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Airbnb Creates a Call Center That's Not a Total Nightmare

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In Portland, Airbnb is trying extra hard to be the perfect guest. Just two weeks after the short-term rental company announced that a Portland office was in the works, they revealed that Portland would the first focus of a new "Shared City" initiative, where Airbnb would make carbon monoxide detectors free to hosts, match their donations to a local non-profit, and even offer to "collect and remit taxes to the city of Portland" on their behalf, wrote CEO Brian Chesky (after making it known that cities are "the original sharing platforms"). In a thinly veiled jab at Uber, which recently launched its service in Portland without the approval of the city's transportation bureau, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales told Airbnb employees that "not every company in the sharing economy has it figured out like you have."

This was at the unveiling of Airbnb's new "Customer Experience center," which opened its doors this month after a speedy six-month redo of two 8,000-square-foot floors of the Blagen Block building, in Portland's Old Town Chinatown neighborhood. During construction, Airbnb's pool of Portland employees grew to over 200, many of whom worked from the building's first floor, which has yet to receive such a makeover. Just as Airbnb went to great lengths to assuage fears Portlanders might have over the company's presence in the city, Aaron Taylor Harvey, one of the leads of the company's new "Environments" team, says the space was designed for employees who had "incredible fear of this nightmare image they had in their heads of a call center."

Airbnb's Portland employees—who essentially serve as the front desk you'd call if something in your hotel was amiss—don't have their own desks, in the traditional sense. What they have are "landing spots" organized by work teams: bar-height surfaces sectioned into standing desks, each with laptop locker (with charger!), hooks underneath for coats (kind of like in elementary school), and low bars to put your feet on. Harvey calls them the "Swiss Army Knife" of the many furniture pieces he helped develop with local designers, which required "many levels of digital and physical prototyping." (These are from Superfab, a digital fabrication shop in Portland; other elements throughout the space came from The Good Mod, Phloem Studio, Chadhaus, and NK Build.)

In 2011, Harvey and Rachael Yu founded a design practice called Myriad Harbor, where, among other endeavors, they worked on a few Airbnb projects before being brought on as the company's two-person Environments team. Yu, whose role on this project had more to do with overall vision management, worked closely with Portland's Boora Architects to implement the concept for the space, which is the first office they've created for Airbnb. The decision regarding what they call "free-desking" came from a survey they took of Airbnb's Portland employees, which showed the contingent who wanted to work at a traditional desk, the standing-desk proponents, and the employees who just wanted to lounge with their laptops were roughly even.

To appeal to all camps, the space has lounge areas, tables, and, of course, what no Airbnb office would be complete without, conference rooms in freestanding structures that are based on actual listings. With this set—which includes a captain's quarters called the SS Clementine, and listings in Atlanta and Hamburg— Yu and Harvey tried to take the "diorama-like" feel of the listing rooms at the company's San Francisco headquarters and make it more fleshed out and externally expressive. A conference room based on a yurt in Prague was suggested by an employee who had helped that host resolve an issue. "We're recreating the listings not just because they're cool, but because people here have a connection to those spaces," says Harvey.

Six of the thirteen conference rooms depart from the listing-based format. Airbnb Portland staffers who wanted to contribute to these were organized into teams, and led through what Yu calls "an intense, three-month design class," where employees whose ideas had legs were made design leads on teams working to carry them out. These include "The Black Lodge," a red-curtained, Twin Peaks-inspired workroom, and "The Hive," which is beehive-themed, and includes furniture built by an employee.

Resolutely, the most OMG-look-what-they-have-in-Airbnb-office of these freestanding structures is The Bluff, which was imagined in dialogue with The Hill, a set of bleachers in Airbnb's Dublin office where employees congregate. Yu and Harvey knew they wanted "duck-in spaces," where employees could quickly take a call or work in small groups. "We also knew that people love to get up high in a space; a vista is a real draw," says Harvey, so they created a mezzanine that only has sitting-height space on the lower level, and leads up to a raised platform covered in cushions, where people can work sprawled out on their stomachs, if the mood strikes.

The team put an emphasis on maintaining visibility across the space, but also on providing moments of high contrast. To that end, the north side was left dark and sort of cavelike, while the south was filled with natural light. "Do I want to feel like I'm in a library?" an employee might ask, "Or do I want to be somewhere more bright and social?" So far, the space really does exaggerate these two characteristics: people temporarily parked to the south are more mellow, while the well-lit side is generally where louder group-work happens. Which is where the sound-absorbing insulation in the ceiling comes in.

Here's what the rest of the space looks like:

· All Airbnb coverage [Curbed National]
· All Office Spaces posts [Curbed National]