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5 Things Leaders Can Learn From Airbnb's Approach to Remote Work

June 06, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

Tesla CEO Elon Musk grabbed headlines last week when an internal company email leaked telling Tesla office workers to report to the office for a minimum of 40 hours per week. "If you don't show up, we will assume you have resigned," he wrote. Lest anyone was unclear, Musk confirmed his dim view on remote and hybrid work when asked what he had to say to those who disagreed with the policy.

"They should pretend to work somewhere else," he tweeted.

Contrast that message with the headlines generated in April when Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky issued a statement via Twitter that the company was offering employees the opportunity to live and work from anywhere — permanently. He explained the decision in a letter to employees.

Chesky told the world it was choosing to walk the remote talk, putting in place processes and guidelines that reflect and align with the company's culture and mission. By opening the door to remote work on a global scale, the company let employees know they could fully embrace the travel culture they are asked to promote. Of course, the decision wasn't all selfless. Airbnb said the policy was part of a broader talent management strategy.

"We want to hire and retain the best people in the world (like you). If we limited our talent pool to a commuting radius around our offices, we would be at a significant disadvantage," Chesky wrote. "I’m excited about this new design and giving you the flexibility to live and work anywhere. I think it will unlock some amazing creativity and innovation — and make working here really fun." 

While the scope of that decision may not work for every company, there is much that leaders can take away from how Chesky and Airbnb communicated the message in contrast with Musk's harsh tone.

Acknowledging Shifting Work Dynamics

Many US companies have by now embraced new work models, offering remote and hybrid opportunities to their employees when possible. And while many may consider broadening their offering to a global scale, there are tax implications involved in having workers in other countries — a reality that is preventing some leaders from making the move.

Despite that, a number of organizations are choosing to explore new options, providing increasingly flexible options that allow employees to work from just about anywhere. SellX, a New York-based freelance sales company, was created with this goal in mind. SellX matches employees seeking flexible work with employers looking to hire remote workers.

"We've built our company around a culture of having a fully remote team from the start," said co-founder and CEO Dean Glas. 

They're not alone. Other companies have joined the movement, and some say this is the future of work. "It's the start of what could be the future 10 years down the line," said Timour Haider, CEO of San Diego-based Aesthetic Brand Marketing.

Airbnb's message cast a spotlight on the shifting trends in the workplace and substantiated the idea of remote work. If a company as large as Airbnb could offer employees near-unlimited flexibility without affecting its bottom line, then perhaps others could, too.

Related Article: Employee Experience Is About Work-Life Integration, Not Balance

5 Takeaways from the Airbnb Decision

But changing the way an organization works and collaborates requires planning and a thought-out strategy. Here are five key considerations for transitioning to a new work model:

1. Set Expectations

One of the biggest concerns with remote work is that employees will "slack off" and not complete tasks — or submit subpar work — thus costing the company time and money. Look no further than Musk's company email for evidence of that concern.

Some research paints a more nuanced picture. According to one study, data had shown that remote workers were 77% more productive and less likely to take time off, even when sick, even before the pandemic and the emergence of remote work as a more common model.

Chesky, in his letter to employees, said that the two years of the COVID pandemic, where staff worked remotely due to restrictions, were the most productive in the company's history. The key to success is in setting expectations.

In Airbnb's case, while employees are permitted to work from different countries, they can only do so for a maximum of 90 days. They are also expected to attend employee meet-ups throughout the year and increase their communications. There are specific guidelines to making this model work, and companies that want to transition need to ensure they take the time to define those expectations and communicate them clearly to all employees.

Related Article: What We Learned from 4-Day Work Week Experiments Around the World

2. Understand Apprehension

Much has been written about employers' apprehension toward remote work, but the move has also rattled some employees. For them, the in-office environment was important to their creativity, collaboration and well-being, and leaders need to address these concerns thoughtfully.

"As many employees will be apprehensive about the future, understand that their reaction to change will be emotional," said Christian Velitchkov, co-founder and COO of Los Angeles-based marketing agency Twiz.

Airbnb's message directly deals with this. By acknowledging that some people will be worried and explaining how the company will help alleviate these concerns, leaders can improve employee engagement, even for those wary of the change.

A part of this process also entails keeping communication channels open. Those who have concerns should be able to speak to leadership about the changes — and leaders should provide ideas to accommodate everyone.

Related Article: Organizational Gaslighting

3. Keep Policies Short

Running a fully remote operation can be complicated for companies in certain industries. Taking from Airbnb's handling of the announcement, the best approach is to be straightforward.

The company's new working policy is only 105 words long. This is short enough to be easily remembered by staff and significantly long so staff can understand the key points of the decision.

Keeping policies short and to-the-point helps minimize confusion. They also give employers an opportunity to focus more on the benefits and expectations of the decision rather than burying this important information in corporate fluff.

4. Level the Playing Field

One common best practice to come out of the remote work model is that compensation should not be based on location, especially if that location is temporary or bound to change. One of the benefits for the employees at Airbnb is that their compensation is based on the country of their permanent address.

The message behind the policy is that offering employees an opportunity for better work-life balance and greater flexibility shouldn't come at a cost. More importantly, there should be an even playing field that articulates the fairness of the compensation scale and advancement awards. Rewarding those who are closer to the corporate headquarters or in certain locales, for instance, would only serve to restrict — and in a way punish — those who want to take full advantage of what the company is promoting as a benefit.

Related Article: Hybrid Work Is About Flexibility and Trust, Not Location

5. Practice Transparency

Remote leaders should aim to be transparent about their goals. Is the decision made to embrace a new culture, offer more flexibility or save on costs? Being transparent helps build trust with employees, which, in turn, boosts productivity, engagement and retention.

Chesky was transparent in his letter to employees. He clearly stated that some employees would need to be office-based because of their core tasks. However, before the note was sent out, he had already contacted those employees to explain the situation.

He also called for mandatory quarterly (or more frequent) in-person meetings, highlighting the benefits of those meetings while not diminishing the importance of remote work for the culture and productivity. The case and the expectations were clear. Employees who choose to accept those terms know what to expect — and why it matters.

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