How Airbnb, Verizon and WeWork build community and the employee experience

By Veresh Sita

It's never been more important for companies to build strong communities.

The workplace is undergoing a major change – and it’s not just because of millennials.

It’s true that millennials demand more from employers. You may have heard stats like 70 per cent of millennials would trade various benefits for a better workspace. Or how millennials need to feel connected to their company’s mission and do work that has a real impact. But they’re not the only ones who feel that way.

Baby boomers and Gen Xers are now looking to the next phase of their careers. They’ve been working for 20-plus years and aren’t retiring any time soon. Like millennials, they also want purpose-driven and meaningful work.

Yet most workplaces are not meeting these needs – and the results are alarming. Eighty-five per cent of employees are not engaged at work. Fifty-one per cent are looking for another job. Those numbers indicate a crisis when you calculate the cost of lost productivity and turnover.

That is why it’s imperative for companies to focus on building communities.

Strong personal connections at work can be the difference between a disengaged or highly engaged employee. Even though we’re moving towards a more flexible world, where people can work remotely and have control over their hours and workspaces, the majority of people still prefer to come into the office. We can’t help it – the desire for belonging is a basic human instinct. People like connecting with their colleagues face to face. They’re happier when they have a close work friend – no matter how old they are.

Those of us in leadership positions need to think about building better communities. Our companies depend on it. We must curate experiences and environments that foster meaningful connections where people can be themselves.

Recently, I had the opportunity to host the panel “Navigating uncertainty by building community and curating experience” at CoreNet Global Summit in Boston. With panellists Tido Pesenti, Director of Global Real Estate and Finance at Airbnb, Jim Tousignant, Director of Portfolio Management at Verizon Global Real Estate and Lakshmi Rengarajan, Director of Workplace Connection at WeWork, we discussed how they’re intentionally designing their workplaces to foster community and connections. The strategies they shared are valuable and inspiring.

Airbnb: putting the global community front and centre

Airbnb’s mission is to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere. The company believes that, by fostering interaction between people from different countries, there will be more respect among cultures.

This mission guides their 'outside in' approach to fostering community spirit among employees. Beautiful homes on the Airbnb platform inspire the company’s own conference room and office designs. Black and white portraits of Airbnb hosts – the 'heroes' of the Airbnb brand according to Pesenti – hang throughout the office, alongside each host’s personal story.

A common area at Airbnb’s San Francisco headquarters

To build the community further, Airbnb offers healthy meals and on-site group exercise classes – the company knows that employees are time starved and hope this will reduce friction and increase happiness. In addition, Airbnb hosts fireside chats with thought leaders such as Al Gore and Sheryl Sandberg.

Verizon: connecting hospitality and community

“The days of cost cutting to save on the employee experience are over” says Tousignant. Now there’s a desire to create hospitality-driven environments that are amenity rich – to let employees know that the company cares about their well-being.

At Verizon, this takes different forms, depending on the location. In Boston, where they’re building a new office, Verizon sees their retail neighbours as part of their community. Employees can walk outside and pick up lunch at a local eatery, go shopping and work out at nearby gyms and studios. In areas where those kinds of neighbours are few and far between, Verizon curates that experience from the ground up – like at their new office complex in Irving, Texas, where Verizon hand-selected restaurants, shops and a hotel to become part of their on-site community.

A rendering of Verizon’s new Boston office

Verizon also finds other ways to connect employees to their greater communities: the Irving location, for example, has a coworking space where tech start-ups and 5G companies can collaborate with Verizon employees.

WeWork: moving from 'meeting' to 'connecting'

At WeWork, we may be the only company with a 'Director of Workplace Connection' role, but it’s necessary. That’s why I’m proud to have Lakshmi Rengarajan, WeWork’s Director of Workplace Connection, as my colleague.

In our panel, Rengarajan explained that “WeWork is turning connection into a practice”, and that’s why her role ensures that WeWork’s new employees feel they’re part of the community from day one.

Rengarajan is looking to move people from meeting to connecting. 'Meeting' someone entails making small talk – it’s transactional and draining. 'Connecting', on the other hand, is getting to a deeper level – it’s telling stories, sharing acts of kindness, laughing, bonding over a common purpose and learning people’s backstories.

To get there, Rengarajan recommends asking questions that are not related to an extreme (i.e. not 'best' or 'worst') – the good stuff lives in the middle. For example, rather than asking “What’s your favourite book?”, try “Which book do you think everyone should read?”. You’ll be surprised what you learn when you make that small change.

Two WeWork employees connecting

Measuring the future of work

I remain convinced that the future of work will be measured by how people feel. The steps these companies, and more like them, are taking will go a long way to building communities and increasing employee engagement.

How will you build a stronger community in your organisation?