News : Etihad Airways Makes the Right Calls for Female Staff
Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, Dec 21, 2015 -- Samia Barj is one busy woman. An Emirati mother, wife and homemaker, she also works full-time, managing 300 staff across two contact centres in Al Ain for Etihad.
Ms Barj, 37, is Etihad staff number 27, joining the airline the year it was founded in 2003. Married with one son, she moved to Al Ain from Abu Dhabi to project manage the contact centre launch in 2010 and then become its manager.
Opening in 2011 with 85 Emirati women, the Black Pearl call centre – named in an in-house competition for the rarest of pearls and the colour of its staff’s abayas – is now home to 160.
Step back into the shared lobby and through to the other side and you’ve entered Keshi Pearl, which opened last year to complement its sister centre, but which is staffed by 145 men and women from countries as varied as Oman, Morocco, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Keshi pearls come in different shapes and colours, the name reflecting the diversity of this centre. This centre handles calls in languages including Urdu and Tagalog, while Black Pearl works in English and Arabic. All systems and training are in English, too, so the women in Black Pearl need to be bilingual.
"The ladies here are mostly graduates and the business prefers to come to them rather than them go to Abu Dhabi," says Ms Barj. "Our youngest is 21, and we have staff who are grandmothers. The Emirati ladies can work in a mixed environment, but this makes them more comfortable."
When it launched, shifts ran from 8am to 8pm seven days a week, but operational hours have since been reduced, from 7am to 6pm, with the women working a rotation of seven-hour shifts.
The best three workers each month get to choose their rotation hours, a prize as valued as the mall vouchers and, previously, televisions, given away as monthly rewards. "Time is more important here than money," says Ms Barj. "Husbands weren’t happy and staff were distracted to leave – this is an investment in staff retention."
Another important change in Black Pearl was to the sickness policy, no longer logging sick days for mothers if they stayed home with sick children. There is also flexibility for full-time staff who want to go part-time for a few months.
Shoghakat Movsisyan, an Armenian married to an Emirati policeman, has a daughter, 10, and a seven-year-old son. She started at the call centre three years ago, working her way up from call centre agent to data processing unit team leader. She works from 8am to 3pm so she can drop her children to school.
"This is my first experience of female-focused work and of managing a team, and it’s the hardest task I’ve ever had; it is harder than working with men," she says.
Etihad is working hard on Emiratisation, employing more than 2,300 Emiratis and aiming to recruit another 6,000 in the next five years.
A July report from Oxford Strategic Consulting revealed that increasing female employment is a priority for governments across the GCC – however it requires a country-tailored strategy.
"UAE employers tend to compete over a small, coveted group of working-age nationals based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Etihad, on the other hand, decided to focus on a niche segment of prospective talent," says Robert Mogielnicki, senior analyst and head of PR at Oxford Strategic Consulting.
"Then, Etihad identified this talent’s specific needs, which included flexible work hours, working from home or nearby, working with women and pride of profession. The resulting female-only call centre in Al Ain has helped Etihad build its brand as a pioneer, award-winning employer in the region."
Ms Barj says the centre works hard to make career paths work for Emirati mothers with outside commitments.
"A mother looking after kids wants self-achievement and to give her best at home and in the workplace," she says.
Amna Al Ameri, 31, is from Al Ain and joined the graduate team in late 2011 as an agent before becoming a real-time contact centre administrator, monitoring calls and managing service levels.
"We think globally but act locally. If a call is waiting in Manchester, we take it," she says.
One of the centre’s best performers, she was nominated for Etihad’s internal excellence awards and spent two weeks in Manchester working with the team there earlier this year.
Etihad used to have contact centres in Mumbai and Sydney, but now it has been reduced to Al Ain, Abu Dhabi and Manchester.
The twin Al Ain centres may be kept separate but Mrs Barj manages both. Next stop for Mrs Barj – a whistle-stop tour of Italy, where she is talking to Alitalia, an Etihad partner, about call centres and best practices.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About Etihad Airways:
Etihad Airways is the flag carrier of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Established in 2003, Etihad commenced operation on November later that year.
Published: Tuesday, December 22, 2015