August 16, 2021

Hybrid, Virtual, or In-Office: Airbnb's Tracy Desmond Answers Your Questions on Future of Work

The Nava Team

As we look forward into 2022, we bet you're asking: What (and where) is the future of work for my organization?

When the pandemic brought the work world to a screeching halt last Spring, most employers were forced to make ad hoc decisions. Now we've settled into a "new normal," an in-between period, neither fully rebounded nor totally stagnant.

The world — and the pandemic — are changing by the day. How can employers structure their work environment to keep up with the changing tides, while keeping employees engaged?

Nava Advisor Tracy Desmond is no stranger to building company policies in the midst of change. As Head of Global Benefits, Wellbeing & Mobility at Airbnb, she's helped implement a new hybrid model, wherein 6000 employees in 20 countries are free to choose between work-from-home or in-office for the time being.

Tracy joined us for a live Ask Me Anything (AMA) session to answer people ops professionals' top questions on the future of work. The conversation covered a lot of ground — so read on for the five most common questions (and check out the recording, because you won't want to miss the rest).

What factors should we take into consideration when determining our organization's path forward?

Like many other employers, Airbnb had originally set a return-to-office date in late 2020. But then it got extended. And extended again.

Then in April 2021, they made an announcement — Airbnb will give all employees the choice to work remotely through September 2022. At the time that may have seemed like a drastic choice, but now as the Delta variant is spiking around the world, that once-far-off date sounds more realistic.

By committing to a solid timeline with an end date over a year away, it gave their employees the freedom and stability they needed to make longer-term plans. As Tracy told us, "What people needed was a little bit of consistency, a little bit of stability and certainty.... We were trying to make a philosophical statement that we wanted people to have a choice for longer."

Here's the decision-making framework Tracy recommends for employers of all sizes:

The state and progression of the virus: "We want to keep our employees safe and healthy," Tracy explained. "So every day we're looking at case counts, vaccination rates, and how many employees we have in different cities around the world."

Employee sentiment: How are people feeling about the possibility of a shift in their work model? You may not be able to please everyone, but you want to consider how your employees will be impacted — both at work and in their personal lives.

Company values: Tracy recommends that employers let their values guide this decision. "Airbnb very much has a culture of compassion and making sure that people feel taken care of... We were trying to make a philosophical statement that we want people to have a choice for longer."

Industry trends: Check out what your peers are doing. It may clue you into factors you might not have previously considered. "It doesn't mean that's exactly what you're going to do, but I think understanding the landscape and being able to pull that information into your discussions is important."

Customer sentiment: If you were to go fully virtual today, how would your customers be impacted? Depending on the services you provide, some element of in-person work may be necessary.

Productivity statistics: "Are we being equally productive? More productive? Less productive? Does it vary by team?" Take a hard look at how your teams have been functioning while working remotely, and see if there's any data to back this up.

Any other non-negotiables:  Are there any pieces of your company that are impacted by the in-person element? Whether it be culture, business model, customer experience, or something else, pay close attention to how your new model may affect this.

How should we communicate our policy to our employees?

The key here is transparency, even if what you're communicating may not be what they want to hear. "Sometimes you're not going to be able to deliver exactly the message that they were looking for, but I think you have to be transparent about the thought process that you went through to get to this answer... Is there a business reason why you're making this particular decision?"

But always keep the door open for feedback — that two-way dialogue will be essential to making this transition smooth for everyone.

If you want to get quality, actionable feedback, you'll have to make it easy for your employees to give it. Use the channels that your employees are already on — for example, if most employee communication happens via Slack, start there.

Rather than distributing long, formal surveys, give folks opportunities to provide quick input. Tracy recommends distributing brief surveys once a month or so, depending on what works for your culture. You could even try to make it part of their routine; for instance, at Nava, everyone responds to a quick one-question survey once a week to gauge employee stoke.

Here are some questions you can ask:

  • How are you feeling this week?
  • What could we do better?
  • Is this the right amount of communication?
  • Do you have the flexibility you need to create a schedule that fits your life?

But keep in mind that sentiment is not set in stone; ask someone how they feel on a Thursday vs a Monday, and you'll likely get two different answers. Try to take a step back and view all feedback as a piece of a larger puzzle.

What if employees want remote work, but leadership wants everyone back in the office?

Almost half of employees across industries are questioning the need to return to the office, but some leaders may not be eager to commit to a permanent change. Navigating this disconnect may be tricky, so you'll want to address this as thoughtfully (and transparently) as possible.

When approaching your C-suite, lead with the data and see if you can come to a middle ground. If they are hesitant to adopt a remote or hybrid culture in perpetuity, try suggesting a pilot program with a limited timespan, then reflect on the data and outcomes at its conclusion before making a permanent choice.

If leadership is firm in their decision to remain in-office, see if there are other ways to sweeten the pot for your employees. For instance, you could implement an expanded time off policy, or introduce a new benefit (like childcare stipends or commuters benefits) to make in-office work more manageable.

How can we cultivate a strong culture, even in a remote or hybrid model?

Remember that this is still the same great group of people as before — they just aren't located in the same place. Use your values as a North Star to guide your evolving culture. "Look at your company values. What was strong and important in your culture before? Likely that hasn't changed. It's probably a core of who your business and company is." Think about how you can replicate those values under this new model, and see if you can map behaviors to values for actionable guidance.

Tracy recommends taking initiative to encourage a sense of belonging, regardless of where your employees are working. That starts with managers modeling what she calls "belonging behaviors" in their day-to-day interactions. "You have to be intentional about pulling people in... [At Airbnb] I've noticed [my colleagues] were doing some things that helped really draw me in, really include me. It was very noticeable." This can mean publicly recognizing good work in team meetings, checking in on new team members, and pulling people into conversations.

What benefits can employers offer to support employees in their "new normal"?

This last year has been hard for everyone. Burnout is more common than ever — and that's driving historic levels of resignation across industries. If employers want to keep folks engaged, happy, and healthy, it may be time to introduce new benefits with comfort and mental health in mind.

Some employers are offering wellbeing days to help promote mental health and work-life balance. Not to be confused with vacation or PTO, these days are specifically meant for employees to take a step back from work and recharge (without any expectations of logging on).

To take it a step further, we've seen other employers opt for company-wide wellbeing days. For their employees, this can help reduce any sense of anxiety that work is continuing without them — after all, their whole team is taking time off. It's almost like an unofficial holiday, celebrating mental wellbeing.

You could also opt to introduce benefits designed to help employees find balance in their day-to-day. Childcare support, flexible cash allowances for wellness, digital mental health support — all are great options to help make this stressful time easier on your employees.

How can I build a plan that accounts for unforeseen change?

No one can tell the future. The best we can do is try to be flexible in the face of change. After all that's gone down in the last year, we don't blame you for wanting to build resilience into your plan.

Remember that your policy doesn't have to be permanent. (After all, in 2021, permanence is not easy to come by.) Try framing any model changes as a pilot project and assign a target end date, then reassess and adapt as needed.

Watch the full AMA event:

Have more questions that Tracy didn't cover? Reach out and we'll do our best to get you an answer.

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