Michael Merola On Airbnb’s Workplaces, at Home and Abroad

Airbnb parallels its worldwide operations by providing an innovative workplace experience to its employees

Within ten years, word of mouth transformed air mattresses in an apartment on Rausch Street in San Francisco into Airbnb—a $31 billion global community. Today, human connection continues to shape all aspects of the Airbnb identity, which emerged almost as a social experiment in 2008 and has since united more than three hundred million travelers with thousands of hosts in 191 countries. And while travelers gain richer experiences thanks to Airbnb’s “Belong Anywhere” mission, director of workplace Michael Merola ensures its 3,100 employees do, too. “Our company mission has given us, as a team, the license to push the envelope of standard tech company services,” he says.

The hospitality network launched its international expansion in 2011 with an office in Berlin, and now Airbnb comprises thirty-one offices in major cities around the world—including Seattle, Barcelona, Beijing, Dublin, London, Milan, Montreal, New Delhi, Paris, Seoul, São Paulo, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, Miami, Mexico City, and more. Merola has stood on-site for many office openings—personal attention that is threaded throughout the programs implemented by the Office Development Leadership Team (ODLT). The ODLT is a collaboration among the heads of Workplace, Real Estate, Environments, IT, and Ground Control, and together their work fosters stronger connections between employees and the Airbnb community.

For example, Airbnb’s headquarters in San Francisco contains multiple buildings that house food outlets with cuisine inspired by Airbnb listings across the globe. At each outlet, the innovative food program presents different menu options linked directly to Airbnb listings. This not only connects employees to the product, but Merola says this increases foot traffic and face time among departments from different buildings as they seek out their preferred meal for the day.

“One of my favorites is a listing in Northern Italy; the team made campanelle pasta with mushrooms and a panzanella salad to go with it,” he adds. “We’re leveraging the company investment in our food program to go beyond just serving up good meals from sustainable sources; we also use the opportunity to connect employees to the Airbnb host community.”

“Airbnb has always had a very strong culture around food,” says Bon Appétit district manager Joseph Alfieri. “We’ve been honored to collaborate on new experiences to deepen and extend that connection, in line with our shared values around social and environmental responsibility.”

Having a strong team and strategic partnerships with the right vendors is the key, according to Merola. “When I started in 2014, our San Francisco office was only one floor of one building and everyone knew each other,” he says. “Now we have several buildings in San Francisco and workplace teams around the world. Our workplace leaders in places such as Dublin, Singapore, Beijing, and Portland, Oregon, allow us to spread these programs around the world—thanks to our global philosophy matched with their subject matter expertise—in country relationships and local cultural and language skills.”

Connecting employees to the product is not exclusive to the workplace team. Merola cites the annual $2,000 voucher to travel via Airbnb that employees receive as another example. And in 2016, the company launched its “Experiences” platform featuring guest activities led by local expert hosts, from tours and workshops to charities and concerts—within two years it has rolled out 5,000 experiences across 60 destinations, many of which revolve around food.

“Go to Hong Kong and you can find an experience where your host will take you to a local market to buy fresh ingredients and then teach you to make dumplings at a restaurant kitchen nearby,” Merola says. “We’re starting to bring that amazing interaction inside with pop-up moments that feature experience-related craft in our workplace.”

Airbnb also empowers employees to design meeting rooms that reflect several of its five million real-life listings world wide. “We want the employees to be reminded of the community as much as possible,” Merola says. Led by the environments team, employee volunteers select Airbnb rentals to inspire their office spaces. This includes an Australian travel trailer, a log cabin in New South Wales, a Shanghai loft, and a Rio de Janeiro living room, among others.

“My go-to meeting room in San Francisco is an old jail cell from an 1880 Montana ghost town,” Merola says. “On a recent trip to our Beijing office, I discovered one room inspired by Essaouira—a small coastal town in Morocco I hadn’t heard of despite having traveled across Africa and the Middle East for a few years. It’s a great example of how this program can expose employees to the real-world product.”

In particular, the 888 Brannan Street headquarters in San Francisco resembles a pristine airport with its white open space, glass dividing walls, industrial ceilings, and colorful map murals. Yet Merola champions design as tool for interconnectivity among all Airbnb office locations. Decor such as the “Hero Portraits” line office walls and depict actual hosts from around the world. Hosts are often invited on-site as guest speakers; company events that Merola says enable employees to see and feel a connection to the grassroots business.

Community building also encompasses diversity and inclusion efforts, such as employee-led resource groups (known as Airfinity groups) for underrepresented minorities, veterans, parents, and immigrants. Merola is a proud member and serves as an advisor to Juntos, the company’s Airfinity group for Latino employees.

Airbnb also partners with nonprofits—such as The Level Playing Field Institute, The Arc, Out for Undergrad, YearUp, and /dev/color—to make a social impact on the local and global level. In that mind-set, Airbnb produced the $1 million #OneLessStranger program, rewarding members for performing random acts of kindness in their communities.

As the Airbnb ethos expands to new people and places, Merola and the ODLT teams are finding efficient ways to scale its revolutionary workplaces. Airbnb continues to evolve, and so too does its “Belong Anywhere” mission that has already provided opportunities for employee engagement, and the online rental giant’s investments in experiential workplace initiatives are inspiring employees—and its partners—everywhere to rally around that same spirit of adventure.

“Point 1 has been a global service provider for Airbnb, and our partnership has taken on Airbnb’s belong anywhere mission,” says David Rivera, project executive for Point 1 Electrical Systems Inc. “We have collaboratively created an environment of safety and security without compromising the feeling of belonging, which has inspired our own company’s workplace atmosphere.”

“Ultimately, all of this cross-collaboration aims to immerse employees in the company’s mission,” Merola says. “I like to think that by doing this, we’re directly contributing to the empathy and authenticity our employees have for this amazing community.”


Homing in on Michael Merola

California native Michael Merola returned home in 2013 after spending almost four years working across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Shortly after arriving back in the Bay Area, he joined Airbnb as the director of workplace, and now he’s helping optimize Airbnb office spaces around the world.

“In an operation that is scaling quickly across many countries, there is a need to constantly reevaluate where the team is spending its energy,” says Merola, whose department spans security, food, and facilities. He embraces the individual expertise of these functions while ensuring that programming aligns with the company’s priorities and that his team is empowered to de-prioritize work when needed.

Born and raised in the East Bay, Merola first earned a bachelor’s degree in geography at San Francisco State University before attending the University of Washington to earn a master’s degree in strategic planning for critical infrastructure. “I had the fortune of working at the Lucasfilm headquarter campus,” he recalls. “So, I had a sneak peek into a company that uses its space to inspire employees and celebrate their achievements.”

After graduation, he joined the InterContinental Hotels Group as director of safety and security—a purview he assumed again as security chief in 2010 for Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts in Dubai. After, he traveled internationally as a consultant for the Olive Group, part of private security company Constellis.

“At one point I realized, I was the only American at a company of five hundred in Dubai,” Merola says. “I quickly learned that there are other sources of truth out there, different ways of doing things, best practices I had never heard of—and that access to diversity of thought has proven invaluable, and continues to serve me well at Airbnb.”

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Performance Based Ergonomics (PBE) is thrilled to partner with Airbnb in its unending quest to create an extraordinary work environment for employees. Kudos for adopting and advocating for PBE’s cutting-edge online and onsite ergonomic solutions. To find out what the fuss is all about, please visit www.pbergo.com.