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Airbnb’s Head of Employee Experience on turning company values into reality

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Aspirational company mantras are hard to achieve. Airbnb's Director of Employee Experience, Mark Levy, is trying to change that.

Frivolous, cliché Silicon Valley offices lined with Ping-Pong tables and nap pods no longer cut it.

Airbnb wanted to create a working environment espousing its mission statement to ‘Belong Anywhere’ instead.

By turning a 72,000 square foot, century-old San Francisco Battery warehouse into a workplace that acknowledges its heroes – those men and women worldwide – who have opened their doors to a cultural phenomenon that has turned the hospitality industry on its head.

Based in San Francisco’s neighborhood of SoMa, you’ll find replicas of famous Airbnb listings, complete with photos of the hosts themselves, living walls, a perfectly cylindrical meeting room modeled on the war room from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and if this wasn’t enough, there’s an enormous atrium offering a cross-section view of 8 meeting rooms based on homes featured on the site.

Oh, and the bathrooms are wilderness themed.

Every square foot of meticulously designed space adds to the allure of working, or becoming a part of the $25.5bn valued organization. Which as Mark Levy, Airbnb’s Global Head of Employee Experience sees it, has become more of a movement than a company.

Its 80 million guests and 2 million listed properties show just how far it has come. Since 2008, millions of users have foregone the hotel price premium to instead spend a night – perhaps unwittingly – evangelizing the very modern idea that access trumps ownership.

Levy’s role he explained, as Airbnb’s head count has doubled over the past year, has become about ensuring he recruits passionate believers in Airbnb’s values, and to ensure these values transcend the business globally.

Many businesses try and hammer home company values by brandishing aspirational mantras across walls, marketing collateral, email signatures, and anywhere eyeballs will see them.

Airbnb has opted for a slightly different approach. It’s called the ’employee experience’ department.

“You don’t see the mission and values on the wall. Instead, you feel it when you walk through the door and you see it in the way that people behave with one another, and with anyone who comes into contact with us. Being a host is one of our most important values, and it is how we behave both with one another, and everyone else.”

Who needs an HR department anyway?

Before Levy arrived, his employee experience team did not exist. Nor did HR in a pure form. Instead these functions were spread sparsely across different areas of the business.

What did exist however, was a firm personal ideal held by Levy of what employee experience should entail.

“My view on what great employee experience is, is creating an environment where employees can be their best self at work, particularly given how much time is spent there, doing something that creates meaning both in their life and work.”

Such a view came from Levy’s past work.

Where prior to Airbnb, he headed up global talent for Landor Associates, a branding and design agency.

Little did he know, learning to lead talent within a creative organization such as this would lay the foundations to work at a company founded by two RSID designers (Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia both of whom went to the Rhode Island School of Design).

In an interview with Fast Company, both spoke of how design sits at the very core of Airbnb.

Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO, says “from conference rooms modeled after listings to storyboarding the user experience, design has a voice in everything—even in how a new employee starts their first day.”

Chesky goes on to explain that at the Rhode Island School of Design, he was constantly challenged to question how design could be brought into the boardroom. A sentiment that has remained with him to the point that now, at Airbnb, design “runs the boardroom.”

“When I started to talk to Brian [Chesky] about the role there was just a small group called ‘talent’, a larger team called ‘recruiting’ and then a third group on the other side of the company called ‘ground control’,” Levy says.

Ground control, or the “secret sauce” behind Airbnb’s employee experience comprises of individuals placed around the world turning aspirational values into tangible reality. Using internal communications, workspace design and employee events like the Airbnb Open, where 5,000 enthusiastic hosts (the individuals who rent out their properties) descended on Paris for three days of talks, parties and sight seeing to do it.

Levy’s point is that before he joined, the 3 pieces laying the fuzzy foundations of an HR department were all separate. Together however, he knew they could be incredibly powerful.

“They were all reporting into different parts of the organization. So when I joined I said to Brian, I think we have to look at all the pieces and parts that are responsible for employee experience and work out how to bring them together under one roof and one leader so to speak.”

This was the start of the expansion of the employee experience department. What came next was a re-think of the ‘talent’ team where Levy added specialization, rewards, talent partners and talent programs.

“And then we added in things like food and facilities, safety and security.”

Not to mention the introduction of ‘citizenship’, which saw employees allocated 4 hours a month to volunteer in their local area. The program, since its introduction, has ballooned into becoming a staple of Airbnb’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) remit.

“It [the three areas] works very fluidly,” Levy explains.

“Essentially the way we approached it was through looking at the entire employee journey from start to finish, considering how we support employees, starting with those that are interested in coming to work for Airbnb all the way through to our alumni network.”

“Our mission,” he explains, “is to create a workforce where you can belong anywhere, but in employee experience we’re focused on how we can make people feel like they belong here.”