Technology marches onward. And for United Airlines that means the closing of two of its reservations call centers located in Detroit and Honolulu. The facilities will be closed as their building leases come up fro renewal. The Detroit lease is set to expire in March 2016; the Honolulu lease ends in June 2017. The move will save the company money but it does not expect to see a drop in service levels as a result of this shift. From a company spokesman:
We are making significant technology investments to support our Contact Centers and have chosen not to renew our leases at the Detroit and Honolulu facilities, allowing nearly all of our employees to work from home.
There is no doubt that some aspects of the work from home lifestyle can be better for employees. No more commute (which can be especially miserable in Honolulu), no wear on a car and maybe even choosing to deduct some work-at-home expenses from the tax bill. Picking up a few extra hours if there is overtime demand (i.e. major weather system) is easier and can be done in a much more ad hoc manner. But there are also challenges. An agent cannot lean over to their neighbor to ask for help. Or just to go to lunch together. Working from home can lead to a very, very lonely lifestyle.
For the company the benefits are obvious. There are significant savings in not leasing and operating a large call center space. Also, the agents are paid a lower hourly rate and are responsible for procuring the necessary equipment to perform the work (i.e. they have to buy their own computer). United does not expect to see staffing levels change as part of this move.
United is far from the first to pursue this business model for its call centers. JetBlue has been operating its facility in Salt Lake City this way since it began operations 15 years ago. Continental, now part of the United operation, shuttered its Tampa call center in a similar manner 6 years ago, allowing employees to continue working remotely or transfer to other locations.
The technology works and such an arrangement is feasible. But it is far from a sure thing and there is a very real chance that the more skilled employees in the group will use this as motivation to seek an alternate position. Just having the same number of people working doesn’t necessarily keep the service at “Flyer Friendly” levels. Definitely bottom-line friendly, though.
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