One of our favorite parts of our conversation with Mark Levy, a pioneering Head of Employee Experience at Airbnb and Allbirds, was the insights he dropped around what belonging actually meant at Airbnb. Mark has dedicated his career post-Airbnb to working with ambitious teams that further employee experience and ensure employees truly belong in their organizations.
In our session, Mark breaks this out into 4 types of connection that startups can leverage to think about how they approach employee experience and connection outside of their company.
There are some amazing examples of how Airbnb effectively fostered (and continues to foster) these connections, and we began thinking of ways that we could implement this framework at Marco. Critically, we believe that our customers and community can stand to gain a lot by approaching connection itself — the ultimate goal of experiences — with the same mindset.
Let’s dive in.
Airbnb’s core value prop seemed spot on: Have a home away from home, wherever you go. Yet, after spending hours on the Airbnb brand, Mark realized there was something missing: “It wasn’t about feeling at home. It was about the feeling that you belong in a space.”
To create a world where anyone can belong anywhere, Mark decided to start from within: by creating a workplace where all people belonged as employees. From there, it all came down to building human connections — four types of connections, to be precise.
As a founder, it’s often tempting to say you have all the answers. But doing this can have serious consequences on company culture. As Mark puts it, “Playing it tough is exactly what drives the distance between leaders and their employees.”
To bring the Airbnb team together and avoid one-way dialogues, Mark drilled down into opportunities for co-creation. For instance, Airbnb’s C-suite frequently sat down with employees to:
By building a sense of equitable collaboration for their employees, Airbnb was able to do the same for their hosts — ultimately advancing their mission in an “organic, authentic way.”
“It was all about doing things with and for our employees, rather than doing things to them. This got us to a better place to work on and deliver on our company promise.”
It’s hard to imagine your workplace feeling like a home. Yet, that’s exactly what the employee experience meant at Airbnb — all with the intention of nurturing genuine connections among employees. To foster strong interpersonal workplace relationships, Mark’s team:
Thanks to these rituals, Airbnb employees were able to bond through meaningful activities like learning languages, cooking, and getting to know their local culture — ultimately creating workplace allies and driving better employee performance.
“We wanted to be a place of connection, where people don’t have to worry about making dinner, long commutes, or having too little family time. We encouraged workers to bring in their spouses and kids. We simply wanted people to come together at the end of the day.”
There’s nothing that can replace face-to-face customer interactions. Mark knows there are no exceptions to this rule.
So, when Airbnb first set out to collect customer feedback, they didn’t send out surveys. Instead, they gave each employee travel credit to stay at an Airbnb and directly learn about their host’s experiences. As Mark notes, this type of first hand feedback was invaluable for creating a strong host community and honing their service offering.
According to Mark, what makes connections at Airbnb unique is how they expand beyond the organization: “We wanted employees to feel the pulse of the larger communities they operate in.” As part of the onboarding process, Airbnb employees dedicate at least four hours of PTO to a charity of their choice.
Mark recalls tenured company members, new hires, and local hosts connecting frequently at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank — turning volunteering into an impactful bonding experience, both within and outside Airbnb. In addition, Mark highlights a group of Airbnb alumni who came together to donate $40 million in IPO shares to an assortment of social causes.
“Social impact has been a key driver within the organization. Even the alumni who came back wanted to take part. This shows how strong and impactful your connection to a company can be.”
For too long, a single leader would set the direction for their business across the board, resulting in unscalable processes and limited company visions. To break out of this loop, Mark leaves us with one key piece of advice: Focus on your employees. As he explains:
“Your team actually interacts with customers every day. Getting their insights on what’s working and where you should go as a company is the only way to drive results.”
Whether you’re an entrepreneur who’s just started hiring or a seasoned exec stuck in old ways, giving your employees a seat at the table is crucial for success. Even more, as the markets and your consumer bases continue to evolve, this will ensure you have a strong community ready to drive consistent innovation.
For tips on building a culture of connection and elevating the employee experience — beyond typical HR plays — check out Part I of Marco’s conversation with Mark.