Maximum Flexibility, Mobility And Employee Empowerment Are The Future Of Work At Kayak And OpenTable, Says CEO Steve Hafner

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Photographer: Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg

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My interview with Steve Hafner, the CEO of Kayak and OpenTable, started out with smiles and pleasantries. If our conversation took place a year or so ago, the mood would have been very different. The stock price of Booking Holdings, the parent company of both Kayak and OpenTable, last October at this time was roughly half of what it is trading at today. 

Hafner was put in the difficult position of running two large global companies that operated in the hardest-hit sectors by the pandemic—restaurants and travel. Both areas were impacted, as  people sheltered at home and avoided going out to dine at restaurants and taking business and vacation trips. Millions of Americans who worked at hotels, airlines, restaurants, bars, cruise liners, theaters, sporting events and concerts were laid off or furloughed. For months on end, they desperately searched in vain for new jobs.

Hafner is no stranger to adversity. Six months into launching travel company Orbitz, September 11 took place, “which was a big disruption.” A few years later, air travel to Europe was halted after an Icelandic volcano erupted.

Now, businesses face a new set of challenges. There is a war for talent being waged to find qualified candidates to fill the over 10 million job openings in the United States. Additionally, we’re seeing a revolutionary trend called the “Great Resignation,” in which workers are asserting themselves and demanding that businesses treat them fairly, with respect, dignity and reward them with fair pay. If they aren’t valued, the data from the U.S. Department of Labor suggests that people are not afraid to just quit—even without a new job lined up. It's a bold move, born from the frustration and anger of being taken advantage of by bad bosses and greedy executives. These folks are taking time off to reflect on what they can do next, enter the gig economy to gain some independence, pivot to a new type of career or gain some upskilling and training to reinvent themselves. 

Fast forward to the new radically changed job market, Hafner, instead of worrying about having to let go of people, now finds himself seeking out creative ways to attract, hire and retain staff. The weapons in his arsenal to win the war for talent are brilliant and deceptively simple. Basically, he’s offering flexibility, mobility, empathy and trust. 

These ideas would have raised eyebrows two years ago. In a new era in which we are all rethinking the ways we work and live, many of the old-school management practices feel outdated, impractical and actually harmful to the mental health and well-being of employees. It's hard to believe that it took a global pandemic to make corporate leaders realize that they need and should treat workers like adults, empower them and allow them to flourish by having autonomy.

Instead of being ordered to return to one of the company’s 20-plus offices around the world, Hafner is leaving the decision of where and how they want to work up to his team. Many high-profile companies are instituting hybrid models, whereby staffers will come into the office on two or three specifically dedicated days a week and work at home for the rest of the week. 

Employees pointed out a glaring flaw in the hybrid work style. Although they appreciate the balance of being at home and in the office, the policy, while an improvement, is unintentionally restrictive. 

For instance, a person may have a prior engagement on one of the days they are supposed to be in the office and feel uncomfortable that they won't be able to go into the office on the required day, and feel this may be used against them in an annual performance review. People are unique and have individualized needs. A single working mother may need to drop off and pick up their child from elementary school and would end up having to come in late for work and leave early.

To remediate this valid concern, Hafner is championing a flexible style, putting the employees in control. They can decide if they want to go into the office, how many and which days are the best fit. A person could elect to go into the office five days a week or none. It could be two weeks out and one week in an office. They may be interested in checking out an office in another U.S. city or country outside of the states.

Hafner has tapped into the zeitgeist of what’s most impactful for his people, stating, “Our team wanted greater flexibility and mobility so we listened.” He added, “I remain an advocate for in-person collaboration and we will continue to embrace that at Kayak and OpenTable. Our employees are demonstrating that great talent can do anything—from anywhere—and make an incredible impact.”

He’s also striving to build an atmosphere and vibe that is “fun, modern and progressive,” as exemplified by making its worldwide offices dog friendly. Kayak and OpenTable offer catered lunches, gyms, workout spaces and more. 

An employee survey showed that there was a need for helping people deal with their mental health and well-being. Six free therapy sessions per year are offered to employees and eligible family members. Through a third party, Spring Health, workers receive a comprehensive mental health and well-being solution. This could be achieved via mindfulness and meditation training, coaching, therapy and offerings.  

Here are some of the other highlighted employee-friendly features:

Global Volunteer Week

Part of Kayak and OpenTable’s “Do Good” initiative, teammates across 20+ offices were given five volunteer-time-off hours to give back to their community. Last year, the company donated more than 540 volunteer hours. The company plans to host a “Do Good Week” in November 2021.

No Meeting Fridays, Free Headspace Membership and Well-Being Speaker Series 

These initiatives were designed to support employee mental health and well-being by offering resources and help on how to effectively manage your time, prioritization, parenting during a pandemic, and more.

Reproductive Benefits and Policies

ART (advanced reproductive technology) and IVF (in vitro fertilization) are covered under the insurance plans offered to both Kayak and OpenTable employees. Paid time off due to pregnancy loss is covered under the bereavement policy. Kayak and OpenTable offer birthing parents 16 to 18 weeks of parental leave at 100% base pay. Non-birthing parents are offered 10 weeks of parental leave at 100% base pay.

Employee Resource Groups

Their five employee resource groups are volunteer-led groups for women, people of color, military personnel and veterans, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community. They’re designed to help support each other as allies. 

To give employees a much-needed break in year one of the pandemic, Kayak and OpenTable closed their offices globally from December 27 to December 31, 2020. During that time, Slack usage was down 90% and emails were down 86%, indicating employees across both brands were able to enjoy their time off and recharge. Due to the overwhelming positive response and increased engagement, the companies extended the benefit twice more for the weeks of June 28 to July 2 and December 27 to December 31 of this year. 

The policies are enlightened methods to attract the best talent to join Hafner’s companies. It's also an intelligent way to retain workers by making them part of the decision-making process and showing them that they are valued and respected. This shouldn’t be misread as being cynical. Offering autonomy, flexibility, mobility and trust goes a long way. People will be appreciative that they are seen and heard. They’ll be happier, work harder, smarter and be more productive. This will enhance revenue and profits and foster a positive collaborative culture. 

The cost for companies that don’t enact these types of programs is high. It's expensive to lose talent. They need to be replaced. This takes time and money. Recruiters are retained, job ads placed online and hiring managers and human resources professionals spend endless hours  reviewing résumés and conducting interviews. 

Since we’re still in a pandemic, job seekers are demanding a premium to move, contending that they should be additionally compensated for the perceived risk, as there is still a lot of uncertainty. The replacement hire likely would cost more money than the departing employee who leaves to go to a rival, bringing along their knowledge and skills. 

As more companies emulate Kayak and OpenTable and add their own worker-friendly programs, the lives of workers will be vastly improved. They’ll blossom, as they no longer have to endure brutal daily round-trip commutes into a cold office building, sitting in front of a computer for eight-plus hours a day.

The pre-pandemic daily grind wore us down. We’d come home tired and irritable. There’s just enough time to eat dinner, crash on the couch, watch Netflix and then sleep to get prepared for running on the hamster wheel the next day. This existence took a toll. It contributed to causing people to engage in bad habits, such as leading a sedentary lifestyle, overeating and indulging in drinking and drugs to deal with their harsh daily routine.

In this new future of work, people will feel empowered, motivated and appreciated. This uplifting mood will carry home to their family, friends and community. The ripple effect could help ease some of the tension and angst we see all around us. 

If you are interested in Kayak or OpenTable, check out their respective job sections: 

KAYAKKAYAK - Careers Front door

OpenTableCareers | OpenTable

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