How Zillow’s flexible work strategy is going, nearly two years later

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Zillow Group knows a thing or two about homes, and during the past two years the Seattle-based online real estate company has emerged as a leader in enabling its employees to work from theirs — or from anywhere else they want.

As companies including Microsoft and Expedia make the transition back to the office, in some cases expecting employees to spend at least half of their time working in-person, Zillow Group has already been through its own transition to a completely flexible approach to work.

Meghan Reibstein, Zillow’s vice president of project management and flexible work. (Zillow Photo)

There are still plenty of challenges to work out in the company’s “Cloud HQ” model, including the tricky logistics of in-person and hybrid gatherings for a flexible workforce. But even through the difficult process of shutting down its Zillow Offers business, the company says its employees reported an increase in their ability to achieve work-life balance, thanks in part to their flexible work environment.

Zillow says it’s also attracting a larger and more diverse set of job applicants, giving the company a recruiting advantage against others that are increasingly requiring employees to spend at least part of their time back in the office.

“There are these signals that we’re on to something, and we invite everyone to come along with us on this journey, and embrace flexibility and enable that for people,” said Meghan Reibstein, Zillow’s vice president of project management and flexible work. But whether other companies ultimately join the movement or not, she said, “we’re carrying on.”

Reibstein isn’t just overseeing the flexible work experience — she’s living it. As she explained in a recent LinkedIn post, she and her husband moved from Seattle to Asheville, N.C., during the pandemic. They now live two doors down from her brother’s family, and three doors down from her mom.

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She talked with us about Zillow’s flexible work approach and her own experience on this episode of the GeekWire Podcast. Listen above, and continue reading for excerpts from the discussion, edited for clarity and length.

Can you tell us about your job?

Meghan Reibstein: I have a blended role. I have a background in product management and consumer-facing product management. For the last couple of years, and continuing on into the future, given the way things have gone, I am at the helm of all things flexible work at Zillow, which has meant different things at different times throughout the journey.

What’s the difference, in your mind, between flexible and hybrid work?

Hybrid is kind of faux flexible in our minds. Our perspective was that hybrid represents this old-school way of thinking about it, where you’ve got to be in sometimes, and you can be out sometimes. Flexible is just meant to represent what you need as an employee. And we are going to build a culture that is flexible for your needs.

There’s this practice at Zillow called “core collaboration hours.” What are those? How do they work? And why do you have them?

Core collaboration hours, by definition, are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Pacific time. The idea is that all of your group meetings are happening during those core collaboration hours, and that the rest of the time is for one-on-ones or asynchronous work. It doesn’t work out perfectly. We’ve got things happening outside of those hours, but the spirit of it was to empower people to take ownership of their schedules, and to try different ways of working.

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What is the biggest challenge that the company has encountered, or that you’re hearing from employees, in terms of this flexible approach?

People are energized to gather, and that’s a byproduct of the fact that we haven’t been able to do that even in our personal lives for a long time. Figuring out the right way to do that is an interesting challenge.

  • We are seeing the energy around this idea we introduced called a Z Retreat, people coming back together, and these informal gatherings of people saying, “Hey, why don’t we meet in the office for a day?”
  • We took a risk early on and worked with NBBJ and renovated our office spaces.
  • And then there’s this whole notion of the hybrid meeting. We have adopted this thing called “One Zoom, all Zoom,” OZAZ, in the spirit of, let’s not go back to a two-class system. And now we’re starting to work around the edges of that, and find the nuance and the gray area.

You embody this. You and your husband moved from Seattle, to Asheville, N.C, and you live two doors down from your brother’s family, three doors down from your mom. Tell us about that.

For me, it was the right move after working in the corporate world and having to be in these big cities, to be able to say, ‘Gosh, I’m going to take advantage of this and really embrace it and learn from it.’

It’s been two-fold: I want to put myself in the shoes of my customer. It was a secondary motivator, but an important one. I want to understand what this feels like. I want to know what the FOMO (fear of missing out) feels like. I was able to get some perspective. And I continue to get perspective from that.

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What are Zillow’s policies and practices related to compensation for workers who move to less-costly markets?

We are committed to enabling people to move, and so very early on in the pandemic, we started to let people know, you can move without penalty. [In October], we formally announced our new policies and philosophy around compensation. We stuck with the original spirit, which is not penalizing people for moving. We went from a very city-based approach to a national approach. But the spirit of it was, you are going to be compensated for your performance, your scope of work, and these these things that you do, not where you choose to live.

As you look out, do you think that we’ll have two different models of working, one where employees at some companies are expected to be in the office, and another where employees are completely flexible?

I’m so curious to see what other companies do. I don’t know. What I can say is, Zillow is not transitioning. We transitioned a long time ago. We made a commitment very early on in the pandemic, and we have stuck with it. Even in the midst of shutting down a business in the fall, which we did, and which was hard, our employee responses on ability to achieve work-life balance went up to 80% of employees.

So there are these signals that we’re on to something, and we invite everyone to come along with us on this journey, and embrace flexibility, and enable that for people. But whether they do or don’t, we’re carrying on.

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