The AA develops home-working but closes a call centre
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Teleworker magazine, 1999
The AA is undertaking a major expansion of its home-based 'virtual' call centre programme - but at the same time has announced it will close an actual call centre on the outskirts of Leeds, with the potential loss of up to two hundred jobs.
The AA's telework experiment, which has grown from an initial pilot of nine people in late 1997 to the present 25-strong home working team, is scheduled for rapid growth, with a total of 150 people due to be handling emergency breakdown calls from their own homes by the end of this year. However, the AA announced in April this year that the parent call centre in Leeds (one of four AA emergency centres across the country) will be closed in September.
Former call centre staff will be able to apply to convert their jobs into teleworking ones, and the organisation says that it hopes that a significant number of the 195 current office-based team in Leeds will do so. However, acceptance on to the telework programme will not be automatic. "Some people don't particularly want to work from home, and obviously some don't have the physical space available," says the AA's spokesperson Denise Raven. In some cases, the AA itself may decide that an employee is not suitable for teleworking. "We're not about to change the selection criteria," Denise Raven adds.
The closure of the Leeds centre (which has faced still competition for staff from other nearby call centres, include next-door First Direct) will mean that the teleworkers' line managers are also likely to find themselves working from home. Team meetings, which currently take place monthly in the call centre building, will continue to be held elsewhere in the Leeds area, although responsibility for the teleworkers will switch to the AA's call centre in Cheadle, south of Manchester, and incoming calls to the AA will be routed via automated call distribution technology from here.
The AA claims that fewer emergency call handlers are needed partly because roadside assistance times have improved so that motorists in difficulties have to ring back less frequently. However, the AA's decision to continue with the telework expansion whilst closing a long-established conventional call centre suggests that it has become firmly convinced of the value of home-based working, in both financial and staff management terms. The costs of equipping a home worker are significant, including bespoke office furniture from Kinnarps and ISDN2E lines from BT. The AA is considering alternatives to ISDN for its expanded telework programme.
The AA says that its original interest in call centre teleworking came partly from problems in retaining call centre staff in Leeds, though it was also interested in increasing the flexibility of staff shift times and in having backup staff available for temporary working at short notice. The AA has considerable experience in managing other home-based staff, including its network of breakdown assistance patrol staff.
Interestingly, the AA's telework pilot included a 'buddy' system where a call centre worker was encouraged to maintain informal links with the isolated home worker. In the light of April's closure announcement, it could be the buddies rather than the teleworkers who currently need the most support.
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