Airbnb Chief Human Resource Officer Becomes Chief Employee Experience Officer
By Jeanne Meister - Founding Partner, Future Workplace
This column was originally published in Forbes.com and reprinted here with permission of the author.
Businesses have long recognized the importance of delivering a differentiated and engaging experience for their customers. But as Millennials have surpassed Generation X to become the largest share of the American workforce, companies are now applying the same philosophy of creating memorable customer experiences when managing different generations to keep their own employees engaged and happy.
Today, forward-looking companies are well aware that top talent is looking for more than a job with benefits. While some companies create experiences central to the “place of work,” such as access to gym facilities, free massages, and gourmet food, Airbnb is building what I call the “workplace as an experience™.” The essence of the “workplace as an experience” is where all the elements of work—the physical, the emotional, the intellectual, the virtual, and the aspirational—are carefully orchestrated to inspire employees.
Airbnb Looks To Create memorable Workplace Experiences For Employees
Airbnb, with over 1,000,000 listings in 34,000 cities and 191 countries (now including Cuba), is a leader in the sharing economy, one where consumers stay with peers rather than staying in a traditional hotel. Just as YouTube did to television, and the Huffington Post did to mainstream media, Airbnb allows everyone to be both a contributor and a consumer. Airbnb is now taking this “contributor experience” inside to their employees, and is creating the “workplace as an experience.”
I asked Mark Levy, Global Head of Employee Experience at Airbnb, what he thinks “workplace as an experience” means. “At Airbnb we are focused on bringing to life our mission of creating a world where you can #belonganywhere, by creating memorable workplace experiences which span all aspects of how we relate to employees, including how we recruit them, develop them, the work environment we create with them, the type of volunteer experiences we offer them, and the food we share together. While these may sound like common sense, they are not. For example, our Airbnb space has moved from open space floor plan to a ‘belong anywhere working environment,’ where an employee can work from any number of workspaces, including what we call the kitchen counter, the dining room table, or the living room. This allows employees to either work alone or congregate with the folks they are working with to create the sense of belonging, rather than working from a closed-in cube, office, or dedicated desk.” The engagement scores show the impact of the Airbnb culture, with 90% of Airbnb employees recommending Airbnb as a great place to work!”
Levy’s scope of responsibilities reflects this expanded vision. Levy is responsible for not only typical HR functions such as recruiting, talent management and development, HR operations, and total rewards, but also a range of new areas which create the “workplace as an experience” vision. This expanded scope of responsibilities includes such functions as facilities, food, global citizenship, and a secret sauce of creative individuals in most offices called ground control, who focus on bringing the Airbnb culture to life through workplace environments, internal communications, as well as employee events, celebration, and recognition.
As Joe Gebbia, Co-Founder of Airbnb, says, “Everything at Airbnb is a continuation of what it’s like to be a guest in somebody’s house.” The role of Head of Employee Experience at Airbnb blurs the lines between the functions of Marketing, Communications, Real Estate, Social Responsibility, and Human Resources.
Every aspect of creating the employee experience is focused on designing an extraordinary physical, emotional, intellectual, virtual, and aspirational experience for Airbnb employees. From the tasty and healthy menus for their free meals to the meeting rooms offered are inspired by active Airbnb listings. In addition, the food service is not outsourced but a part of the Airbnb Family and the work environment.
The Chief People Officer As Chief Employee Experience Officer At Airbnb
The role of Chief Employee Experience Officer combines traditional human resource functions of recruiting and talent development with marketing, real estate, facilities, social responsibility, and communications. Figure 1 shows how all the elements of this occur to create what I call the “workplace as an experience™.”
Food: Through its food program, Airbnb creates healthy and satisfying food options by rotating the cuisine to feature one of the 191 countries around the world where hosts and guests of Airbnb share authentic local travel experiences. This is one of several ways Airbnb employees in San Francisco headquarters feel like they are experiencing the Airbnb brand at work. Figure 2 shows a sample menu of food inspired by an Airbnb listing from India:
Facilities/Workspace Environments: Airbnb’s workspace, as featured in Metropolis Magazine, blurs the line between work and home. It includes a kitchen, a library, a nerd cave, the demo den, a place to meditate, practice yoga, or write on the walls, and a green atrium with 1,226 square feet of beautiful greenery that stretches up to three floors high. Workspace design amenities are quickly becoming recruiting tools, recognizing the value of using elements of the outdoors including incorporating plants and murals of bucolic scenes to create more productive workspaces. And the studies are proving this to be the case. Stephen R. Kellert, professor of social ecology at the Yale University School of Forestry reports workers in environments connected with nature in some way function better at work than those who are disconnected from nature.
Ground Control: At Airbnb, Ground Control refers to creating a memorable experience for Airbnb employees through celebration, appreciation, communication, education, recognition, space, and food, all while ensuring Airbnb core values are communicated and instilled in the process. Expertly crafted by Airbnb, this is much more than offering free food, gym privileges, and massages at work. It is the organization and execution of everything happening in and around the workspace, all designed to bring the Airbnb mantra of creating a word where everyone belongs to life! This team is also responsible for bringing every Airbnb employee together in Meet Ups. These events are designed to curate the culture and keep the mission and values top of mind.
Global Citizenship And Purposeful Work: All Airbnb employees are given the chance to volunteer four hours a month, the equivalent of six days a year. The core of the Airbnb global citizenship program is to “give back” to their communities and the communities in which Airbnb operates as a way to assist the cities in which the company does business. Airbnb employees often spend time in their own neighborhoods giving back along with local hosts, and sometimes guests who are visiting. For example, in Portland, Oregon, Airbnb partners with Central City Concern, a non-profit organization that helps residents move from homelessness to self-sufficiency. In addition to Airbnb employees volunteering with Central City Concern, all local hosts in Portland can donate a portion of their hosting income to this program with Airbnb matching this donation.
Recruiting: Since two of Airbnb ’s founder, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, graduated from Rhode Island School of Design, they use a Disney style storyboard approach to many of their processes, including recruiting. One of the key best practices, according to Jill Riopelle, Head of Global Recruiting, is to storyboard the hiring experiences by exploring the best and worst hiring moments with a focus on the emotions for each one. Then the recruiting team and Airbnb leadership examine what they want the hiring process to feel like, with an emphasis on one of their core values- being a great host. To date, Airbnb’s job-offer acceptance rate has climbed to around 80% for engineers, and more than 90% for all other departments.
Talent Development: At Airbnb, the goal is to create and foster an employee-centric experience for developing and engaging employees. This means co-creating talent development opportunities with employees, and crowd-sourcing the skills and knowledge they need to be successful, rather than launching a fully formed new learning initiative. To this end, Levy has created a series of pilots. Then, with others on his team, he went around the world asking, “Here’s what we’re thinking about, are we focused on the right areas and how can you add to this?” This is not the way new services are typically created in Human Resources, but I believe it will be the new normal for how they will be created by best of breed employers who want to provide every employee with a voice for co-creation.
Collaborative Technologies: Airbnb uses the latest technologies to communicate the company culture. From their every other week Tuesday meeting live streamed around the world, to the ongoing use of WhatsApp, Airbnb makes sharing company culture a priority. As Mark Levy explains, “I created a staff immersion week where everyone in the Employee Experience group traveled to a different office in the same week sharing photos, learnings, and insights on WhatsApp, rather than having a traditional ‘All Hands Meeting.’” This use of the latest virtual technologies has become a powerful way to both communicate and understand the nuances of local Airbnb offices around the world.
Transparency: Transparency in the workplace is becoming the new currency of leadership. Airbnb demonstrates this with a culture where employees freely share why Airbnb is a great place to work. Scan the Airbnb Glassdoor.com page (where CEO Brian Chesky has a 97% approval rating) and you will see comments like, “This company is mission driven with an incredible culture and one where you are encouraged to be yourself.” Or, “Airbnb creates meaningful experiences, whether it is the candidate experience, travel experience or website experience.” However, the comment that stuck with me is this one: “I am in my 50’s and I work for Airbnb. And this is by far the best job I have ever had. Airbnb is creating something that touches people: experience memories, relationships, who else does that?”
The Workplace As An Experience
While Airbnb recognizes they are in the business of creating memorable experiences for their hosts, guests, and employees, any company can take stock of their current workplace experience and seek out ways to enhance this. After all, Gallup reports that Americans work an average of 47 hours per week, with four in ten workers reporting they work at least 59 hours per week. So is it any wonder that employees crave a workplace experience that is engaging, openly communicative, and mission driven.
What if you work for a company other than Airbnb? How do you achieve this? Where can you begin? First think about creating a role such as Chief Employee Experience Officer, which mirrors what your company is most likely doing with their customers. Next, have an appreciation for how important to partner with other functions outside of the HR function. The lines are blurring between Human Resources and all other key corporate functions—including Marketing, Facilities, Real Estate, Communications, and Sustainability—needed to create an experience employees fall in love with.
For Chief Human Resource Officers, here are three questions to ask yourself and your team:
- Are we still functioning in a Human Resources silo? How can we broaden our vision and begin to partner with other functional groups such as Marketing, Facilities, Real Estate, Communications, and Sustainability to create as memorable an employee experience as we create a customer experience?
- How can we use the tools we use for our customer experience such as: ongoing research into needs and perceptions, design thinking, and a marketing mindset to re-invent the Human Resource function?
- How do we create and embrace an iterative development model so new Human Resource services are co-created with employees in much the same way new products are co-created by our company’s most passionate consumers.
The essential question for senior Human Resource leaders is not whether, but when and how, your company will create the “workplace as an experience,” tapping into the physical, emotional, intellectual, virtual, and aspirational facets of how an employee is engaged in the workplace.
Is your company on this journey? If so, please share with us here… If not, what barriers do you see in this expanded role? Comment here!
Jeanne Meister is Founder and Partner at Future Workplace and co-author of the book The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today. Follow Jeanne on Twitter, connect with her on LinkedIn, or sign up to receive the latest Future Workplace newsletter here.