Inside Etihad Airways' female Emirati call centre in Al Ain

Samia Barj is the Emirati lady who received the first call that was ever made to Etihad Airways.

“I remember it well – our first-ever commercial destination was to Beirut and it was a female guest who called up.”

Ms Barj, 39, couldn’t have imagined back then that now, almost 13 years later, she would be managing a staff of 300 at Etihad’s two contact centres in Al Ain, which manage customers flying to more than 117 destinations.

More than half of her staff, 160, are Emirati women who have their own separate contact centre, known as the Black Pearl Centre. These days, the centre receives 67,000 phone calls a month and generates revenue of more than US$40 million a year.

Ms Barj helped to recruit the first 85 women to work at the centre, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this week.

She recalls how, at first, the working hours were set to the standard eight-and-a-half hours a day. “We soon discovered that the women wanted to stay with us but they were also dealing with their families who should be happy too,” says Ms Barj.

“So one of the first things we did was to cut the working hours for everyone to seven hours a day, to support the ladies, balance their work requirements with their home life, without changing their salaries.”

Almost all the new recruits back then were fresh out of univer­sity and so it was a steep learning curve for them to discover the skills they needed to operate a call centre – and they were all in the same boat.

Dhabia Al Dhaheri, 32, started off as a team leader when the centre opened after two months of initial training. “It was challenging at first. We didn’t have any idea about aviation – so how could we decide who would supervise? We all had to learn the same things at the same time.”

Ms Al Dhaheri, who is now the centre’s operation and recruitment manager, was the first woman to receive a call at the centre when it opened five years ago.

“I slowly got to know what kinds of complaints and inquiries to expect. Later on, people were available to assist us in learning how to supervise others. It can be very stressful work to be a contact centre, but the skills we have gained have helped,” she said.

When the centre first launched, the concept of women doing shift work was new to Al Ain and some families were unsure what to make of it.

“When we started, it was challenging for my family – I’d go in the morning and then sometimes come back to work in the evening and that was something they were not used to,” says Ms Al Dhaheri. “But in time they saw that I love my job because it’s enabled me to develop my interpersonal skills and become more mature.”

When the centre launched, shifts were set between 8am and 8pm, but they have since been reduced to 7am to 6pm.

Hind Al Nuaimi, 32, who is a performance team leader, says the shift times allow her to balance her work life better with looking after her four children, aged between seven and 18 months. “I can take the kids to the park in the mornings occasionally if I want to,” she says.

Ms Al Nuaimi pushes her team to reach their monthly and an­nual targets by turning it into a race against the other teams. “It’s all about who will get the top spot. My team was the top team for last month,” she says.

There are also prizes to help motivate the women. “If the ladies issue a new ticket, they can get ‘money’ [in the form of vouchers] from their team leaders to buy items for sale from the centre – like make-up and kitchen items,” says Ms Al Nuaimi. “The ladies like these items.”

Other perks of working for Etihad for the women include an annual airline ticket and discounted tickets for their families. “Because of working with Etihad, I travel a lot more these days,” says administrator Amna Al Ameri, 32. She recently spent two weeks being trained in new software – Verint – at Etihad’s call centre in Manchester, in the UK. “It was a good opportunity for me,” says Ms Al Ameri. “The Manchester centre is a very different atmosphere to our own because theirs has male staff too and their culture, policies and working hours are different. But the work is the same.”

Ms Barj says the ladies also go on special trips to help them experience the full range of Etihad’s products. “To Bahrain, for example. They would fly there in one class and come back in another class, so they can compare the experience.”

Shaikha Alshamsi, 26, works in the centre’s quality department, monitoring the agents’ calls and sending them communications. For her, it’s the camaraderie of being in an all-female environment that appeals to her most about her job.

“We all support each other, we feel more comfortable all being ladies together and this gives us a positive energy to complete our work. We’re like a big family. And the men in our own families are happy too.”

Ms Alshamsi has three children – seven, five and nine months – and went back to work after the standard 45 days’ maternity leave following the birth of her youngest child.

Etihad has a nursery for Abu Dhabi employees to use and there are also plans to open one in the Al Ain centre. Until then, Ms Alshamsi entrusts care of her baby to her maid – but under her careful guidance. “I have cameras in my house so I can check on my daughter, as I would not be comfortable in my work without checking. I can just take a look once an hour at what my maid is doing with my kids. So the technology is helpful, especially for women with new babies.”

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Jessica Hill

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