JetBlue's reservations staff embrace teleworking

1,500 home based workers take 35,000 calls a day

Teleworkers are often happier in their jobs, more productive and more motivated, but at the same time they can feel isolated or disconnected and are potentially harder to imbue with a company culture.

These were among the compelling insights into the benefits and issues related to operating a remote workforce delivered by local and international speakers at the TUANZ Teleworking 2008 conference, held in Auckland last week in association with Cisco.

Attendees did not need to venture much further than the opening keynote address to find an impressive example of a company which has made teleworking a core part of its culture and identity.

Innovative US airline JetBlue Airways has embraced the concept of remote working and does so on an impressive scale.

All 1,500 of the company’s reservations team are home-based and between them handle 35,000 calls a day.

Speaking at the opening address of the conference, JetBlue reservations manager Cris Palauni, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, says remote working has been part of the airline’s fabric from its inception in 1999.

“From the start, our founder David Neeleman saw the benefits of having a reservations staff who work from home,” says Palauni.

Although JetBlue is headquartered in New York, Neeleman picked his native Utah as the ideal location to base the airline’s remote working reservations team.

This approach has been incredibly successful for the airline as it has enabled JetBlue to tap into a labour force which may not have been attracted to a traditional call centre environment, says Palauni.

Sixty percent of the airline’s at-home reservations team are women with children under the age of 18 who live in the greater Salt Lake City area. The remaining 40% are made up of Spanish speaking students and retired men and women.

The majority of the team works part-time, says Palauni. “We have a cap of 35% full-time staff, but we have never reached this.”

The flexibility of working from home and part-time is a great attraction for these groups and has led to high satisfaction rates in the reservations team, says Palauni.

And having satisfied customer service representatives is an absolute must for the company, she adds. “We were founded with the goal to bring humanity back to air travel. Providing great customer service is extremely important to us. Our team loves the flexibility we can offer them.”

JetBlue has worked hard to ensure its shift roster is as flexible as possible, says Palauni.

The most senior 25% of staff are able to choose all their own shifts, which is vital in keeping shift-based staff happy. “They are not tied down to their shifts,” says Palauni.

In addition, the airline has recently introduced an automated system through which staff can trade shifts. “They enjoy the ability to be able to trade shifts with each other,” Palauni says.

JetBlue also operates at a 15% over-staffing rate, which allows it to cater for the inevitable peaks and troughs of the airline business.

When it has too many staff rostered, an email is sent giving those on duty the option to take voluntary time off. Conversely, when too few resources are on board, staff are notified of the opportunity to pick up some overtime. “Team members are more willing to help us out when we need them to work overtime, because we help them out when they need time off.”

Staff can also work in two-hour increments throughout the day, enabling them to pick the times to work that best suit them.

The flexibility JetBlue offers improves the quality of life of the at-home reservations workers, as they can make time to spend with their families, which is a core-value to Utahans, says Palauni.

It also frees up time and money, which would otherwise have been spent on travelling to and from work. “They don’t have to spend additional time away from the family and have more money to spend on something other than gas,” she says.

However, JetBlue is also well aware of the challenges presented by running a remote workforce — especially for a core function such as reservations, says Palauni.

A big issue is ensuring team members feel part of the JetBlue family, she says.

Therefore, it has invested in systems and programmes to ensure that it maintains regular contact with remote staff. Supervisors are in constant contact with team members, while remote workers are also asked to come into the main reservations centre monthly for ongoing training, staff meetings or team building exercises. The company also hosts an annual family day.

These activities help keep staff motivated and feeling part of a larger team, says Palauni. “One of the hardest things is to keep them motivated. After a while they can feel disconnected and not part of the company. Supervisors help keep that lifeline going — they have an enormous responsibility to keep [remote staff] connected.”

The company also brings remote staff in for regular focus group meetings and quarterly sessions with members of the corporate leadership team.

Communication with remote staff can also be an issue and Palauni acknowledges that at times the company has relied too heavily on email, leading to team members feeling bombarded with messages. It now has a rating system in place, which helps staff distinguish urgent emails from those they can read in their downtime.

“We tended to overuse emails and staff, and staff were finding it difficult to prioritise their emails.”

Ensuring quality of service is another potential issue of having remote workers, says Palauni. To ensure service levels remain high, each staff member’s calls are monitored on a regular basis. The company is also looking at implementing tracking software that would enable it to monitor how well reservations staff navigate the systems they use.

Call monitoring is also used to ensure staff are working in a quiet environment, which is an essential requirement of their role. “We have had issues where we could hear children playing or dogs barking in the background.”

Technical support can also be tricky, says Palauni. While JetBlue provides extensive online tech support, workers occasionally need to return their equipment to base to be repaired. Therefore all staff are required to live no more than an hour away from the main reservations centre in Salt Lake City.

Remote workers are provided with all the equipment they need to work from home, including a PC, monitor, keyboard, telephone headset and a router, and are trained to set up the system before they start.

But overall, the benefits of having a remote working workforce far outweigh any cons, says Palauni.

Enabling reservations staff to work from home with flexible hours boosts employee satisfaction, she says.

And happy staff relate to great customer service. “We believe if our staff are happy they deliver better service to customers,” says Palauni.

Customer service is also boosted by having callers go through to a quieter environment as opposed to calls being answered at a busy and hence noisy call centres.

Meanwhile, a satisfied workforce has enabled JetBlue to keep staff retention high and recruiting costs to a minimum. “We no longer have to advertise in print to recruit. It is now all done through word-of-mouth.”

Palauni’s advice to companies considering rolling out a remote workforce is to think big, saying JetBlue’s rapid growth left it on the back foot at times. “One of the things that hindered us was that we didn’t realise how fast we would grow and we fell behind in our technology.”

The JetBlue experience was mirrored by a number of local case studies presented at the conference, including one from Unisys, which implemented flexible working at its Wellington office and Auckland-based ICT provider Voco, which describes itself as a “company without walls”. All 30 of its staff work from home.

Louis van Wyk is communications and marketing manager for TUANZ

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