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Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky recently announced that the company’s employees will be able to work from anywhere, including (for up to three months) overseas. He also abolished location -based pay, at least within the U.S. In the days following the announcement, Airbnb’s recruiting page received a million visitors. The company, which laid off a quarter of its staff during the pandemic, also released first quarter earnings that closely matched pre-pandemic levels.
Chesky, who has decamped from San Francisco and has been living entirely in Airbnbs this year, sat down with TIME in an Airbnb above a cosmetics store in downtown Manhattan to talk about the future of the office, corporate culture, how to redesign working spaces (he’s a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design) and how he steered the company through its darkest days.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Is it your belief that the office is over?
I think that the office as we know it, is over. It’s kind of like an anachronistic form. It’s from a pre-digital age. If the office didn’t exist, I like to ask, would we invent it? And if we invented it, what would it be invented for? Obviously, people are going to still go to hospitals and work, people are going to still go to coffee shops and work—those spaces make complete sense. But I think that for somebody whose job is on a laptop, the question is, well, what is an office meant to do?
I do think people are going to need space, and people aren’t going to all want to work from home. I think a number of things are going to happen though; the office has to do something a home can’t do. So maybe private offices will come back in vogue where people can’t work from home and they need a space and the company will have a space available. But will they need to work around other co-workers? I think you’re going to see a lot of people not even living in the same area; the only place you’ll have to be, for the most part, is the internet. The past two years, I’ve worked in all different cities—people probably didn’t even know— I was in Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Miami, Colorado, and it didn’t make any difference. People will still go to offices, but it’ll be for different purposes, for collaboration spaces. And if people go into an office for collaboration, do they need to go to New York City or can they go to a retreat in upstate New York?
You’re going to see a lot more flexibility. I think the talent pool is going to be much more distributed. Not everyone’s going to limit themselves to a community radius around their office. The way to see the future is not to look at the big banks and the old companies. If you want to know what the workplace future looks like, look at young companies, because young companies basically don’t have any legacy. And young companies are flexible, they’re mobile, they’re kind of more nomadic. I think that’s probably what the workplace of the future will look like in 10 years.
So what happens then to something like corporate culture, it just goes out the window?
Will there still be corporate cultures? Of course. I would argue our culture [at Airbnb] is pretty strong, and we’re going to get together one week a quarter. If it turns out a week a quarter is not enough, we’ll get together more. But my suspicion is a week per quarter is probably going to be enough human connection for the average person to come together and bond.
You go to those big skyscrapers, and all those CEOs telling you that they have to come back to the office… First of all, most CEOs are from a different generation. Young leaders are going to think quite differently. Of course, young people also like community. It’s hard to make friends on Zoom, there’s a lot of limitations: people become invisible, your bubbles become smaller. Zoom can have some pernicious effects on diversity on young people, on minorities, I think there’s a lot of negative potential ramifications for zooming. I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture of the future; there’s going to be a lot to work out. All I’m saying is, you can’t fight the future, we can’t try to hold on to 2019 any more than 1950. We have to move forward.
The solution is going to be a true hybrid, not three days in the office. It’s going to be total flexibility, and then gathering in an immersive way when you need. This is going to be how most technology companies will operate. And I believe almost every company will be a technology company in 10 years. Technology will proliferate so much that every company will just feel more like a technology company. There will be some analog companies—there will still be coffee shops. But even media companies are becoming tech companies; it’s all converging.
You’re speaking of this as something that you think will happen, but not something you necessarily endorse?
No, no, I endorse it. But I do think it can be really bad. I don’t want to paint an overly simplistic view. On balance it’s good for diversity. Why is it good for diversity? Let’s take Airbnb: Before the pandemic, we had to mostly hire from San Francisco. How diverse is San Francisco? Not very. So we decided, let’s open offices in Atlanta, because Atlanta is more diverse, and we can hire more people from a more diverse background. But the truth is that the solution for diversity should be truly being able to hire people from everywhere. That’s the upside. The downside is a world of too much Zoom and too much remote work is a world where people can feel lonely and disconnected. Pure Zoom is not going to work. You’ve got to do something in between. The in-between has been what people call hybrid—two to three days a week. My prediction is three days a week becomes two days a week, and two days a week becomes one day a week, and pretty soon are you really in a hybrid world, or are you mostly a remote world? People don’t realize this two-three days a week thing is not super sustainable. People are going to realize, “O.K. let’s be more intentional about when people gather. And let’s gather for a week or two at a time.”
Another downside is that with remote work, employees don’t get subjected to the same social influences, to people with wildly different views, and to having to collaborate with people they didn’t choose. Do you worry about that?
Yeah. I agree with the concern. If we were to abstract it at a larger level, physical communities are getting digitized. The mall became Amazon—and there’s some great things about that. But the problem is you go to the mall, and you see people different than you and you’ve got to look people in the eye and bump up to people, you have to wait in line and wait for the person, be courteous and you don’t get to pick everyone around you. On the internet, you could create a hermetically sealed bubble of people just like you. Suddenly, you can live in your own reality.
I am concerned about physical communities getting completely digitized with no physical substitutes. I don’t know if that means that we should bring malls back. And I don’t know if that necessarily means that we should bring back the office culture of the past.
I do think it means that we are going to need to design physical ways for people to come together. The thing about human connection is it’s inefficient. Technology is like gravity; it wants to find the fastest point between point A and point B. If we’re not careful, in the name of efficiency, we will try to remove all human connection. And if we do that, we live in a world with no community where people are lonely, where everyone’s got a mental health crisis and you can see where this starts to go. I’m an optimist. We don’t have to go down that road. We can design meaningful moments where people come together, but it’s going to require us to actually be creative and think: How will people come together in the future? What will they do?
You are, by training a designer, one of the few CEOS who went to the Rhode Island School of Design. Have you thought about what the physical spaces might be?
Yes, but let me preface this by saying that if we talk in a year or two, I will be much more intelligent because we’re basically all at the beginning of an experiment. These are like theories in my head, right? I might change my answer once I test it—designers like to prototype something, and then say “Yeah, I guess that doesn’t really work.” But here’s my theory: I think that we need to move from multi-use spaces to more single-use spaces. An analogy would be that before the iPhone, there was a Blackberry and the problem with the BlackBerry, as Steve Jobs pointed out, was that the keyboard was there whether you needed it or not. If you want to watch a video, you don’t need the keyboard there. The great thing about a touchscreen is it could become whatever it needed to become— a calculator, a screen, a photo album. I’d like to see something like that with the office.
Let’s say, for example, you want to do a giant gathering of everyone together. What creative people really want is a lot of pin-up space and tables in the center of a room, kind of standing tables, where you don’t have to sit. Engineers are going to want a totally different thing. I think we need to move toward fewer multi-use spaces. Historically, pre-pandemic, tech offices were an open sea of desks with a perimeter of meeting rooms with no private offices. There wasn’t a lot of privacy. There were some good things about it, but there were some bad things.
If retail investors bought your stock on the close of the first day of your IPO in December 2020, they wouldn’t have made any money on it by today. If they bought Marriott, they would have made a lot. Does this worry you?
I saw some comments on Twitter yesterday saying this is the worst that the stock market has been—at least for high tech companies—since the dotcom crash. To say it’s a correction is probably an understatement. I’m not going to speculate on whether or not we’re on the verge of recession. Big tech companies have basically held their value, but everyone else is like a third or half. I’m not bothered by the stock price, because I’ve made the decision that I need to focus on what I can control. And the stock price is a mood. And the mood, by the way, is not even really associated with our company. Two or three days ago, we [announced] $1.2 billion in free cash flow [for the first quarter of 2022]. I would encourage people to buy our stock if they want to hold it long term.
Early in the pandemic, you had a billion dollars in cancellations; either the hosts were going to lose money, or the guests were going to lose money. You decided it would be the hosts. Was that the darkest day for you?
Late March to May 5, 2020 were dark. The saddest day was definitely May 5, the day of the layoff. The layoff was like a combination of darkness upon darkness upon darkness. There was the layoff, there was the fact that it wasn’t the easiest to raise money, you know, and we ended up raising debt. The walls were kind of caving in, in every direction. In a crisis, it’s all about optimism. You have to have optimism that’s rooted in reality, that’s believable, so people will follow you up a mountain. And I felt like if we could just not quit, just keep going, we could preserve what’s special about our service, and our best days would be ahead of us. I never lost faith. It was very dark, but it wasn’t existential to me in the same way it was to others. I never had doubts that we’d make it, but I wouldn’t have begrudged people if they had questions, because it didn’t look good from the outside.
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