When Darren Murph created his “head of remote” role at the software maker Gitlab in 2019, he couldn’t have known how quickly the idea would catch on. Or why.
By the end of the first year of the pandemic, with knowledge workers everywhere getting used to the idea of working from home at least part of the week, and possibly forever, companies like Meta and others began hiring people to fill positions similar to Murph’s. (They often called him for advice or consulted his lengthy “head of remote” playbook.)
The job title 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: To manage and craft company systems and culture for employees who no longer go to an office five days per week.
With more companies choosing to stick with hybrid and remote work after the pandemic, and more employees demanding it, is the “remote lead” here to stay?
Murph and other early adopters of the role sought to answer that question at Running Remote, a conference all about remote work, earlier this week in Montreal. Murph 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.
This may sound painfully obvious, but the point is often overlooked.
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 and creating guidelines in an ad hoc fashion. Now they need to codify their new rules of work 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 many 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.
Companies have discovered that everything about the way a business operates— from the way it hires and promotes people, to how it shares information and makes decisions, to how its products and services are assembled and delivered—changes when its workers are not coming together in an office every day. “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.”
The remote lead may not be the first hire at a new company, but the role needs to be filled “as soon as you commit to remote or distributed being any meaningful part of your operational principles,” Murph said. “No company would set up a new office and not have an office manager. You wouldn’t just let the office fend for itself.” The same should be true for a virtual office, he explained.
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.”
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.”
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, Warrington took over as head of remote at a company that had been working remotely since day one. During the pandemic, when Warrington became the head of remote, the company had 100 people in 35 countries and “already had a good thing going.” he said. In my case, we “just need 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 throw in the towel and call everyone back to the office.