Did Airbnb really get rid of its HR department? Well, yes and no…

Airbnb got rid of their HR department and replaced it with something that worked even better for their unique culture – an Employee Experience department!

The title of the article was startling. It read “The Global Head Of Employee Experience At Airbnb On Why They Got Rid Of Human Resources.” Wait, what? The title seemed like something you would read in The Onion or some other satirical or fake news site. But the title was no joke, and the article, written by Jacob Morgan, had been published by Forbes, one of the world’s leading sites for relevant though-leadership business articles!

How could this be? How could Airbnb do something so…drastic? After all, over the last decade, business leaders, academics and other experts have increasingly touted the importance of human resources professionals – the individuals most likely to be responsible for initiatives dealing with their organization’s company culture, internal communications, employee engagement and its overall employee experience. If fact, for many years, the topic around the proverbial water cooler was whether HR deserved a seat at the strategy table. And the resounding response from progressive CEOs and other C-suite executives seemed to have been a resounding “Yes, of course HR deserves a seat at the strategy table. People, after all, are our greatest resource!”

So why would Airbnb, a company that has made multiple appearances on Glassdoor‘s Best Places To Work survey (Airbnb ranked #1 in the 2016 survey, the same year that the Forbes article was published) get rid of its HR department? The answer is simple. They got rid of their HR department and replaced it with something that worked even better for their unique culture – an Employee Experience department! The thinking behind the creation of this new department was that if Airbnb had an entire department focused on customer experience, it should, similarly, have a department focused on employee experience. Hmmm, makes sense – especially considering the very familar adage “Your customer experience will never exceed your employee experience!”

According to Jeanne C M. writing in an article entitled The Future Of Work: Airbnb CHRO Becomes Chief Employee Experience Officer, “The role of Head of Employee Experience at Airbnb blurs the lines between the functions of Marketing, Communications, Real Estate, Social Responsibility, and Human Resources.” She also noted that Mark Levy (Former Global Head of Exployee Experience at Airbnb) “is responsible for not only typical HR functions such as recruiting, talent management and development, HR operations, and total rewards, but also a range of new areas which create the ‘workplace as an experience’ vision. This expanded scope of responsibilities includes such functions as facilities, food, global citizenship, and a secret sauce of creative individuals in most offices called ground control, who focus on bringing the Airbnb culture to life through workplace environments, internal communications, as well as employee events, celebration, and recognition.”

Here’s the part of Meister’s article that really caught my eyes. “The role of Head of Employee Experience at Airbnb blurs the lines between the functions of Marketing, Communications, Real Estate, Social Responsibility, and Human Resources.” This move, to have HR interact with other departments (rather than have HR siloed off from their colleagues across the hall) is certainly in line with what other business leaders, thought-leaders and practitioners are observing and encouraging. 

Jeanne Meister, in a separate article on elaborates on this growing trend of blurred lines between HR and other teams within the organization. (By now, you can tell that I’m a big fan of both Jeanne C M.‘s work and as a source of business information.) In her article,  Meister notes:

“The days of operating in a HR silo are over. Increasingly, this will mean partnering with functions such as marketing, internal communications, IT, and real estate to create a seamless and engaging employee experience which mirrors the consumer experience a company is delivering in the marketplace. The essential question for HR leaders is not whether, but rather when and how, to develop more robust partnerships with other C-Suite officers to create memorable and engaging employee experiences.” 

As a branding professional, I am particularly interested in marketing and HR professionals collaborating more closely, and I am a strong advocate for branding professionals embracing HR professionals as co-defenders of their organizations’ brands in a working relationship that we at Blueprint Creative, the agency I co-founded, refer to as “Bhranding” (Branding + HR = “Bhranding)

Why am I so passionate on this topic? Several reasons, but the main one is that branding/HR collaborations make the job of branding professionals like myself much easier.

Over the years, I’ve seen dozens (if not hundreds) of instances where fantastic marketing, advertising and social media campaigns were completely derailed by disengaged employees delivering poor or mediocre service to customers. But, on the flip side, when HR does a good job of maintaining a highly engaged culture in which employee are excited about helping their organizations meet their branding and business goals, marketing wins BIG time. In fact, I think that successful marketers owe their HR colleagues a big hug every time a branding campaign (especially those that require employee/customer interactions) goes well.

As speaker, author and strategist Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP brilliantly articulates in one of her many articles online,

“Enduring brands are built by people – not ads, clicks or views. Marketing has traditionally taken the lead in communicating the corporate brand promise, but when it comes to delivering on those promises, it’s people from all around the organization who have to do the meticulous work of successfully bringing the brand promise to life.”

Other thought leaders and business practitioners have similar things to say about HR/marketing collaborations. Patricia Nazemetz and Will Ruch, in an HBR article entitled When HR and Marketing Join Forces note:

“We’ve seen success with a novel approach to talent engagement: an integrated HR-Marketing strategy that teams Marketing’s brand messaging savvy with HR’s internal perspective and expertise. When HR brings a communication orientation to its role, the entire company benefits. The partnership brings added value to Marketing as well. How much more effective could a CMO be if he or she knew for certain that talent would deliver on the brand promise made in every external marketing message?”

As a co-founder of a branding agency, which I’ve run for over 15 years, I can say with certainty that our agency is most successful when we know for sure that our clients’ team members will deliver on the brand promise made in every external marketing initiative that we develop for our clients.

But, I digress. Back to the original question being explored in this article. Did Airbnb actually get rid of its HR department? Yes, technically it did. But I prefer to use the term “upgraded” to describe the changes that took place in its HR ecosystem. These changes resulted in its HR team being more integrated into the business, being given greater access to the skillsets of their colleagues and being charged with a bold new mandate that was embedded into the very name of the new department – to improve the company’s level of employee engagement!

Airbnb certainly declared itself to be a leader in tearing down the silos between its HR team and its other departments, and other companies are following its example in their own ways. In our research, we’ve found examples of other companies that are pairing their HR teams to work with colleagues and teams from other departments. Clearly, the practice of “upgrading” HR departments to focus more on employee engagement is growing and isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, if your HR department is still siloed off from the rest of your organization, chances are that your organization is already behind the curve!

This article started off with a question (“Did Airbnb really get rid of its HR department?”) and ends with one. Are you ready to take the bold move to upgrade your HR department and replace it that something else that works better for your organization – a unit where your HR team plays nicely with your other departments and focuses squarely on employee engagement, one of the most important components of your brand?  

Think about it. Because your competitors already are!

By Ron Johnson

Author | Speaker | Storyteller (Co-founder, Blueprint Creative)
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