Future of Work: ‘The office as we know it is over,’ Airbnb CEO says

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky believes the future of work may mean the death of the office in its current form

(Airbnb/iStock/Washington Post illustration)
(Airbnb/iStock/Washington Post illustration)
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The last two years of the pandemic has led Airbnb’s chief to make a radical change to the way 6,000 employees at his company work, and it’s nothing like the past.

“The office as we know it is over,” Brian Chesky said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Post. “It is an anachronistic form factor from a pre-digital age.”

Hybrid work is also not the ideal, he says.

The head of the home-sharing service believes employee gathering in spaces will still exist but in an entirely different form. That’s because more workers will opt for relocating to different cities, states, or countries or regularly travel, Chesky says. The CEO, who is also a co-founder, has already visited a dozen different cities since January to work remotely and plans to continue the nomadic lifestyle with his 9-month-old Golden Retriever Sophie Supernova through summer, he said. Airbnb, which reported a first quarter net loss of $19 million on a 70 percent surge in quarterly revenue to $1.51 billion from a year earlier, has been benefiting from the uptick in travel.

Chesky earlier this month unveiled policies that allow employees to live and work from anywhere in their country without a change in pay. They also can work in more than 170 countries for up to 90 days in each location. To help more people take trips to work abroad, Airbnb is working with about 20 countries to remove some of the red tape around securing a temporary work visa.

“We want to partner with countries to make it easier … so you’re not going through a crazy amount of paperwork,” he said.

We sat down with Chesky, who spoke to us from New York. Here’s what he said about the future of work.

A new way of working

Airbnb plans to allow workers to work from anywhere and its CEO thinks other companies should follow suit. (Video: The Washington Post)

Q: Why do you think your new work policy will be successful?

A: Partially because we announced the policy less than two weeks ago and since, we’ve had more than 1 million people visit our careers and jobs page. We only have 6,000 employees. Ultimately, I don’t believe that CEOs can dictate how people work. The market will. The employees will. Flexibility will be the most important benefit after compensation.

Q: Do you think your policy will attract a different talent pool?

A: One of the benefits of flexibility is increased diversity. If you limit yourself to hiring people only in San Francisco [for example] then you’re limited to the diversity of people that can afford to live [there]. You can add offices and other locations, but true diversity [comes] from a diverse set of communities.

Q: How are you making sure employees who go to the office don’t get preferential treatment?

A: I’m not sure that people going to the office will see management more often. My executive team is in all different cities already. And I’m not going to be in the office, so they’re not going to be seeing me very often. The most visible way to see people is usually Zoom because it’s hard to walk around the office and see what people are doing at their desk. Things are actually easy to track digitally.

At the same time, we’re trying to be super intentional, so we expect every employee to be together for one week a quarter. That one week is not going to be random meetings. It’s going to be meaningful experiences that we’re going to design to build trust, connection and do important collaborative work.

The vacation rental and tourism company recently announced plans to allow most its employees to work from wherever they choose and get paid the same. (Video: The Washington Post)

Q: Why should other companies follow your vision?

A: We’re going to help popularize and accelerate an inevitable trend. You can’t undo this. Screens will get better, Internet will get faster, it’s all going to get better. The digital experiences are going to become more and more real. People are going to have more and more freedom. So number one, companies should do this because it’s inevitable. But number two, don’t you want the best people?

Big picture

Q: What is the future of compensation in remote work?

A: Location-based pay is going to be viewed as an outdated practice. In a world of flexibility, where people don’t have to be back in an office five days a week, guess what’s going to happen? A whole bunch of people that work from a laptop are going to go somewhere else. Pay is based on job, not location.

Q: How will offices look and feel different?

A: If an office didn’t exist today, would we invent it? And would it look like it is today? What I think is going to happen is there will be spaces that people will work in. Offices are going to have to be more single-use case. So if you want a creative space, you want a room with a lot of [working] space and big tables. If I want to be heads down, I’m going to have a lot of private spaces. If we do an off-site, maybe we have a retreat space with a lot of nature. We need to let go of the form factors of the last 50 years and imagine if you started from scratch, what would you do? You’d probably make something different than what you have today.

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky shared how his company hoped to improve diversity and talent by enabling more remote-friendly workplaces. (Video: The Washington Post)

Q: Will the Airbnb office change?

A: Absolutely. It’s going to change radically. I like to see how things are used and then design them. [Chesky used to be an industrial designer.] So I’m going to see how people go back to the office first. But make no mistake, one or two years from now, our offices, [will be] somewhat unrecognizable.

Q: What impact would these ideas have on real estate?

A: Open floor plans aren’t great for towers because towers separate you by floors. I would encourage cities to think about converting commercial real estate to residential real estate.

What we need to do is design new physical communities that people want to spend time in that you don’t have to force them back to.

Next era of work

Q: How much of your new work policy was based on the current talent wars?

A: We’ve always been competing for talent. It’s been going on for decades. This is just the next chapter. Now instead of people competing to have the nice offices with on-site yoga, what they’re going to compete for is to have the most flexibility and the strongest culture.

Q: What technologies are needed for the future of work?

A: What would make it even better? Satellite Internet, things like Starlink where you can go off the grid or beaten path, and you’re not limited to the infrastructure in a town or city. That would help. Even better camera technology, even higher resolution screens, which are inevitable, so that when you’re dialing in from a laptop, it feels more real.

Q: Will the metaverse play a role in the future of work?

We’re living in one of the loneliest times in human history. Digital connections are not always as nourishing as physical connections. So we’re really focused on how can online or digital technology be a gateway to in-person connection.

Q: What are the biggest challenges employers will face in this next era of work?

A: If a company chooses to bring people back to the office three days a week or five days a week, those CEOs and companies are going to have trouble retaining people, maintaining morale and hiring. They’re going have some really big problems.

For companies that embrace flexibility, we’re going to have a different problem. How do you make sure people can still build meaningful relationships at work? But we don’t think the solution is three days a week in office. We think it’s going to be immersive, intentional gatherings.

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