News : Airbnb's Portland Office Reinvents the Call Center
Portland, OR, Jan 9, 2015 -- Most call centers are the antithesis of unpredictability and stress, yet Airbnb’s Customer Experience (CX) hub couldn’t be more different. From standard website issues to lost apartment keys, Airbnb travelers call CX agents with uniquely challenging problems. With that in mind, Airbnb’s internal environments designers Aaron Taylor Harvey and Rachael Yu set out to design a new CX center in Portland to house 250 employees serving over 150 thousand listings across North America.
Both trained as architects, Harvey and Yu conducted extensive research with CX employees— from group brainstorming to field trips into Portland—to understand their priorities. The CX agents found multiple detractions in their previous free-desk environment: with zero personal storage and entirely generic desks, they faced the daily anxiety on how to select and inhabit a workstation. In response, Harvey and Yu formulated a diverse array of design responses to ultimately create a tranquil, flexible, and fun work environment.
Sound is a critical factor in any CX center that handles phone calls, and despite the hundreds of employees, recycled cotton hidden between ceiling joists and other sound-dampening measures render the Airbnb office remarkably peaceful. "People love how they can be calm and focus on their work," says Harvey. More than just ambiance, the office’s design profoundly shapes its everyday usage. Employees can use a range of work configurations throughout the day, making for healthy ergonomic movement, increased socializing, and a critical sense of choice. CX agents start their day at "landing spots"—essentially large tables with storage cubbies—where they "look out across the office landscape and see all potential opportunities." This includes lounges, shared tables, sheltered desks, and "the bluff"—a large plywood structure with a cushioned mezzanine level and multiple ground-level "duck-ins." Located throughout the office, the latter are felt-lined nooks where CX agents can quickly find privacy. Many of these elements were designed and built with local makers, all part of "Airbnb’s support of local entrepreneurship" says Yu.
Punctuating the CX office are multiple "listing rooms," enclosed workspaces designed with materials and props that reference Airbnb’s diverse base of host hometowns, from Atlanta, GA, to St. Keverne, UK. Expanding upon that Airbnb tradition, Harvey and Yu also designated a number of "scratch" rooms for employees to decorate in the Portland office. "Scratch" rooms, such as the nautically-themed S.S. Clementine, aren’t the only venue for employee-driven design. Over each "landing spot" is a team-decorated "mantles," a literal platform where a CX agents will fashion an artwork to represent their team. For example, one mantle now sports a glowing rice-paper lamp, painted as a balloon, and orbited by small figurines. These projects give agents "a real sense of ownership. It really feels like their office," says Harvey.
By engaging with the CX agents throughout the six months of design and construction, and tapping their creativity even now, Harvey and Yu hope they’ve formulated a better model for contact centers. They’ve replaced the "feeling of anxiety that comes with an open office with a feeling of belonging to an environment" as well as an iterative solution for Airbnb’s expanding needs. As architects debate the pros and cons of the open office, this design looks beyond that simple opposition to thoughtfully respond to its users’ unique needs.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Airbnb is a website for people to rent out lodging. It has over 800,000 listings in 33,000 cities and 192 countries. Founded in August 2008 and headquartered in San Francisco, California, the company is privately owned and operated by Airbnb, Inc.
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