July 21, 2024

As CHROs rise to prominence and reinvent themselves, many companies have started thinking about making their HR function more aligned with the company’s business goals. But Airbnb has taken it a step further and tasked the executive leading global business strategy with also overseeing its people function.

In 2015, Airbnb renamed its chief human resources officer title to “chief employee experience officer.” And in 2021, Dave Stephenson, then-chief financial officer, took on the additional employee experience role. Early this year, Stephenson ditched his CFO title and became Airbnb’s first chief business officer, while still carrying on with his employee experience role. 

Stephenson’s dual responsibilities are emblematic of the company’s efforts to become more “functional,” and break down different siloes between different divisions. Although they may seem different on paper, Stephenson says his two roles have more in common than meets the eye. 

Stephenson recently sat down with Fortune to discuss his job, and how HR can be a better partner to the broader business.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: You were previously chief financial officer. Why take on the new gig of chief business officer, and remain head of employee experience?

Dave Stephenson: In the chief financial officer role, you have the fiduciary duties of the overall company, but you’re also making sure the company is executing against key goals and key measures, financial and otherwise. This extension to take on a similar role or even a deeper way to drive the business, was a great fit. I’ve been in this head of employee experience role for nearly two years now, and there was a nice overlap there as well. The CFO role is thinking about: Where do you invest? Where do you invest people? Where do you invest dollars? And EX [employee experience] is similar: How do you invest in the capabilities you have in the company? Now, I’m pulling it even further into driving the business.

Do you think your business background benefits how you approach employee experience?

I think a business background helps. If you don’t have it, spending time to be embedded more within the business will add a lot. That is really key. There are times that HR functions can get wrapped up around their particular functional area, versus the business being the primary focus. How do these elements support the business need, and support in getting the most out of our people? All of HR should be about getting the best out of our people, in whatever way that is, rather than supporting just an administrative task.

Airbnb has renamed the CHRO position “head of employee experience.” Why the new name, and why take this responsibility out of HR?

There’s a reason we also don’t call it HR, it’s not human resources. Employee experience is the idea that we are ensuring that we’re investing in people to deliver amazing results for our guests and our hosts. We think that our people are our strategic asset that enables us to deliver better results. That’s what we’re investing in. We don’t make a physical thing. We’re not making a car, we’re not making a phone, we’re not making a computer. We provide a service. It’s people that we invest in to go deliver that service. Human resources can be at times, in some places, a support function instead of an enablement function. I am desirous to make sure that it is truly an enabler for driving the business, not just a catch-all for some administrative tasks. It’s much more than that.

Other companies seem to be interested in turning their traditional HR function more into a strategic business partner. Is there any advice you have for organizations that want to make the same leap that Airbnb did? 

The best piece of advice I can give is that [for] the employee experience, or the HR function, be really intentional about what they can enable to drive the business forward. And be very pragmatic and focused on what that support looks like, rather than trying to be administrative. 

A recent example for us is on the administrative side, we started looking at all the different training that people do. We had 14 hours of various required training elements for various teams around the company. We did an audit of it and streamlined and worked on what is actually critical for them to do their job. We streamlined that down into just a few hours of what we think is critical training for somebody onboarding. So rather than a new hire coming on, [and saying] “Here’s your 14 hours of random trainings,” now it’s, “Here are the two, three hours of very specific training activities that we know you need to do.” And then give them tools for less specific training that not everyone needs, but they need for their particular job. It’s a more pragmatic, more directed way to deliver results.

Airbnb introduced a “live and work anywhere” policy two years ago. What have you learned since launching that?

If we’re going to have a fairly lean team relative [to] the size of our business, we need world-class talent for every one of those roles. Not all of that talent is within 50 miles of downtown San Francisco. They are all around the world. We need to open up the aperture to bring in the best talent from wherever they are, and enable them to do their best work. If they want to sign on to Airbnb, they’re going to need to be willing to do some traveling because there’s going to be key moments that we do need to work together and collaborate together in person. What we’ve done is designed the calendar so that we have these moments. But then we also enable them to have the flexibility to live elsewhere. That’s worked incredibly well. It has enabled us to recruit some of the best talent in the world, and it’s helped us with our retention of existing employees. We’ve done things like our live and work anywhere allowance, we provide $2,000 a year to support people in any other needs that they might have in order to support that flexibility and work.

Paige McGlauflin
[email protected]

Around the Table

A round-up of the most important HR headlines.

A federal court in Texas partially blocked the Federal Trade Commission’s ban on non-compete agreements, which was expected to go into effect in early September. NPR

As jobs shift away from China and towards India, new opportunities are opening up for women in the country, who have traditionally stayed out of the workforce in large numbers. New York Times

Companies are taking a new approach to the C-suite by hiring part-time senior leaders. Harvard Business Review

Some remote workers have been using secret tactics to pretend they’re busy working. But companies are cracking down and using work-surveillance software to eliminate employees simulating computer activity. Wall Street Journal


Everything you need to know from Fortune.

DEI displeasure. Tractor Supply cut its DEI and climate efforts. Now Black farmers are calling for its CEO to resign. — Wyatte Grantham-Philips, Haleluya Hadero, AP

Distraction era. Office workers just can’t concentrate at work, according to a new study. Around 79% of employees say they can’t get through a full hour without a disruption. —Sasha Rogelberg

Switch it up. Intuit’s CFO has his employees take on a new role every two years because he believes it helps them stay in touch with the business’s outcomes. —Sheryl Estrada


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