The (Other) Airbnb Experience

Fast-growing travel-rental company sets new standards for managing and engaging workers by focusing less on perks and schedules, and more on what they actually experience on the job.

Monday, July 18, 2016
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When workers at San Francisco's Airbnb came to the office on a recent Thursday and whacked around a homemade piñata shaped like a pineapple, it was more than just a brief cathartic diversion. Leaders at the fast-growing travel-rental firm saw the piñata-making class -- part of a program called AirShare in which employees teach a beloved hobby -- as one more step toward Airbnb's newest in-house mantra: "Work Like a Human."

"The company's growing, so people need to pace themselves, but [AirShare] also helps them build a capability to be able to grow as the company grows -- or they'll implode," says Mark Levy, Airbnb's top human resource officer working under the newly fashioned title of chief employee experience officer.

It may feel a bit like working as an air-traffic controller and, indeed, at Airbnb, one of Levy's missions as the employee experience chief is to run the firm's so-called "Ground Control," which coordinates activities such as the AirShare programs in order to celebrate workers' personal milestones.

Ground Control also organizes and promotes "meet-ups" for employees and local hosts to connect, swap tips and share experiences such as volunteering, taking a neighborhood architectural tour, hearing a visiting voice from one of Airbnb's more exotic destinations or just throwing a party to celebrate a certain area's Airbnb community.

These are all signs of just how seriously the innovative, 8-year-old Bay Area firm treats the notion of workplace fulfillment.

The classes that Airbnb workers are giving and enjoying on the first Thursdays of each month -- everything from yoga in the park to the art of bicycle maintenance -- are just one small part of the company's holistic approach to making its employees happier, and also more productive, during their hours at the company's stunning headquarters -- a converted warehouse in the city's trendy SoMa neighborhood -- or at its growing web of satellite offices.

On a typical day, Airbnb workers move around striking workspaces that resemble the living room or kitchen of a trendy loft -- collaborating on projects in ad hoc groups in cafes furnished to look like hip eateries in Mumbai or Cairo, breaking to share a meal from one of the firm's destinations in more than 190 countries, or taking a short leave to volunteer with a community group.

Experts say Airbnb is one of a handful of companies on the leading edge of designing a workplace of the future, where the challenge for human resource leaders is less about fostering a work/life balance and more about imagining an employee experience that merges the best things in life -- from food, exercise and even crafts to a broader sense of camaraderie -- with getting things done on the job.

"This is the next battleground for the future of work," says Jacob Morgan, an author and co-founder of The Future of Work Community, who has written favorably about the notion of the workplace as an experience. Morgan says surveys have shown that a focus in recent years on the buzzwords of so-called "employee engagement" -- getting workers to feel as if they have more of a stake in the firm and its success -- has fallen flat, and that a new approach more tailored to how people live and work today is clearly needed.

The new emphasis on employee experience not only creates a new role for HR leaders, but requires a new outlook from them. Increasingly, the workplace futurists say, they will find the old demands of the job -- such as recruiting and developing talent, and setting compensation -- haven't gone away, but they'll be taking on new missions in shaping how offices look and feel or how employees share their time and their meals with the goal of increased engagement and productivity.

Josh Bersin, principal and founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based Bersin by Deloitte consulting firm, has written about the new push for better employee experience. He says he believes rapid technological advances are driving the changes -- that workers, especially younger ones, who spend too much of their workdays distracted by their smartphones and emails need new ways to become more engaged. And that means radically rethinking the design of the workplace.

"I was in San Francisco at a company" -- not Airbnb -- "and to go in their office is like being in a Starbucks," says Bersin, marveling at the latter's high-tech design that seems to encourage both a lively atmosphere as well as productivity. He says what top businesses are focusing on -- hiring top design firms to re-invent the workspace, for example -- goes well beyond yoga or mindfulness classes during lunch breaks. Companies, Bersin says, now see that changes in the architecture and interior design of the workplace can "increase productivity and ... reduce stress."

Bersin says this trend isn't just limited to high-tech Silicon Valley start-ups. On the contrary, he says, large businesses such as IBM, Facebook and ADP have moved or are moving toward large campuses with state-of-the-art working spaces -- rejecting the concept of an atomized workforce and trying to build smarter collaboration among teams of workplace neighbors. Likewise, he cites an unnamed telecommunications giant that -- plagued by high employee turnover rates at its retail outlets -- brought in a design firm to map out the worker experience and develop training programs and apps to deal with issues as they arise in the career timeline of a typical worker.

Disrupting HR

Still, it's not surprising that a newer "disruptive" firm such as Airbnb -- which brought the sharing economy to the hospitality sector by signing up homeowners around the world as hosts for hotel-length stays -- would try to similarly disrupt the HR function as it grew to nearly 2,000 employees, not just in San Francisco but with a large operations center in Portland, Ore., and nearly 20 offices around the globe.

Levy started out on a conventional HR career path at a series of firms such as Best Buy, Levi Strauss and the Gap, with a stint in London working for Technicolor SA. He says the chance to merge his passions for workplace innovations and for leisure travel was too great to pass up when Airbnb hired him away from the creative branding firm Landor, where he'd been chief talent officer.

"I remember the day after I was hired; Brian [Chesky, Airbnb's co-founder and CEO] called me up and said, 'Hey, I want to make sure you're ready to change the world!' " Levy says. That global revolution started in 2013 with a slightly less ambitious task, merging what had been three separate groups in Airbnb's start-up period -- talent, which was closest to the traditional human-resource function; recruiting; and "Ground Control," which Levy still calls the firm's "secret sauce" -- into one unit focused on the broader employee experience. Levy and his Airbnb colleagues who oversee these programs have managed to both take on the role of traditional HR department and broadly redefine its mission.

Levy says he told Chesky at the time of his hiring, " 'What if we brought them all together? Like the customer experience, we ought to be thinking about the employee experience.' " It didn't hurt that Levy came on board just as Airbnb was moving into its newly renovated 72,000-square-foot space that had been designed with a whimsical sense of both randomness and fun, aimed at reinforcing the workers' mission of adventure and travel. Now, it was the job of Levy and his group to bring that high-tech space -- from the airy cafeteria named Ate Ate Ate (for the office's address of 888 Brannan Street) to the library and nap space -- to life with happy workers.

For a company with hosts in some 34,000 communities worldwide, Levy's group looked to meals as one way to foster togetherness, so the company's in-house food staff created exotic meals and dishes from various Airbnb locales, a perfect companion to the stylish café rooms sprinkled around headquarters. "They [now] try to make sure that the music matches the food and also try to make sure the food matches anything that's going on in the world," Levy says. "When Bryan was in Cuba with President Obama [as one of the executives who accompanied the president to promote trade ties], we were serving Cuban food -- the food is kind of like the modern-day watercooler."

Also important at Airbnb is the idea of design -- not surprising since Chesky and co-founder Joe Gebbia are graduates of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. Levy says the firm has been experimenting recently, as his team developed a program to engage rank-and-file employees in office design.

"We started to involve our employees in decorating some of the meeting rooms," Levy says, "so they go through a mini-course, they get a budget -- if there's a listing, or if there's a favorite place they might have traveled to . . . within a period of a few weeks, they're bringing that to life. So there's more ownership in the workplace because the employees have actually helped us build it."

Increasingly, the employee-experience mission at Airbnb also involves people thinking about outside community in more ways than simply eating exotic ethnic food. Levy and the firm have put a lot of emphasis on creating outlets for employee volunteering, or what he calls citizenship.

"We enable our employees to have four hours a month to give back to the communities in which we operate, and that's evolved so much that citizenship now stands for employee experience as well as our public policy." The company not only encourages individual good deeds but also arranges large-scale events; a recent "Week for Good" offered community engagement opportunities in every city where Airbnb does business, including employees cooking meals for hospital patients' families, painting a homeless shelter and gardening in a local park in San Francisco. That project was a major priority for Levy, who served as the program ambassador, dropping by departmental meetings to rally support for the idea and bombarding staff with emails at regular intervals.

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Today, Levy says, every office has a "citizenship champion" who scouts out opportunities both for employees to make a community contribution and also for Airbnb hosts to get more involved; in Chicago, for example, its lodging partners teamed with the Teach for America organization to provide short-term accommodations for young teachers when they first arrived in the city. The project was a major priority for Levy over a year and a half, who developed and allocated resources for Airbnb employees to perform their monthly four hours of volunteering.

The Airbnb team is clearly doing something right, since the workplace ranking firm Glassdoor recently listed the company as its No. 1 place to work in 2016. "There's something inherently intimate about a company that started with, 'Hey, stranger, come sleep in my home,' " Keau Katsunuma, an operations manager, says in a video produced by Glassdoor. "If I wake up in the morning and have a bad day, I know that, when I come to work surrounded by people who . . . collaborate together and are supportive [it will get better]. People have a smile on their face, and it's a genuine smile."

With that attitude, it's not surprising that rank-and-file employees could become evangelists to recruit new colleagues. Levy says Airbnb keeps telling its employees to "Always Be Recruiting," or, in essence, crowdsourcing, to develop new candidates . "We do have your traditional employee referral, but to try to encourage that, we've taken it a step further," he said. The same attitude extends toward talent development, as Levy works closely with employees to create programs based around what the workers think they need to improve their skills rather than dictate training initiatives.

'A Logical Step'

Jeanne Meister, a founding partner of Future Workplace LLC and columnist who profiled Airbnb in 2015, said part of what she finds exciting about the Airbnb experiment is the integration of conventional human-resource functions with the unconventional. "This expands the scope and stature of HR and positions employee experience as a business issue, not just an HR issue," she said,

Meister says the new drive to improve worker experience isn't surprising as the millennial generation becomes the largest segment in the workforce. "Look at what millennials are spending their money on -- they're spending their money on an experience," she says. "They're not buying a car -- they want the experience through a Zip or an Uber." Making the workplace more about the experience than about the rewards is "a logical step," she adds.

Bersin says employers are increasingly looking at ways to integrate streams of data into the employee experience. "The new thing that they're really hitting is that use of data and applications and wearables as part of the work experience," he says. "Apps are a hot thing, and companies are building apps to make employees more productive."

He cites one retail client that created an app to constantly monitor the location of its workforce. "You walk into a store and up pops a note, 'I notice you're in Store 42, would you like to log in?' Companies are using wearables to keep track of heart rate." Bersin says such tools could function essentially as "mood meters" that could measure when employees have a greater sense of well-being or when they feel stressed or even threatened.

Bersin and other experts acknowledge that there are risks that employee-experience programs can become too intrusive in workers' lives. Wherever possible, they say, employers should try to instill a sense of freedom and full disclosure. For example, says Bersin, it's critical for any HR departments implementing monitoring programs to act with full transparency, to assure workers that they're not being spied on and that the aim of high-tech monitoring is only to improve the worker experience.

Airbnb is also transitioning somewhat from its period of rapid head-count growth, says Levy, and is looking more closely at fulfillment for the workforce that's already in place with the "Work Like a Human" initiative -- a slogan modeled after the firm's consumer-branding campaign, "Travel Like a Human."

"It involves how [to help] people work smarter -- so we're talking about internal communications and ways of working, and [optimizing] meetings and emails," he says. "But it's also saying, how do you pace yourself as a human?" This initiative has Airbnb thinking more creatively around its workers' spiritual and psychological satisfaction as well. This includes a new program in which employees can be assigned to what Levy calls "a life dojo," who will help coach them on what's important to them, whether that's a better diet or something more spiritual.

The coaches, the classes on First Thursdays and Airbnb's ongoing efforts to break down walls between its employees, hosts and guests are all part of what Levy sees as one unified and sweeping idea. He describes it as wanting employees who "feel they're part of something bigger -- and I would say that Airbnb is more a movement than a company."


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