Skip to navigationSkip to content

The rise of the chief remote officer: Workplace trends, May 2022

Do you need to hire a remote lead? Plus why Meta was wrong to ban discussions of abortion at work

A woman views her phone as she walks past street art on a wall in London
This story was published on our The Memo from Quartz at Work newsletter, Practical advice for modern workers everywhere.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work senior reporter

Published

Dear Readers,

We imagine that many of you—like us—were shaken by news of the horrific elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. It happened just days after a supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York and a church shooting in California. Details about the school shooting were emerging as we wrapped up this newsletter. In the coming days, Quartz will consider the role that companies and leaders can play in preventing gun violence. As always, we welcome your thoughts on this pressing issue, too.

—Quartz at Work

Flexibility is no longer a nice-to-have job perk. It’s essential.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said as much during an appearance at Davos, Tuesday. “On LinkedIn, if you go and look at the jobs which now publicize the flexibility they provide, it’s the fastest growing attribute of new job listings,” he said.

“I think it’s becoming an expectation,” he added, “that the workplace will integrate with people’s need for flexibility.”

Indeed, an increasing number of companies have taken that mission seriously enough to add a new job title to their leadership team: Head of remote.

The role is still uncommon, especially outside of Silicon Valley, and the exact phrasing of the title changes from place to place—from “chief remote officer” to “remote lead” to “director of remote work”—but the basic job function is the same. It’s about managing and crafting company systems for employees who no longer go to an office five days per week.

Does your company need a head of remote? 

Darren Murph, who created his “head of remote” job at Gitlab three years ago, and other early adopters of the role sought to answer that question at Running Remote, a conference all about remote work, last week in Montreal.

He was joined by Stephanie Lee, remote lead at Cargo.one, an air cargo booking app, Samantha Fisher, head of dynamic work at Okta, an identity authentication software company, and Chase Warrington, head of remote at Doist, maker of the popular productivity app Todoist, who moderated the discussion.

They identified five key signs your organization may need to hire a remote lead, pronto.

Sign #1:  Hybrid or remote work is still relatively new to most employees at your firm

This may sound painfully obvious, but the point is often overlooked. “If we’re honest, what’s happening here is a re-architecting of how businesses function,” said Murph. You need to “have someone in charge and stewarding that.”

Companies that went remote during the pandemic established best practices for staying productive and connected while working from home, but they were operating on the fly, creating rules in an ad hoc fashion. Now they need to codify their guidelines for people who may have spent a decade or two working in an office before the pandemic arrived.

Other fast-growing companies may have launched as remote-first organizations, but they’ve hired people who are new to the format. You can’t expect people “to be able to understand the nuances and the operational principles of remote-first,” said Murph. “Even if you’ve tossed them a tool that they may have used before, they may be using it a different way now with people across time zones,” he said.

Sign #2: Your leadership team can’t handle the demands of managing remote work

Any company making a strategic switch to remote work must ask whether their senior executives can handle the issues that will naturally arise, Cargo.one’s Lee suggested.

Indeed, the potential pitfalls of remote or hybrid work models have been well-documented. Some fear that remote employees—particularly people from marginalized and underrepresented groups—won’t feel as engaged or be promoted as often as those who go into the office regularly. New hires and junior employees may say they need more real-time conversations to fully understand their roles, the industry, or company culture.

“How ready is your leadership team to lead the charge for remote work?” Lee asked. “If everyone’s at capacity, and you need that voice to push [remote work] forward so it’s not a secondary consideration, I think you’re ready for a head of remote.”

Sign #3: You’re not on top of the latest tools and platforms

Remote work is by its nature tech-heavy and the universe of virtual office apps is rapidly expanding, and companies may need someone to keep up, Doist’s Warrington told the audience.

Five years ago, his team couldn’t find alternatives to software they “didn’t love.” The need to keep up with new options was part of what drove Doist to create a head of remote position. “It was almost like, we just need someone to disseminate all this information and figure out, ‘how do we not fall behind?’ because that game has changed.”

Sign #4: Your longstanding remote work systems need retooling—or even minor tweaks

People tend to think that companies only need a head of remote when they’re moving from an in-office to a distributed model, but that’s not always the case, said Warrington. It’s a misconception that you need someone who is ready to lead a remote work revolution, he proposed, because the role is more malleable than that. In his case, the company just needed “someone to make small tweaks,” he said.

Sign #5: You need an objective leader to stand up for remote work before your company gives up on it

Team leaders are often driven by personal agendas which may color their opinions about remote work, observed Okta’s Fisher. For that reason, she suggests companies look for a remote work lead who can be objective and diplomatic. “You almost need someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in a specific business outcome.”

When there’s too many conflicting views about how to handle remote work, she said, it becomes too easy for someone to just keep it simple and call everyone back to the office.

And that would be woefully out of step with the times.—Lila MacLellan, senior reporter 

Sponsor content by Accenture
Sponsor content by  Accenture
Today, more than ever, purpose has risen to the top of leadership agendas. Leaders and change makers are sparking disruption and challenging all of us to step up to help shape a more equitable future. This means a willingness to have the hard conversations – deepening our understanding and committing to action. Learn more and get uncomfortable with Jimmy Etheredge, CEO – North America, Accenture, and Emmanuel Acho, FS1 Sports Analyst & New York Times Bestselling Author and a host of unexpected guests, as they tackle tough topics that require our attention to ignite change.Advertisement

Five things we’re reading

💰 The pandemic has produced billionaires at an astonishing clip. A new billionaire was minted every 30 hours, according to Oxfam’s latest study on income inequality.

💄 Rihanna is launching her Fenty beauty line in eight African countries. She says she feels a connection to the continent, but she has likely done her market research, too.

🌱 “Sustainability” appears in the job titles of 42 Davos attendees this year. The roster of the meeting’s who’s who tells its own story about the global economy.

😐 It was a record-breaking year for female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list. But this sad chart reveals why there’s little reason to celebrate.

🇫🇷 A French bank set a new standard for corporate climate pledges. Instead of making vague aspirational statements, it created a specific deadline for decarbonizing its lending portfolio.

Quartz Obsession Interlude

🌹 What’s that smell? The simple joy of a good perfume masks the utter complexity of making one. Scents come from all over the world—flowers, forests, deer glands, whale guts—and perfumers are part chemist, part artist, part supply chain expert. That means as the world evolves, so too will the lengths to which we will we go to smell great in it. 🎧  Learn more in this week’s episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast.

Listen on: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher

Sponsor content by Accenture
Sponsor content by  Accenture
Today, more than ever, purpose has risen to the top of leadership agendas. Leaders and change makers are sparking disruption and challenging all of us to step up to help shape a more equitable future. This means a willingness to have the hard conversations – deepening our understanding and committing to action. Learn more and get uncomfortable with Jimmy Etheredge, CEO – North America, Accenture, and Emmanuel Acho, FS1 Sports Analyst & New York Times Bestselling Author and a host of unexpected guests, as they tackle tough topics that require our attention to ignite change.Advertisement

30-second case study

Meta told employees last week that they should refrain from discussing reproductive rights on Workplace, the company’s internal chat system. “Even if people are respectful, and they’re attempting to be respectful about their view on abortion, it can still leave people feeling like they’re being targeted based on their gender or religion,” Meta’s head of HR, Janelle Gale, told employees in a recording obtained by The Verge.

At the crux of Meta’s policy is the desire to avoid a hostile work environment. As the public awaits the US Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, many other employers may be feeling similarly anxious about escalating internal tensions.

But Meta’s ban was ill-considered. “I absolutely understand why they need to have a policy around divisiveness, psychological safety, bullying, harassing language, all of those sorts of things,” Liane Davey, an organizational psychology expert and author of the book The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track told Quartz at Work. “But the fact that they would call out one issue—to me, it seems that they themselves are being divisive on this.”

Although companies have the legal right to restrict what employees can talk about at work, it’s become increasingly popular for companies to instead engage workers in conversations about political issues and events that affect their lives. Organizations that bucked that trend in recent years, like the software company Basecamp and cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, saw blowback and resignations.

Facebook not only faces that risk now, but its current and prospective employees may feel that singling out abortion actually more closely identifies Facebook with the issue. Now “people are going to decide how they feel about working at Facebook as an employer” based on this policy, says Davey.

Moreover, when companies peddle conversational bans as the solution to tensions over abortion, they don’t necessarily come off as “neutral.” Instead, they can wind up perpetuating the stigma that surrounds the procedure.

The takeaway: The best practice for employers going forward is to create guidelines that emphasize the importance of preserving colleagues’ sense of psychological safety when political and social issues inevitably arise in the workplace, says Davey. Rather than bar discussion of controversial  topics, she says, employers should convey that “in cases where expressing strong personal opinions that are not related to our business could threaten people’s sense of being a part of our community, that’s not welcome here.”

You got The Memo!

Today’s Memo was written by Lila MacLellan and Sarah Todd and was edited by Francesca Donner. The Quartz at Work team can be reached at work@qz.com.

Did someone forward you this email? Sign up for future installments here. Get the most out of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member.

📬 Sign up for our weekly email on the future of work.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.