WORKING ON AIR
At Airbnb, an office ISN’T just a space to put a desk – it’s a place for CREATIVITY, COLLABORATION and true human CONNECTION that takes you on a JOURNEY.
how Airbnb engineers their office spaces to build human connection and fuel creativity
After four months embedded within Airbnb’s offices, design company Gensler created a new open-plan space for their San Francisco headquarters that gives employees “continual freedom to choose where and how to work”.
Each room is distinct, inspired by a different noteworthy Airbnb listing. There’s a library, full-service kitchen, communal eating area and spectacular city views. Basically, everything you’d find in the perfect Airbnb guesthouse.
On any given day, you’ll find team members brainstorming a project, wildly clicking on features, or ogling the new listings that roll in by the minute.
According to Airbnb’s recruitment site (where there are currently more than 100 vacancies advertised for their San Fran HQ), the company cares the most about “cultivating an environment where our team can thrive”. The chairs are comfy, the fridge is stocked, and the sofa is named Chesterfield.
It’s one of 19 offices launched by the three founders worldwide since the creation of Airbnb in 2008, when it was originally called Air Bed and Breakfast. They have offices in Sydney, Beijing, New Delhi and Barcelona to name a few cities, and each has a unique theme.
When Airbnb opens up a new office, it’s not just a place to put desks. It’s an opportunity to put the brand’s unique mission – to encourage people to feel at home anywhere – into practice.
In co-founder Joe Gebbia’s TED talk, ‘How Airbnb designs for trust,’ the entrepreneur reveals how design is key to the start-up’s success. For their model to work, it relies on building connection between guests and hosts so the latter feels comfortable enough to do something they wouldn’t naturally do without trust – open their home to a complete stranger.
Just one example of how they do this is through the design of their websites. Joe explains that they know if potential guests write an introductory message that’s too brief (like, “Yo”), to reach out to hosts, it’ll fail to build enough trust, but too long and it’ll feel like an overshare and scare people away. >
The COMPANY cares the MOST about CULTIVATING an environment where our TEAM can THRIVE.
The solution? A message box designed to hit the “sweet spot” size-wise and help build trust naturally.
The same detailed thought goes into the design of Airbnb’s office spaces in order to build connections between the company’s teams of engineers, data scientists, lawyers, brand managers and product developers who co-exist there.
So, how does the company, launched by three broke mates living in one of the US’s most expensive cities, create the ultimate environments for employee innovation – and how can other start-ups emulate it?
Well, here in Australia, Sydney design company The Bold Collective were the geniuses behind Airbnb’s offices, which opened in 2016. They’re designed in the likeness of Airbnb listings, similar to the San Francisco headquarters. Staff chose their favourite listings and, as a result, a Havana dining room, a Swedish sitting room and a kitchen inspired by Sydney eatery Coogee Pavilion are all part of the indoor landscape.
“We want to create a sense of travel when we welcome people into our office,” Airbnb’s Australian Country Manager, Sam McDonagh, said when the offices opened. “Simply having photos of listings and far-off places isn’t enough – we want employees and guests to [have] the feeling you get when you travel.”
That in mind, The Bold Collective were given a clear brief: to ensure the new workplace allowed Airbnb’s strong culture to flourish and develop. In a blog post, the design company shared their inspiration: “It was obvious the team enjoyed socialising and collaborating, and this new environment needed to support this.”
Several staff requested an area to kick a ball around, the result of which became a key feature of the entrance hall, where the elevator doors open onto astro-turf (complete with AFL goal posts).
There are also elements of Airbnb’s ‘togetherness’ ethos everywhere. The kitchen has one long breakfast bar, there are comfy couches for brainstorming and, in one of the many communal areas, a neon sign reads, ‘Belong anywhere’.
In the bathrooms, the showers are rainbow-covered (a nod to a Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras partnership), and the men’s room has a whisky bar.
Interior design website DesignBX described it as “part 3D brochure, part functional office and part playground”, while Tido Pesenti, Airbnb’s Global Head of Real Estate and Construction, called it “a perfect balance of amazing creativity and collaborative spirit”.
At the Sydney headquarters, there are departments for business development, design, employee experience and photos, plus a mysterious team who look after ‘magical trips’. Their role is to ignite the wanderlust of Aussie hosts and visitors.
Yet San Francisco is still the epicentre of the brand, where an army of team members (Airbnb doesn’t disclose exact staff numbers) create, collaborate and push the limits of work and travel.
Lunch is a social time at Airbnb, according to careers website The Muse, which offers a digital behind-the-scenes tour of the headquarters. The office boasts an open kitchen, where lunch is cooked onsite by a chef every day. When it’s ready, the chef rings the bell to tell everyone it’s lunchtime, and employees gather around to enjoy the food – and friendly company.
Inclusivity is an ongoing theme. As you walk into the Airbnb office, you’ll be greeted by the company’s ‘family tree’ mural that fills one wall. Each new employee adds themselves to be reminded that they’re all in this together.
“It’s the energy,” shares Belinda Johnson, who works in the legal team. “There’s this pure energy that drives the day. It’s an open-plan office and having this ability to communicate with everyone around makes it very easy to collaborate.” >
It was OBVIOUS the team enjoyed SOCIALISING and COLLABORATING, and this NEW environment NEEDED to support this.
When it comes to designing new office spaces, working with local designers is important to the brand. The company is keen to harness the talent of locals in other areas, too – in 2016, they added a ‘Trips’ extension to the platform, which allows travellers to book activities or ‘experiences’ led by resident experts.
Airbnb’s headquarters in Dublin has a communal lounge area designed by architecture firm Heneghan Peng to look like a traditional Irish pub, complete with standalone phone booths so employees can take private calls.
In São Paulo they worked with local architects MM18 Arquitectura to design a space that was inspired by the iconic Brazilian landscape designer Roberto BurleMarx, famed for his fantasy gardens.
In Singapore, Airbnb collaborated with design studio FARM to create a 2800-square-metre office space with fluoro-orange staircases, a wooden amphitheatre idea-sharing area and a mosaic-tiled kitchen.
The diversity of their offices reflects the diversity of their listings (Airbnb’s 4 million global listings include 3000 castles and 1400 treehouses).
So where do the three Airbnb founders feel most inspired? For Brian Chesky, whose business role models include Walt Disney, the San Fran headquarters is a motivating location. On Instagram, he revealed the offices are actually inspired by the worlds in Disney animations.
Meanwhile, Nathan Blecharczyk – an engineer by trade – has been known to bring his young daughter into the San Francisco office while his wife runs errands. This is one of the reasons he works from a standing desk – when his daughter was an infant, it allowed him to wear a baby sling while typing.
The brand’s third founder and Chief Product Officer, Joe Gebbia, who Collective Hub met during his recent trip to Australia, spearheads Airbnb’s innovation studio Samara, which is based in offices adjacent to their San Fran headquarters. In 2017, Joe also created a range of furniture with design firm Bernhardt Design, aimed at adapting to the needs of a shared space (providing a communal living area or instant privacy).
The effect of comfort on productivity has always been of interest to Joe. At university, after growing tired of the uncomfortable chairs in his art class, he launched a side-hustle selling specialty seat cushions to his classmates.
A PERFECT balance of AMAZING creativity and collaborative SPIRIT.
So, what’s next for the company? With 65,000 cities now offering listings, and a recent rebranding project in China (there, Airbnb’s now known as Aibiying, which means ‘welcome each other with love’), the company’s expansion doesn’t seem to be slowing.
According to Airbnb’s 2018 travel trends, their fastest-growing markets include booming American Midwestern cities such as Indianapolis, the British seaside, and the Brazilian coastline.
While global hotspots, including Paris and Tokyo, still top the most-booked list, smaller cities, such as Lisbon, are gaining. Beyond the standard urban apartment, non-traditional homes saw the largest increases last year. Nature lodges and traditional Japanese inns are surging the most in bookings, showing that travellers are increasingly drawn to homes that are rustic and unique, rather than simply comfortable.
Where the next Airbnb office will be, they won’t (yet!) disclose. But we expect local designers to fight for the gig – and the end result will be spectacular.
There’s this pure ENERGY that DRIVES the day.
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