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Designing a workplace where you can ‘belong anywhere’

Airbnb is all about connecting travelers with a home away from home—a place to stay that reflects the culture and values of the local environment. Aaron Taylor Harvey and Rachael Harvey take the same approach to designing work environments for Airbnb employees that feel like home—or even better.

Aaron and Rachael co-founded the Airbnb Environments Team, which combines design research with the core values of the company to produce unique workspaces for Airbnb employees at more than 20 offices around the world. The work spaces range from hundreds of thousands of square feet in the San Francisco headquarters to hundreds of square feet in Sydney, Australia. No matter where an office is located, they strive to create a space that emulates the Airbnb travel experience of “belonging anywhere.”

Airbnb’s Portland customer experience hub

With more than 250 employees serving 150,000 listings, Airbnb’s Portland, Oregon, office is one of three customer experience (CX) centers worldwide that handle the most challenging or urgent calls. But there are no cubicles, no traditional desks, and no phones. In fact, agents enjoy a work environment that’s a lot like a great Airbnb travel listing, bringing the experience of traveler and agent closer together—and making it easier to provide those travelers with a great customer experience.

The 37,000 square foot office, which opened in December of 2014, has garnered wide acclaim for its design, winning a silver award at the Cannes Lions and earning glowing coverage in publications such as Wired, Forbes, and Metropolis.

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Airbnb’s award-winning Portland Customer Experience Center. All photos by Jeremy Bitterman

We made a place that is so home-like that people actually prefer it over their home as a place to gather.

Aaron and Rachael spend a lot of time bringing the notion of delight into the workplace, creating a one-of-a-kind space where employees love to spend time, even on their days off. Now, they’re bringing their unique vision to Delight*. And once you’ve seen what they created, you may never look at your own office the same way again.

How does design thinking impact the culture at work? How do you go about creating a work environment that inspires agents to provide a great customer experience?

Aaron: The call center as a mental construct is such a dark and frightening place. Our goal is to really reconceptualize the entire notion of a contact center. For us it’s really about pushing forward these ideas about work and what we can learn from the sharing economy at work, and how we can create spaces that are home-like, but highly effective, functional spaces that allow people to do great work, but hopefully in new ways, in ways that surprise us. And the environments are open enough to facilitate that. The notion of Delight, which is very much embedded into our workplace environments, is to surprise you and pull you out of your expectations throughout the day and help you to think differently.

How does the workplace experience affect the customer experience?

Aaron: On the customer side, the person on the other side of the call can perceive that relaxed mentality. When people are in a low-stress environment they’re further away from a highly reactive state than they would be if they were in a stressed-out environment. They can help calm down the person who is having a hard time on their trip, and they can also help them work through their problem without becoming personally agitated and giving the caller a really bad experience.

We wanted to create an environment that mimicked the sort of environment people are traveling in. Someone’s calling from some cool sitting room in Berlin and they are talking to somebody in the groovy couch in Portland. The call has parity. It’s not like, “I’m in a robotic call center and you’re on a super sweet vacation.” We both should be having a good experience and let’s work together to make that happen.

How did you bring the culture of Portland into the work environment?

Rachael: We arrived and there was already a culture within that office. The design really responded to what was already starting to generate and we focused on how we could support this better with the space.

Aaron: One of the things we are most proud of in the Portland office is the fact that 70% of the furniture was manufactured locally. We did something that corporations never do. We said let’s look at all the furniture we know is going to be in this project. Let’s get everything but the task chairs made locally. Let’s push the limits of what small scale manufacturing can do in terms of our office space.

What impact does the size of the space have on the design?

Rachael: If the space that you’re sharing is small enough, you feel responsible to the other people you are sharing with. You have to have these more cellular neighborhoods. At the bigger scale, a lot of our large offices have volumes that sit within the open office that enclose the conference room, for instance, and that give the rhythm to the broader open space.

Aaron: I think that walls or screening is really important. We are really big believers in open shelving. It’s a simple thing, but being able to have a sense of semi-privacy without having to actually put up a sheetrock wall adds a great deal to people’s perception of what zone you’re in. You can do that at the scale of a dining room or living room to create that feeling. We use that strategy in the Portland office. The floor plans aren’t very big. It’s a small office—each floor is only eight and a half thousand square feet.

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How do you account for sound in such an open space? Doesn’t it get noisy?

Aaron: I’m totally obsessed with sound abatement and absorption and how to handle sound in spaces. The primary solution is simple. The ceiling of that building (in Portland) is open joist timber construction. The joists run every 14 inches, and in between each of them there is two inches of recycled cotton, just uniformly across the entire ceiling of both floors. That means it’s better than a carpet, deeper than a carpet, and you get the additional advantage of the fact that it’s shaped, that it has a cove structure. So that absorbs a great deal of sound.

Throughout the environment there are these felt nooks that people can drop into, so they function as another level of privacy where you can have a conversation. If somebody is 15 feet away from you, they can’t hear what you’re saying. They can see your mouth move, maybe they hear a little bit of sound, but they definitely don’t understand what you’re saying. Adding those nooks strategically around the space adds to the general absorption of sound across the whole environment.

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It’s hardwood floors, but there are very large rugs that are placed around the space.. And breaking the space up into volumes with glass walls traps the sounds in each zone, so you don’t get a lot of sound carrying from, say, the café space to where people are working. And even though it’s open, it’s actually sort of semi-enclosed by these volumes that block the sound.

There’s also a technology component to it, which is really important. The headsets these guys use are very sensitive and allow them to speak very quietly into them, so you don’t get a bunch of people yelling on the phone. They’re all having simultaneous low-volume conversations and there’s not a lot of reflection, so it ends up being perceived as a kind of hum in the room. And since you can work anywhere, if someone is super loud you can work in a different part of the office to get away from them.

You also design large events for Airbnb employees and hosts. What is your approach to designing those experiences?

Aaron: We use a mix of highly sculptural furniture elements, lighting effects and sound to get people moving throughout the space. Because what you really want in an event is to inspire exploration throughout the environment and pull people deeper and deeper into it without feeling like you have to bait them artificially, or push them from behind. You want them to find themselves deep inside of this thing and love that they’re there.

Darkness is your friend. If you orchestrate light so that it’s focused on the social moments, so that you’re lighting areas of complication where people can naturally come together, then they want to stick there because it’s light. They’ll huddle there underneath the light and they’ll be more intimate; they’ll talk more personally because they don’t feel exposed. And having people weave between these lit zones that are on different scales really suggests a way of occupying the space that doesn’t need signage, that doesn’t need a bunch of people telling you how to use it.

How do those design elements come into play in a work environment?

Aaron: When you are sharing space, it’s only effective if you move regularly. A couch is a groovy place to work, but not all day. So that couch needs to feel comfortable and supportive enough that you feel good working there, but after an hour, an hour and half, it makes sense to move. And you move, not to the table next to you, but to a unique location. Maybe it’s a view outside of a window; maybe it’s an adjacency to an espresso machine; maybe it’s an elevated space in the office. But each move offers a different benefit. And so those benefits pull you through the space.

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How does that affect the way people feel when they’re at work?

Aaron: The end result is that people love the office so much that they hang out in there on the weekend. They actually come in when they’re not working to use it as a living room. As a designer it’s like the greatest compliment. We made a place that is so home-like that people actually prefer it over their home as a place to gather. Often they are so connected as a team, there are such close relationships across that group, that if someone is working a Saturday shift, their buddies come in two hours early and use the cafe until he’s done, and then they all go out together.

Watch Aaron and Rachael on the Delight 2015 main stage then subscribe to Delight Digest for fresh conference news.

About Rachael & Aaron Taylor Harvey

After four years of running Myriad Harbor, a design studio focused primarily on commercial  interiors, Rachael and Aaron co-founded the Airbnb Environments team in April 2014, which works to link culture and facilities into an ongoing, meaningful and effective workspace experience.

Rachael is interested in how architectural moves, both big and small, affect the measure of pleasure and function in space. She has first-hand experience in the act of creating, from the mouse to the hammer. She earned a Bachelor of Architecture, with honors, from California College of the Arts. She has spoken at UC Berkeley and the Swiss Institute in New York. Her contributions to exhibitions include: Zer01 San Jose Biennial, Studio for Urban Projects, and 2009 AIA National Convention. She has contributed to various designs in a variety of mediums for Airbnb, from miniature 3D printed models of actual listings on the site to an urban park‐like event space, replete with an “outdoor” theater for a three-day company gathering.

A strong advocate for designing in the third and fourth dimension, Aaron believes architecture should build personal narrative and transform the everyday. He does not design for photos but rather for people. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Cinema from San Francisco State University and a Master of Architecture degree from California College of the Arts. He was an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts from 2010‐2014 in the Architecture Department and First Year Core.