Disruptive Design

Rebecca Ruggles, Airbnb’s lead interior designer, discusses aesthetic disruption in the modern workplace

Airbnb employees in Tokyo can reconfigure communal work tables, height adjustable desks, private and semi private phone booths, lounges and cafes

Rebecca Ruggles is lead interior designer at Airbnb. She works towards the ethos of ‘belonging anywhere’ and has transformed Airbnb offices from Portland to Tokyo. She thinks critically about what a corporate environment can be and how individual employees relate to that space, and how they’re able to influence that space. She came to Second Home to talk to editorial consultant David Michon about the new age of disruptive design.


David Michon: When does something move from being innovation or progress in a certain respect, to really challenging what that category of design had come to represent?

Rebecca Ruggles: In my mind I think that disruption feels a little bit uncomfortable. Innovation is very smart, it’s very forward-thinking — you wish you’d thought of it, but it makes sense to you when you hear it. Disruption, not everyone is on board at first, it feels a little bit riskier, it’s more challenging, it takes more to prove, more time to test it out, and people have to be convinced before they jump on board.

David Michon: One thing that is similar between the two things you both do, is both are dealing a lot with personalisation, and in some senses community-building as well. That seems to be a theme in a lot of disruptive or innovative design work today.

Rebecca Ruggles: We can all attest to the fact that in your office — just like in your home — personalisation plays a key role in engagement, and ownership, and you feeling like you have a place there and that you want to stay there for longer periods of time. That’s why in the past most people have done that at their desk — they bring the photos, they bring plants, notebooks, whatever it is, something to claim that space as their own. We have been trying to challenge that and push people beyond that so that we can offer more.

“In the past, people have personalised their desks — they bring in photos, plants, notebooks, something to claim that space as their own. Airbnb have been trying to challenge that – work is not necessarily always done at the desk.”

People in surveys and research, we ask them, ‘What kind of work are you doing? How much time are you actually spending at your desk vs in meetings vs collaborating with other people? Where are you getting your best work done?’, it’s not necessarily always at the desk — they’re asking for more variety. But when we try to add in more variety, you have to balance that out. The desk inevitably gets smaller as a result, you don’t need as much space because you’re not using it all the time.

Just like how we do with our homes at Airbnb, when you’re not using it, you can rent it out, when you’re not using your desk, you can share it. That’s a real struggle for people because they can’t personalise it and they don’t have a place to call their own. So we’ve been trying to find other places that people can personalise instead.

Can you have your own storage space, is that enough? Or if that’s not enough, we’ve been trying with meeting spaces — can you personalise meeting space, public space? We’ve created this unique programme called employee design experience, where the employees are actually engaged and allowed to add finishing touches to the design of the meeting space.

We deliver the meeting space kind of like a furnished apartment — it has the furniture, the finishes, the AV and IT, all the things it needs to be functional, but it doesn’t really feel like your own, it feels a little bit sterile. So we ask them to brainstorm ways to add art, to add accessories, to add additional furniture pieces — they’re sometimes putting pictures of themselves so they have a sense of pride and ownership of that space.

So is that enough personalisation to make them feel happy and like they have a home in the office without being tied to this small table-top surface?

Airbnb employees were keen that nature was well referenced so that the space felt peaceful and removed from the chaos of urban life

David Michon: When you first started these types of projects, what kind of shifted in your head for you [as] essentially you’re the one being disrupted in this process? How did you have to think about things differently in terms of how Airbnb would approach these spaces?

Rebecca Ruggles: Definitely engaging employees who have no background in design was a shift in thought process for me, and one that took a little bit of getting used to. But once I dug into the programme and we started developing it further, I have become a completely advocate because they’re looking at things from a totally different perspective, and they’re coming up with ideas and input that I wouldn’t necessarily have — and they’re being more disruptive, because I already have this layer of functionality, and durability, and budgets, and schedules, all of the real-world things that you have to keep in mind. They don’t have any of that, they’re just throwing out those big ideas that are really contrarian. That, I think, makes our designs better as a result.

David Michon: How do you socialise design? When you’ve got a new idea, how do you start talking about it to people in a way that they start to feel comfortable?

Rebecca Ruggles: That definitely plays a part — we’re working on a new office now in Paris, so we’re trying to introduce this ‘Belong anywhere’ way of working. So we’ve started months in advance. First you talk about what the philosophy is, how it might work, repeat it a few times, show them examples of how it’s working in other offices in other places around the world.

They’re starting to test it out in the current space amongst themselves little by little, just see how it feels, and then when they move into the new space I think it always helps to have a fresh start and a new home to do it in. I think it’s much more difficult when you’re already in place and you have established habits to rethink those. But at the same time we’re also tweaking it along the way. We’re trying to introduce these ideas, but we’re also listening because we don’t always get it right on the first time.

We first started this process with our Portland office, and we tried to do the whole building in that way. So it’s for 200/250 people — it’s our customer service group for North America — so you’re in a call centre where people can take calls from anywhere, they’re not attached to a specific desk, and people were much happier. The levels of wellbeing in the office were incredible, but the managers were not happy and productivity went way down because they couldn’t find anyone in the office, they couldn’t keep tabs. It was very social, but to the opposite end.

“The levels of wellbeing in the office were incredible, but the managers were not happy and productivity went way down because they couldn’t find anyone in the office, they couldn’t keep tabs. It was very social, but to the opposite end. So we had to learn from that.”

So we had to learn from that — people really liked the idea, but how do we scale it? So then we [thought], ‘What about ‘Belong anywhere’ neighbourhoods?’ So within that neighbourhood you can have a variety — you have your lounge, you have your high seating, your height-adjustable desk, your regular desks, your project rooms etc — but it’s the size of the room we’re in now. As a manager I can see that you’re here — I know where to find you — you know where to find people, and you become more productive.

Local craftspeople were engaged to create bespoke lighting and furniture

David Michon: When do you decide that it’s not working and you need to revise, vs letting people grow into it?

Rebecca Ruggles: We try and give it some time, that’s one of the great things about being an in-house design team — we’re living it too. So we can see what’s working and what’s not personally, people casually tell us all the time, but we also do a lot of formal research, whether it’s through interviews, observations, post-occupancy surveys — we’ll do that right after move in and then six months out. We’re opening new offices etc at fast pace so we’re able to take those lessons learned and then immediately apply it to the next one in the pipeline.

David Michon: There’s obviously a huge popularity these days in design thinking — not being too afraid of failure, prototyping and iterations of things. What does design thinking mean to you?

Rebecca Ruggles: It is about using imagination, about thinking bigger. It’s always easier to go big, to go crazy, and then start to hone that in and get into the details of that and bring it back down than to start small and then go big from there. That’s one of the great advantages of this employee design programme that we’ve started — teaching some of those creative thinking skills, and then they can apply that to their everyday job at Airbnb even though they’re not involved in the design department. I think teaching them to take those risks, to brainstorm together, to collaborate and to get feedback from one another is key.

“It is about using imagination, about thinking bigger. It’s always easier to go big, to go crazy, and then start to hone that in and get into the details of that and bring it back down than to start small and then go big from there.”

And from different departments too, they’re meeting people from all other groups in Airbnb at the same time, so you can bounce ideas off each other and get input from people that you probably wouldn’t talk to about it normally.

David Michon: Rebecca, interior or office design has existed for centuries and has gone through different periods of philosophy in terms of how that’s designed, but why are we in a position now where people are wanting a particular thing? What drives people to change their minds about office environments in your case?

Rebecca Ruggles: We have one client [laughs] which is Airbnb. We’re not trained to sell a product or convince other people of anything, so it really comes down to [the fact] that we’re just testing what works best for us — what is going to convey our mission, our goals, our priorities? How is our team going to support the employees so that they can think in this way? And then the company as a whole can start to innovate more and disrupt more. So it’s really about how we support that through the environment.

It’s a little bit of a different perspective. We’re not intentionally trying to change people’s minds or disrupt workplace design, it’s just what works for our team and we keep trying new things, evolving it and seeing where it takes us.

“We’re not intentionally trying to change people’s minds or disrupt workplace design, it’s just what works for our team and we keep trying new things, evolving it and seeing where it takes us.”

The market is also very competitive, we’re trying to get the best people, so we are trying to create spaces where people want to work, where they want to be, where they’re going to be the most productive, where they’re going to be drawn to it. So it does play a part in recruiting, retaining people long term, so we are seeing certain demands in terms of how people want to work, where they want to work, and we are responding to some of that.

David Michon: Rebecca, do Airbnb have any thoughts around having a more networked series of spaces? Taking it to the neighbourhood scale rather than keeping it as the campus, one building, singular thing.

Rebecca Ruggles: We are trying to shift the way we think about that, because I think it’s been a negative aspect of a lot of tech companies — that they’re extremely insular — all of the coffee shops, cafes, gyms that are in that neighbourhood end up closing down because people never have a reason to leave. For that reason, we’ve specifically not built a gym in our office in San Francisco, instead we offer discounts to the ones nearby.

We haven’t gone so far as to create partnerships with a book store or something across the street, but I could totally see that happening — we’re trying to engage more and more with local marketplaces, have pop-ups, allow them to come in, partnerships with them where people go out. But it definitely plays a big part.

A black ceiling with dropped lighting was created, which helps give a sense of space

David Michon: Do you think there’s a possibility where global products are encouraging a flatness of design, where there’s less diversity across the board? And increasingly with services like Airbnb where you look on the website and there’s this sort of mid-century design aesthetic, do you think there’s ever a risk that we’re moving away from uniqueness towards sameness?

Rebecca Ruggles: I think there’s a definite danger of homogenisation and it’s something that we push back against and try really hard to avoid in the office design. I think there’s a really different character in each of the locations that is meant to reflect the local culture and not just look like a California style around the world.

But it is also a problem that’s come up in the actual listings on Airbnb and Places to Stay, but it is something that the company is trying to educate hosts about. We actually have a festival that’s just for hosts. So people can come, they do workshops, they attend lectures, and at that we try to explain and help people understand that what makes Airbnb fantastic and draws people to it are all of the unique places you can stay, where you can have a truly local experience, and that as a host they can charge more money per night, they’ll get more people who want to stay there, it’ll be more popular if it is something that people can’t get anywhere else.

David Michon: We live very much in an upgrade society, and so people are constantly wanting to disrupt and change things. How do you approach that in a sustainable way, in a thoughtful way where you’re not disrupting something just for the sake of disruption?

Rebecca Ruggles: We are trying to create spaces that are going to last, it’s not something that we’re just going to throw everything out in a year or two, so there are timeless qualities to it. I mean, yeah, disrupt or take risks in certain areas, or certain calculated efforts, but instead of starting from scratch every single time we’re trying to tweak those risks that we take slightly with each new iteration.

“We are trying to create spaces that are going to last, it’s not something that we’re just going to throw everything out in a year or two, so there are timeless qualities to it.”
Phone booths are made from local white oak and rice paper film to give them the soft glow of a typical Japanese tea house

This talk took place at Second Home, a creative workspace and cultural venue which brings together diverse industries, disciplines and social businesses. Find out more about joining us here: secondhome.io

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