When Airbnb sent round a survey to its employees in Paris asking what they’d like in their new office, the request was for a petanque field.
For the uninitiated, petanque is a form of boules played with a wooden ball. “We were like, ‘weeeelllll, that may not happen, it could be a little dirty and loud’,” says Rebecca Ruggles, Airbnb’s lead international designer, whose job is to make these wild workplace dreams come true.
Though the request may seem ambitious, it’s within in the realms of possibility for a tech start up as successful and disruptive as Airbnb. The holiday rental platform has transformed the hotel industry by giving anyone with a spare room and a mobile phone the ability to run a small hospitality business.
Governments and hoteliers in more than 34,000 cities in over 190 countries are still reeling from the aftermath, playing catch up where they can and, in many cases, changing the law on short term lets to curb its influence on private rental stock.
But few people realise how influential the company has also been in office design. Its main competitors in this field are Silicon Valley neighbours Facebook, Google and Uber. Famed for nap rooms, free food, juice bars and plush relaxation areas, a cool office is part of the package used to lure talented programmers and engineers to work for the world’s most progressive tech-start ups.
The long-lauded king of workplace perks was Google, but it was dethroned in jobs website Glassdoor’s Best Company to Work For in the World rankings by Airbnb in 2015, which held on to the title in 2016.
Some of the credit for that must be given to its Environment Team, started by Aaron Taylor Harvey and Rachael Yu, a couple with a design practice in San Francisco who were hired to create ‘furnitecture’ 3D models and small design pieces for Airbnb’s conferences and festivals.
The company liked them so much, they were brought in-house and now have an eight-strong team who travel between 22 offices around the world, observing how its employees work and devising ways to upgrade their workspace.
Once an office grows to about 40 members, they get a call from The Environments Team who get to work. “The reasoning was that the space draws people to work,” says Ruggles.
“In this day and age, you can work wherever you want, but you still need a space to bring people together.”
The first way they attempted to do this was by trialling an office design named after the company’s slogan, “Belong Anywhere”, in Portland, Oregon. It consisted of a variety of casual, communal work spaces where staff from across departments could choose the environment they wanted to work in, from a busy cafe to “the library, where the lights are always off, there’s no talking allowed and you can just get your head down and focus.”
A restaurant was even set up two blocks away – also owned by Airbnb – where laptops and phones are banned and sharing dishes are served to encourage staff to socialise. “You can easily run into people so it’s really facilitating those chance encounters and conversations that are going to inspire people and help them come up with new ideas. It’s about getting different departments to talk to each other.”
The only problem was, it worked too well. “It was limiting productivity; people were being too social or they were too hard to find – they needed a home base.” Taking this feedback on board, the team came up with the “Neighbourhoods” model, which informed the design behind its international headquarters, opened in Dublin last summer. The 400,000sqm office in Hanover Quay is situated in a 19th century industrial warehouse that had fallen into disrepair.
This is the first space where they were able to plan the interior space from scratch so they divided it into a primary workspace consisting of 29 “neighbourhoods”, each seating a team of up to 14 people around a large table, personal storage, a couple of sit stands and a lounge.
The secondary workspace is where the fun happens, though: the kitchen area, the meeting rooms (more on those later) and a grand central staircase called The Agora, where branch-wide gatherings can take place or people can work casually.
These social spaces are often culturally specific, which has sent Ruggles on an anthropological fact-finding mission to discover the differing ways nations work and play. For the Dublin office, this was a no-brainer – they built a pub.
“We’ve had people get confused and walk in accidentally because they have taps for beer and wine at the reception desk. They end up hanging out together all evening. Every time I’ve been there, we’re together the rest of the night, it’s really fun.
“But when I’ve been to the office in France, it’s all about eating together; they stop what they’re doing and eat lunch together every day, no one eats at their desk. That’s just how they connect.”
In Tokyo, there’s a calming meditation area, complete with tatami mats, phone booths with a tea-house aesthetic, rice-paper covered walls. “In Japan, privacy was a really important thing; they wanted a lot of quiet places to take phone calls where they wouldn’t disturb anyone else.”
While Airbnb wants to reflect the local culture, “we don’t want it to be the Disney version of it” so they always work with local firms – Threefold Architects for the London office, Heneghan Peng in Ireland – to make sure what they’re doing is authentic and appropriate.
As a travel company, it also has fun transporting employees around the world via its meeting rooms. Each one is modelled – usually on a dining room or lounge – from a real home listed on Airbnb. When staff attend meetings in Dublin, they step into a slice of Portugal, Greece, Romania, Japan, Sweden, Morocco or France.
In the California office, there’s an LA dive bar filled with vintage items from the 1980s and an exact replica of Julia Child’s kitchen, wafting scents of lavender and herbs around the office.
These themed meeting rooms have the dual function of being super-cool and helping staff navigate their way around the office. “I worked at an architecture firm for nine years and I still couldn’t remember all the conference room names,” says Ruggles. “But when it’s decorated like Cairo or Tokyo, then you know exactly where to go and what to look out for. It sticks with you.”
For the finishing touches, Ruggles’ team runs an Employee Design Experience programme, inviting staff volunteers to a Design 101 class then letting them loose to add personal touches. That’s why the centre of attention in a ski-lodge themed room in Singapore is a collage of employees as children frolicking in the snow.
But there’s a fine line between having a fun office that can compete with Silicon Valley’s finest and distracting your workforce with smoothie bars and pinball machines. That’s why the only artwork found in any of the offices are huge pictures of Airbnb hosts with plaques next to them explaining who they are and why they rent their homes out to strangers.
The idea actually comes from Nike, which founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia visited a few years ago, where the walls are adorned with giant posters of their “hero” athletes, bearing down upon them like muscular gods.
“As we grow, one of our biggest challenges is scaling up what we do,” says Ruggles. “When you have a team of 30, it’s really easy; with thousands worldwide, it’s much harder. The founders feel that design is one of the strongest ways we can communicate the brand’s culture and connect people from all different places.”
And if you can do that while thrashing your colleagues at petanque, why on earth wouldn’t you?