This is thanks to pilot schemes that offshore the typing of medical notes, which have been dictated by doctors.

For Unison, this is not just a case of protecting their members' jobs.

The union argues that this outsourcing could have serious consequences for patients.

"Quite a lot of these overseas companies have targeted health authorities that have deficits, saying `we can save you money' and offering free trials to send the transcription of medical notes to their country," the union said.

"We believe that, especially in this area, outsourcing is just too risky. Because of data protection, the typists overseas don't have access to patients' notes. They may not be as familiar with UK regional accents and they can't simply go and ask the consultant what was actually said if they're not sure, so they just have to type what they hear," the union said.

"What the secretaries in the UK who have to check the work are finding is that serious mistakes are being made: for example conditions such as hypertension -- high blood pressure -- have been transcribed as hypotension -- low blood pressure -- which is potentially a very serious mistake," the union said.

But outsourcing doesn't necessarily mean work will disappear overseas. In Wrexham, Moneypenny, a telephone PA and reception service company has seen its turnover grow from ?2.9 million for 2005 to last year, to ?4.2 million this year. In 2000, it employed two people; now it has more than 120 PAs answering the phones for more than 3,000 companies.

"Outsourcing makes financial sense mostly because office rents and the costs of recruitment are going up. One of our clients outsourced their entire reception facility to us and they're saving more than ?90,000 a year. Despite that, we are definitely not trying to say this is the death of the receptionist," said Rachel Clacher, Moneypenny's director.

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