Patagonia, Airbnb Create Compelling Employee Experiences to Meet Workforce Expectations

May 5, 2017

Patagonia, Airbnb Create Compelling Employee Experiences to Meet Workforce Expectations

At Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company based in Ventura, Calif., preserving and protecting the environment is a core value. 

So Patagonia, which brands itself as an "activist company," offers a unique employee benefit—paid time off for workers when they participate in peaceful environmental protests.

It is among several companies offering employees experiences that underscore the company's values.
"It's about employee experience and culture," said Dean Carter, Patagonia's vice president of HR and shared services, who spoke during a keynote panel discussion at the HR People + Strategy Annual Conference in April on the future of work.

"Employers that create a compelling employee experience exemplify the future of work."  

"Wild horses could not keep them from protesting. If we said 'no' to their activism, our employees would do it anyway," he said.

Employees, for example, have spent three weeks at Chilean Patagonia, at company expense, to help restore a former sheep ranch. They have climbed dams and paddled out to oil rigs to protest the environmental impact of those structures. In addition, the company will pay the bail for any employee who's arrested for peacefully protesting.

Employers that create a compelling employee experience exemplify the future of work, said Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace, an HR advisory and research firm in the greater New York City area, who moderated the panel.

"It's how you build your tribe and how you go out and identify who's in this tribe and how you create a shared vision," Meister said. She is the co-author of The Future Workplace Experience: 10 Rules for Mastering Disruption in Recruiting and Engaging Employees (McGraw Hill, 2017).  

Airbnb, an online short-term lodging service that lets people rent out their homes to travelers around the world, offers employees a $2,000 credit annually to try the Airbnb experience. "Think about what you're trying to deliver to [your] customers and how [do you] do that for employees? How do we create belonging at Airbnb?" asked Mark Levy, the company's chief employee experience officer, during the panel discussion.

One way that Levy has done that, Meister noted in her book, was to create a "staff immersion week." Each worker in the company's Employee Experience group travels to a different Airbnb office during the same week and shares photos and insights using WhatsApp instead of attending a traditional "all-hands meeting" in person, Levy said.

Panelist Deborah Butters advised HR professionals to think of "moments of impact" that the organization can create for its employees. She is senior vice president and CHRO at PerkinElmer in Waltham, Mass., which produces analytical instruments, genetic testing and diagnostic tools, medical imaging components and software that support scientists, clinicians and patients.

"They don't have to be huge ones," she said of those moments, "but three or four things you're going to do this year across the entire company" or segments of the company. 

Experience-building has not been HR's expertise, said panelist Wendy Smith, global head of employee experiences at NCR. The computer hardware, software and electronics company is based in Duluth, Ga.

"Marketers are the experts at experience-building," Smith said. She advised HR professionals to reach out to them to "teach us how to do that with our employer brand."

Carter advised HR professionals to look at their organization's values "and have a policy that supports [them] ridiculously," like Patagonia's bail benefit. "If you're not ridiculous about it, it's likely not a value." And it doesn't have to be costly; Patagonia has bailed out only one employee—the CEO—Carter said.

Meister cited a quote from Paul Papas, global leader of IBM Interactive Experiences, that she uses in her book:

"The last best experience that anyone has anywhere becomes the minimum expectation for the experiences they want everywhere."

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The Authors: 

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor, global issues, OED, and diversity at SHRM. She is a frequent contributor to HR Magazine and is a top influencer in the SHRM LinkedIn discussion group. She is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a business writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, served as a managing editor of a Department of Defense journal, taught business communications, and served on the creative team for the 2002 Winter Olympics. She’s worked as an editor and reporter at newspapers around the country and has freelanced for media outlets such as the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @SHRMwriter​.