Crossing the hybrid frontier: How Expedia has transformed itself

by HRD Connect

Expedia is one of the world’s biggest tech-travel companies with revenues of $12bn in 2019. Although this figure has more than halved during the pandemic, the company says booking rates for some key destinations are now touching pre-Covid levels.

The company was founded as recently as 1996, but is already preparing a revolution in its working practice. During the pandemic, Expedia’s people leadership team refined a new hybrid working strategy which will formally go live in January.

Here Stephen Lochhead, Expedia’s senior vice-president of global talent acquisition, talks about the past, present and future of this exciting new policy.

“It’s all about practice now,” Stephen Lochhead says when asked about Expedia’s current state of evolution. The change, he says, has already taken place. Now it’s time to make it work.

The People Team at Expedia have spent months fine-tuning their new hybrid strategy, and are already encouraging their colleagues to adopt the new model. Previously, 75 percent of company employees worked in-office, but now the vast majority will work to a ‘3-2’ split; everyone will be expected to work three days a week in the office.

The new strategy is based on research by three different Expedia teams: people function, real estate and analytics. The analysis, Stephen says, has shown a marked increase in support for hybrid working during the pandemic.

“When these surveys started in April 2020, only 25 percent of our employees were in favour of a hybrid return to work. By September 2020, this had increased to 55 percent and has continued to increase. Employee wishes evolved along with the pandemic itself and it was important that we kept abreast of this.

“We’ve also found that when people have tended to stay away from the office because of the pandemic, they have been working long, intense hours and they have had to juggle work and family. So what we’re saying is that while the flexibility of working from home is a benefit, there’s an overall benefit to the office as well.”

The importance of flexibility

The policy is designed to bend and flex. Stephen and his team are recommending that staff take one of their ‘working from home’’ days on Friday, as their research showed that office attendance prior to Covid was lowest on this day (it was highest on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). However, individual employees are free to work from the office if they choose. 

At the same time, the 5 percent of staff who were fully remote before the pandemic won’t be forced to give up this arrangement. “If we’re talking about a senior individual contributor who can be very productive in a totally remote environment, they are the people who worked remotely before and they are the ones who are free to continue to work remotely now,” Stephen explains.

Designing for disruption

Many other companies have followed similar paths, of course. Although 77 percent of people expect to work remotely at least part of the week in the new normal, the vast majority will be obliged to visit the office, too. As McKinsey notes, “the future of work is likely to be hybrid.”

What’s interesting about Expedia, however, is the emphasis the company has placed on the office side of the equation. Stephen is certainly a champion of presencial work, believing that “many positive things take place when people are together physically, around productivity and engagement.”

To maximise these potential benefits, each of Expedia’s premises has been designed to foster outside-the-box creativity, taking inspiration from the travel industry. The post-Covid spaces will be anchored not by traditional desks and departments, but flexible spaces which can be moulded to the people using them.

Staff can use pods which are known as ‘phone booths’ and replicate the telephone boxes millions of us have used to make frantic calls home from abroad. Then there are the rooms themed for different cities and countries, a little touch which is supposed to sharpen the focus around each meeting.

“We’ve made an enormous effort to build offices that are not just fit-for-purpose but are also amazing physical spaces to be,” Stephen says. “Looking beyond the buildings themselves, a lot of time and effort is spent with people leaders asking ‘ok, how is it that you have a productive meeting within an inspirational space?’

“There’s loads of open-plan and collaboration spaces. These can be formalised for really big, town-hall-type gatherings where you might want to bring together whole groups or offices, or really nice hub meeting-points to work through different problems in a way that’s different to a traditional meeting room.”

‘Going to town on Slack’

This versatile approach to office work is also evident on the virtual side of the equation.

The new remote collaboration has various facets, from all-hands townhalls to interactive group whiteboarding activities. But everything is underpinned by conversations on Slack, an area where the people leadership team has “really gone to town” in Stephen’s words.

“We’re really encouraging people to create community spaces. It might not be to do with something formal, like the output of a meeting. It might be to do instead with ideations that people have or social connections that people want to make, so they can find out what makes each other tick outside of work. 

“A great example of how we use Slack would be ‘guess what, I’ve just tried this with a peer’ or ‘I’ve used this with a peer of mine, it’s worked really well, I just want to ensure I’m sharing it so people can benefit from it.’”

Supportive, not obtrusive

Whether ‘Expedians’ are using Slack, or other channels such as Zoom (the company previously used Blue Jeans but switched during Covid), communication is supposed to be light-touch. “My personal point of view is that when you put too many rules around collaboration, the unintended consequence is that it becomes difficult to collaborate,” Stephen says. 

Micro-management is very much discouraged. Instead, it’s all about regular but informal communication based on a new system of ‘quarterly connects’, whereby managers catch up with their direct reports every three months. This system, Stephen explains, breaks down traditional performance management and makes it more easily digestible for those who spend much of their time out of the office. 

“We want to take away all the emphasis on having a conversation once a year, when the year is done, because people who do that are almost leaving it to chance and are often surprised about how people have done. Instead, what we’ve finalised is having check-ins four times a year around how people are performing and how they’re working towards their own development objectives, with a real focus around their career and what’s next.

“We really want to make people accountable but we are also a performance-driven organisation. Quarterly connects give the best of both.”

To gauge the ongoing success of this approach, Expedia has struck up a collaboration with Humu, a mood sentiment engine that allows people leaders to measure key factors like engagement, retention, and inclusion.

The HR team have already used the programme to carry out two six-monthly surveys; Stephen says “they give us an incredibly detailed yardstick around what people are feeling and thinking. It’s not just about work-life balance, it gives employees a voice to provide feedback on any aspect of what it feels like to work in Expedia at the moment.

“It’s all about inspiring people to have their own ideas and nudging them to do the small things that can make a big difference around retention or engagement. Humu is an excellent nudge-engine.”

Finding the right talent

Of course, masterplanning a new approach to work is one thing. Embedding it in a company with 16,500 staff across 50 countries is quite another. 

As a tech company, Expedia is better-equipped than many businesses to make this leap. The company is only 25 years old and already offers plenty of progressive benefits to its staff, from gym memberships to doggy daycare. Nonetheless, the task of getting so many people on board with such a forward-thinking policy represents a considerable challenge.

To make the hybrid migration a success, The Expedia people team have strived to turn individual team leaders into ambassadors. They haven’t invested in significant retraining, but are continually emphasising four key values in their communications with individual team and department heads:

  • Be visible in the office to drive engagement and provide coaching support.
  • Set clear expectations at both team and individual level.
  • Own the Expedia culture and role-model its values.
  • Be inclusive, remembering the message that there is always more to do with inclusion and diversity.

In parallel with this gentle encouragement of existing leaders, Stephen and his colleagues have carried out a major feature on job architecture, to ensure the next generation fit the mould they have created. 

“It was around trying to make intrinsic calls around the core facets around the type of jobs we have in each of our functions,” Stephen says. “This enables us to pick out the key facets when we go to the market. 

“We started with technology, and of course we’re in the tech sector. So when it comes to calling out the fundamentals of, say, a UX designer or a software developer, we’ve established the core skills and expectations of what’s expected, so we can now take that input to our sourcing strategy around the parts of the market we deliberately go to.”

This job architecture won’t just reinforce the hybrid working policy; Stephen says it “enables us to think about different locations that we might want to consider for the future. If we’re serious about diversity hiring it’s important we open our facility up to parts of the world that have a diverse supply of talent.” 

Further adaptation

As they prepare for the formal introduction of the hybrid working policy in January, Stephen and his team are already encouraging people to phase the arrangement into their work schedule. CEO Peter Kern and his own leadership team have been sharing regular updates since Q3 last year, and the entire company has been kept in the loop. 

But even amidst all this change and anticipation, Stephen is already looking to the future and how the hybrid working arrangement might evolve.

“There might be more time in the office or more time at home in the next few months. The 3:2 split may adapt. I don’t see much change in the next 18-24 months but we’re not writing that in stone forever. We need to keep adapting, keep thinking about what the next generation of work wants. We want to stay principled but at the same time open.”

There may even be a shift in thinking around output; the old concept of working hours could be abandoned in favour of a model that judges output and productivity instead.

“Individual contributors, highly skilled software development engineers, might be suitable,” Stephen says. “We might be able to look at their productivity from a software development perspective. We’re not there yet but that’s something we may look at.”

For now though, it’s just practice. Like the millions of business travellers who are working out new routines, Expedia is approaching its great hybrid working migration with an open mind.

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