Dialog Direct becomes 2nd Denison employer to go fully virtual

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
Crews work to move desks and other furniture from Dialog Direct's Denison offices Thursday. The call center is one of multiple companies that have eschewed from physical offices and elected to allow employees to work from home permenantly.

As the region continues to recover from the effects of COVID-19, some of the long-term impacts and changes are beginning to become apparent. Dialog Direct recently joined Cigna as employers who are moving away from physical office spaces and allowing employees to work from home permanently.

Crews at the Denison-based call center started work removing furniture from its former office space along Austin Avenue this week. Many of the employees for the call center have worked remotely since early last year when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across America.

"That's the trend — that is absolutely the trend  in those kind of businesses, back office businesses," Denison Development Alliance President Tony Kaai said Wednesday. "Unfortunately we are reflecting the trend that is being seen all over the country."

Calls to Dialog Direct for comments on this story were not immediately returned. This makes it one of two major employers in Denison to go fully virtual with its workforce following an announcement by health insurance company Cigna announced it was sending its employees home last month.

For about a decade, Dialog Direct has been a tenant of the DDA in a Eisenhower Business Center. Other tenants at the location include National Government Services — another call center that has shifted to virtual work throughout the pandemic — and Workforce Solutions Texoma.

Kaai said discussions about Dialog Direct's future at the business center began in January as the call center approached the end of its second five-year lease. Kaai estimated that Dialog Direct had a workforce of about 220 people when it made the decision to go remote.

"Ultimately they made the decision that they can be successful by letting employees work from home," Kaai said.

The move by Dialog Direct comes as many back-office companies have made the decision to move away from the brick and mortar and allow workers to remain home. Kaai said he has a friend who works with a major investment brokerage in Colorado that no longer has a physical office.

Following the pandemic, the way many people work will be changed for the long-term, Kaai said, however, he would not rule out some changes in the workforce model that adopt a hybrid approach. As an example, he said an employer may allow part of its workforce to work from home and another segment to work from the office. Other models could adopt an approach where workers still report to a physical office, but only a few times a week.

"Not all employees can work from home," Kaai said. "Some don't want to work from home, and some just can't do that. Instead of having 400 in a call center, you might have 200 working from home and 200 who come in."

Meanwhile Janie Bates, executive director of Workforce Solutions Texoma, said she is uncertain what the workforce will look like once the effects of COVID-19 has fully dissipated.  However, the new model or working from home goes against many of the principles that businesses have built upon up to this point and would require a change in approach.

"As for the effect on employees, I think it's too soon to tell," she said, via email. "We have spent years focusing on teams, teams for every project, and now everyone is separated and the team work is virtual. I expect it to be like the school experience — some will thrive and others will grow weary of computer screens and long for human interaction. In two-to-three years we may see a complete reversal — things tend to go in cycles."

The impacts on the mental health of workers who are more isolated as they work from home is another topic that has yet to fully be examined, Bates said.

With regard to the business center, Kaai said he is still targeting back-office employers in hopes of finding a new tenant. The future of NGS at the site remains uncertain as employees are still working from home and it still has two years left on its lease.

"We are currently in a fairly big marketing campaign with that segment as the target," he said, regarding the Dialog Direct site. "However, there are some secondary uses for that kind of space. There are a lot of business that are not back office, highly crowded that could use that space."

If the DDA cannot find a back-office tenant for the site, Kaai would not rule out the possibility of modifying the site for other industries, including light assembly work.

"I think we have to (look at other sectors), because we have to convert that space to something else if we can't be successful with a call center," he said.