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Ken Hoskin head of APAC talent Airbnb
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Q&A: Ken Hoskin, head of APAC talent, Airbnb

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Vital Stats: Ken Hoskin drives Airbnb’s talent programmes at the local and regional levels and helps foster its culture across Asia Pacific. He’s responsible for creating the systems to help talent grow their career successfully in an environment that encourages learning and gives opportunities for individuals to challenge themselves.

Q: Established just over eight years ago, Airbnb has grown to over 3,000 employees globally. What does this rapid growth mean for you?

Things are pretty exciting. There is a lot of focus on developing the talent in the people that we have. We have 22 offices globally, and of our 3,000 employees, over 1,000 were hired in 2015. That was a very busy year for our internal recruiting team – we received over 180,000 CVs.

That’s one way of looking at growth – another way of looking at it from the business perspective is the size of the platform, that is, the number of listings. We started in 2008 and 2009, primarily in North America, and beginning to grow in Europe. We now have a total of 3.3 million homes on the planet across 191 countries. The last country we added was Cuba, after the US deregulated travel to it.

Q: The growth in your employee base often outperformed the growth in listings in the early years – for example, 3.2 x employee growth and 2.8 x listing growth in 2012, then it started to even out. Talk us through this scenario.

This was a challenge that we went through in terms of preserving the employee value proposition (EVP) for Airbnb. Why does someone join a start-up in the first place?

The first part of our four-part employee value proposition is that we are mission-driven. We want to create a world where anybody can belong anywhere. We have a very strong corporate culture that supports that, and helps people to put in the extra energy it takes for them to work in a start-up.

Second, it is a disruptive business model – that’s quite attractive especially to the Millennial workforce wanting to work for something different and new. Third, the pace of growth. We measure growth in multiples rather than percentages – it is a wholly different challenge.

We want to create a world where anybody can belong anywhere.

Finally, there are a lot of great tech start-ups who have seen growth in multiples, but they are very large now, even a little bureaucratic, and people feel a little lost. One of the things we offer is to see how your work directly contributes to what we’re building.

It’s easy to do that when you’re operating in a shophouse on Neil Road, so you knew everybody and their contribution, but we’ve had to focus on maintaining that as we have grown.

Though our employee growth and listing metrics started to even out by 2012, employee growth was still quite high. In 2013, the business grew faster than the population of employees. Come 2015, we hired over a 1,000 people. Our employee rate basically realigned with the business growth and that was concerning.

What’s going to be the impact on your EVP of growing your employee base at the same rate as the business? We had a lot of comments – one said: “How are we not going to turn into a company of 20,000 people?” There was fear that you wouldn’t be able to see how your work contributed to what we were delivering as a company and as part of our mission.

At the same time, we wanted to start to think about profitability. We want to be a brand that is around 100 years from now and not fizzled out in a few years.

Taking those two things into mind,we realised we needed to stop focusing so much on recruitment, and focus on developing the talent that we had internally – it’s a big shift.

Q It sounds great, but how did you firstly identify employees’ concerns?

We have had a code at the core of Airbnb since we started – design thinking. It is certainly different from your normal problem-solving technique. Normally, if you have a problem, you try to fix it with a number of tools. Design thinking is different – you start with empathy. You get all of the stakeholders together and you listen. You run focus groups, one-on-one interviews – and with all that information, you figure out what the problem is.

Because a lot of times you presume what you want to solve for. But in this process, you’re making sure you’re really solving for the right problem. Once you have the problem, you ideate and ideate – and come up with 10/20/100 different possibilities. You come up with the best one, prototype, and put it together quickly.

Design thinking is different – you start with empathy. You get all of the stakeholders together and you listen.

We operate on the rule that 80% is good enough, we don’t have time for 100%. Then you test that, see if it works, and if it doesn’t work it’s totally OK to start all over again. That’s the process of design thinking – understanding that things will always be changing, you will always need to be improving what you’re doing. We listened to many of our employees’ fears about what the company was going to turn into. We conduct an employee engagement survey on a quarterly basis, followed by geographical and functional focus groups that focus on the scoring.

Upward feedback was really important through our performance review process. We encourage managers to have skip-level meetings monthly, if not quarterly. Finally, we piloted a daily pulse to understand how people are feeling that day – if they are in a positive mood or stressed.

It gives us real time feedback in regards to our actions and announcements, so that we can improve the employee experience. We put all this information into the design thinking process, and at the end of that high-growth year of 2015, we came up with “growth by design”.

Q What did growth by design entail, and how was it rolled out?

Growth by design has three key aspects – the company, the employees and the culture – and each factor is equally important for this plan to work.

The first piece about the company is being purposeful, yet not restricting growth, and it comprises three things – headcount, diversity and construction and space. For headcount, we gave a challenge to our executive team and their direct reports: If you could take your department apart, how would you structure it now?

We wanted to understand – are you doing things because this is how you’ve been doing them or have you made the tough decision to stop certain activities as we have grown? To enforce that thinking, you have to be able to make the business case for more headcount after you’ve reorganised your function.

Growth by design has three key aspects – the company, the employees and the culture – and each factor is equally important for this plan to work.

The second point is on diversity. One of our big goals for 2016 was to promote gender diversity specifically within our tech teams. We set a specific goal – about 25% of all tech employees to be women.

And we achieved that, despite growing the department by 300 people in that year. We have since set further targets for diversity across the entire organisation. We are at 46% female employees globally, and we want that to be at 50%.

We also want to make sure employees are reflecting the communities they are operating in. Singapore is a pretty diverse workforce, half of the workers here come from another country and our workforce is reflective of that. But in places like Japan, Korea and China, our employees are all local, and so are our leadership teams. We feel it’s incredibly important to build our local talent in all the countries we operate in. And finally, construction and space.

I’m working in our third office in Singapore at the moment. Moving an office can be highly disruptive. So, if we want to focus on the best support for our employees, it also means to continue to innovate the kind of workspaces we offer. All of our meeting rooms are designed after listings on our platforms. It’s also about different ways of work. We know that with the kind of different work they’re doing every day, they need different backgrounds – standing desk, sitting desk, little community corners.

Q What changes came under the employees’ umbrella?

The second part of growth by design is our employees – learning, internal mobility and sustainable performance. We need to be a lot more purposeful in supporting the change from recruiting to developing.

We’ve always had a culture of what we call AirShares – if you know something interesting or want to share a skill, we always make space for that. We set up a session, we advertise it, and we allow them to share it with others. We took this further and rolled out a global learning platform, where online learning was democratised.

Anyone can now create a pathway to learning. Rather than driven from top-down content, we would rather have user generated content from our employees.

We also implemented strict rules around doing after-action reports. Anything we deem as medium to large-scale projects would need to have an action review captured in public. So people are always learning from each other. This is a common practice in engineering departments globally, but probably not so common outside of the tech functions.

When we had everyone on the same floor, everyone knew what each other was doing. But as soon as we started to be on different floors, in different buildings and different countries, you risk losing that sharing of knowledge. Approaches like this encourage the departments to share what’s happening.

The second bit is on internal capabilities. What makes this a hard one is that since the company is growing so fast, how do you know you are preparing people to move into the roles needed nine to 12 months away? We’ve had to put a lot more emphasis into the executive team to take that as part of the business plan, and make sure our learning platform enables developing these. A simple example would be within our customer experience team, which has gone from email support to 24/7 phone support to live chat support in a couple of years – there are different skills needed to be able to effectively do that. We know that doing the same role in a hyper growth company can be quite tiring.

Rather than driven from top-down content, we would rather have user generated content from our employees.

People who have been with the company for two years and more can apply for the Explorers programme, where we have roles for three months all around the world for them to experience a different function than the one they operate in. We know there are not always going to be vertical movements, so we need to give them the opportunity to try something interesting and yet continue to develop.

Also, we consider internal employees first for jobs, posting many of our jobs for two weeks internally before we post externally. If you really want it to be about people, you have to show that you have faith in their potential.

As for sustainable performance, you need to make sure people are in the right space to keep up with this growth. We have robust wellness, yoga and mindfulness programmes. We have online meditation tools for employees to meditate at their own pace. These are all really important to balance out our fast pace of growth. We also have great paternity and maternity benefits globally, so people can balance their personal life with their working life.

Q The last part of growth by design is culture – what initiatives did you implement here?

If you want to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere, you’re going to need to start internally. In January this year, we flew all 3,000 people to San Francisco for a week to talk about our culture, upcoming plans and to learn new things from inspirational speakers. Putting a face to a name is hugely important when you’re an international organisation.

We also want to keep our employees connected with our communities, that is, our hosts and guests. All of our employees get US$500 every quarter to go and travel on the platform – go out and understand the product, meet our hosts and guests.

For appreciation and recognition, we have an amazing function within the employee experience team, and their role is to make people feel special. They put great toolkits together to help managers learn how to appreciate people in an authentic way, so it doesn’t seem cheesy or overdone. Every one of my birthdays and “Airbnbversaries” have been a surprise.

If you want to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere, you’re going to need to start internally

The next part is around our communications strategy. When I joined Airbnb, I was told: “Tell everybody everything”. I was like – “I work in HR, I can’t do that!” But this is really fundamental to Airbnb – if you want everybody to be able to contribute to the business, they need to know information, they need to know what’s happening.

We have all-hands meetings with all 3,000 people on a weekly basis which are led by the CEO or one of the founders. We continue to develop our intranet which is now very sophisticated, team by team, function by function, interest by interest, you can even see people’s personal development areas.

All of this obviously takes a tremendous amount of energy, effort, resources and senior leadership support – so it has to tie back to the business. You can’t just do this for making employees happy.

Q That’s right – so what’s the business impact of growth by design?

The way it ties back to the business is what we call the inside-out strategy, that is, if you want to make something happen on a very large scale, including for your guests and hosts, you have to first make it work internally with your global employee base.

Here comes the idea of belonging – actually making employees feel “I belong here”, through the strategy of company, employees and culture, in order to hit our aggressive mission by 2020.

In 2016, we were able to take the employee growth back down to 1.3x, which is in tune with our 2013 levels, while still driving the growth in listings by 1.7x.

That is really important because you don’t just slow down growth for its sake – you have to match that up to delivering the employee value proposition.

More than four in five (82%) people recommend Airbnb as a great place to work. This is one we’re most proud of: “I understand how my team fits into the mission and vision.” Because a lot of companies find it challenging to show how a team’s work helps to achieve the company’s mission.

Art direction / Shahrom Kamarulzaman
Photography / Noor Hazmee, Prologue Pictures

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