United Airlines has a controversial new way to stop you working from home

Airlines are really struggling to attract business travelers. So United Airlines is trying something a little different. Will companies and their employees trust it?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Fly the friendly workspace?

United Airlines

They're trying so hard. And not just to get more free money from the government.

Airlines have seen their businesses decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Worse -- for them, at least -- is that business travel is the most affected. It's the most profitable part, after all.

Some airlines are convinced it'll all come rolling back. No, Southwest isn't among them. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, however, insists that Zoom is so preternaturally awful that business travel will even increase. Some time in the future, that is.

And then there's United. Not so long ago, the airline scoffed that keeping middle seats empty was mere PR puffery. Which didn't, perhaps, encourage too many business types to think more favorably about flying United.

Package Business Trip, Anyone?

Now the airline has a new idea, one whose aim is to get employees out of their homes and meet in person. United is getting together with Airbnb-for-workspaces company Peerspace in order to offer face-to-face meeting packages.

"Flex is the solution," claim United and Peerspace. That's odd, because United hasn't always been known for flexibility in, say, changing your flight.

But we're in a new world now. These two companies claim: "It's the end of the office as we know it. As more companies adapt to the realities of remote work, finding safe, flexible ways to facilitate workplace gatherings has become paramount."

Has it? Peerspace's own research shows that 75 percent of employees have a positive feeling about remote work. Oddly, and perhaps perversely, Peerspace also says employees believe they're being more productive but find it more difficult to collaborate.

Then this declaration: "Flexible workspace arrangements have emerged as an efficient solution." 

I confess to having missed this. Most businesspeople I know are merely trying to deal with the Zooming new world as best they can. Yet here are United and Peerspace telling companies to ditch their office rental and hold meetings in, well, lots of wherevers.

Peerspace insists it has facilities available for every possible corporate need. Private personal workspaces, for example, or places where you can hold monthly meetings. It claims 20,000 spaces in 1,800 cities. Everything from galleries to rooftops to, who knows, boxing rings. 

There's something tantalizing about it, of course. Yet while companies might feel they have some control over the cleanliness of their own office spaces, here they have to trust Peerspace's enhanced Covid-19 cleaning and safety measures. Well, actually, each individual host space may have varying cleaning habits and it's up to you to check on Peerspace's listing pages.

And then there's the small matter of trusting United's own cleaning protocols. Why, Miracle on the Hudson hero Capt. Sully Sullenberger insists he'll only fly airlines that block middle seats.

Dear CFO, Ready To Trip Out?

You and your CFO will be wondering how much these United/Peerspace packages might cost.

Well, the most basic is a mere $1,500 a month. This one gives you 4 All Company Meetings, 2 Company Social Events (wait, what?), 8 Small Team Meetings and 16 Private Workspaces. What it doesn't give you is any United Airlines flights.

To enjoy those, you need to upgrade to the $5,000 a month option. This is "best for companies shrinking their office footprint and needing 'burst capacity' for space." 

Perhaps, though, you prefer to live large. Or, at least, work for a company "with employees who have the flexibility to work from anywhere."

For a piffling $12,000 a month you get 12 All Company Meetings, 12 Company Social Events, 36 Small Team Meetings and 48 Private Workspaces. Oh, and 180 United flights, 48 Economy Plus Upgrades, 24 United Club Passes. 8 United Club Memberships and 4 Premier Silver Status. (A year, that is.)

I can imagine there might be internal fights over some of the more elevated perks.

Naturally, I went to the small print, just to check whether there were any nuances.

Well, there's this: "Package pricing is estimated based on the average price for an all-company meeting, company social event, small team meeting, private workspace, and $400 domestic roundtrip fare for flights. The actual number of spaces and flights will vary depending on the price of specific items chosen at the time of booking."

And have you thought about the cleaning fees? If you look at Airbnb, some verge on the extortionate these days. How about the place that's $125 a night, with a $300 cleaning fee?

One can admire this attempt to persuade companies to get their employees back together, one way or another. One can admire, too, the attempt to prepare companies for a very different world, one in which working methods may radically change. Who wouldn't want a little person-to-person interaction involving co-workers rather than immediate members of your family?

Yet this is so much like Airbnb -- Peerspace's website looks so similar to Airbnb's that it's truly startling -- that the same issues arise.

At least with your own office building, you (feel you) know what's there. Imagine getting 20 of your employees to fly to a particular location and discover it's not quite what you thought it was.

And that's after making them fly United.

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