Airbnb’s Brian Chesky: “The Office As We Know It Is Over.”

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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. The location-based pay system was also eliminated, at least in the U.S. In the days following the announcement, Airbnb’s recruiting page received a million visitors. Airbnb also published its first quarter earnings, closely matching 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.

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This interview has been edited to be more concise.

Are you a firm believer that the office is a good place to work? over?

It seems that we have seen the end of office life. 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? I wonder what it would be used for, if invented. 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. However, I believe that this is not the case for someone whose job involves using a laptop. The question then becomes, “What is an office supposed 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. They will need to be able to collaborate with other employees. 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. Are people required to be in New York City to work with others? Can they stay at a retreat located upstate New York instead?

You’re going to see a lot more flexibility. My belief is that the talent pool will become more widely distributed. Not everyone’s going to limit themselves to a community radius around their office. It is important to not look at old banks or large companies to predict the future. 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.

Then what? Corporate culture is gone.

Are there corporate cultures still possible? Yes. Yes. [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. My suspicion is that a quarter-week is enough to allow for human contact and to 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. The thinking of young leaders is going to be different. Youth also enjoy 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.

This solution will not require three days of work. It’s going to be total flexibility, and then gathering in an immersive way when you need. This will be the way most tech companies operate. In 10 years, I think almost all companies will be technology-based. Every company will feel more like technology companies as the internet grows. There will be some analog companies—there will still be coffee shops. But even media companies are becoming tech companies; it’s all converging.

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You’re speaking of this as something that you think will happen, but not something you necessarily endorse?

No, no, I endorse it. However, I think that it could be extremely harmful. I don’t want to paint an overly simplistic view. On balance it’s good for diversity. It’s good for diversity. Let’s take Airbnb: Before the pandemic we had to mostly hire from San Francisco. Is San Francisco diverse? It’s 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. The solution to diversity is actually being able hire people from all walks of life. That’s the upside. However, a world that has too much Zoom and remote work makes people lonely and disconnect. Pure Zoom won’t work. You’ve got to do something in between. The in-between has been what people call hybrid—two to three days a week. Three days a weeks will soon become two and one days each week. And if you aren’t in a mixed world or a distant world, you might find that you are spending more time there. 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. Is that something you are concerned about?

Yeah. Yes. It would be easier to digitalize physical communities if we could abstract this at a higher level. 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. The internet allows you to create a safe space with people like yourself. You can now create your reality.

My concern is that physical communities could become completely digitalized without any physical alternatives. 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.

It does mean that physical connections will be needed for people to connect. The thing about human connection is it’s inefficient. Technology wants to be like gravity. It seeks the fastest path between points A and 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? How will they work together?

By training as a designer you are one of very few CEOS to have attended the Rhode Island School of Design. What physical space might you be looking for?

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. They are just my thoughts. 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. A good analogy to this would be the Blackberry that existed before the iPhone. Steve Job pointed out that the BlackBerry was flawed because the keyboard was always available, regardless of how you used it. 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 want something totally different. We need to reduce the number of multi-purpose spaces. In the past, technology offices consisted of a sea of desks surrounded by meeting rooms. There wasn’t a lot of privacy. While there were good aspects to it, some of the negative things were also present.

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. Their gains would be huge if Marriott was bought. Do you find this worrying?

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. The big tech companies are holding their values, while the rest of us have lost a quarter or more. I’m not bothered by the stock price, because I’ve made the decision that I need to focus on what I can control. Stock price is just a mood. And this mood, by and large, has nothing to do with our company. We were there two or three days earlier. [announced]Cash flow from the free market: $1.2 Billion [for the first quarter of 2022]. If they are looking to own our stock for a long time, I recommend that you buy it.

You had one billion dollars worth of cancellations in the early days of the pandemic. Either the hosts or guests would lose their money. It was the hosts that you decided would lose it. Did that seem like the worst day of your life?

The skies were cloudy from March 20th to May 5th 2020. The day of the layoff was undoubtedly the most sad. The layoff felt like an amalgamation of darkness on 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. In every direction, the walls seemed to be crumbling. 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. Faith never gave up on me. 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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