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Analysis

Are you – or should you be – hiring a head of remote?

Facebook, Dropbox, Okta, LinkedIn, LogMeIn and more have recently hired specific leadership for remote working.

MaryLou Costa

head of remote
Credit: CHRISTINA CORSO via Twenty20.

Unleash Your PeopleShould you be doing the same?

The hottest new corporate role – head of remote – is here, and those who step up stand to be rewarded with a pivotal role in defining the future of work, with an attractive salary to boot.

A head of remote can command from $250,000 or often more, according to the ‘Do you need a head of remote’ whitepaper released this year by international payroll platform Remote and remote work consultancy Distribute; compare this with the average head of HR salary, which is $158,000 according to Zipia.

Defined by Remote and Distribute as “responsible for managing the virtual employee experience and implementing best practices for remote work throughout their organizations”, the argument for companies to invest in heads of remote is gaining momentum. 

For example, a study of 95 technology companies by real estate and workplace advisory T3 highlighted that the number with a head of remote or equivalent rose from 2% to 15% between August 2020 and February 2021.

That’s in line with the 65% of workers wanting to remain full-time remote with 58% threatening to look for a new job if they can’t continue remote working according to a FlexJobs survey in April.

A career pivot for HR leaders?

Many companies are bolstering their HR function with this new strategic head of remote role (or variants of it); and with employee engagement a huge part of the job, HR seems a natural home. 

Marketing analytics platform Heap, for example, is staffing up its employee experience team with virtual employee experience designers to help guide team members through its hybrid work model

“The biggest challenge is bridging the gap between those who are in-office and those working remotely, creating a cohesive culture with shared context, values, and purpose,” Melanie Oberman, Heap’s EVP of people, tells UNLEASH.

Yet HR leaders interested in this lucrative career development shouldn’t assume they’ll be the obvious candidate for the role.

A growing number of companies UNLEASH also spoke to, like Cimpress and GitLab, have looked to marketing and communications leaders to take charge of this important area.

A head of remote’s scope: macro and micro challenges

So what are the challenges a head of remote could face that interested HR leaders will want to demonstrate their ability to tackle?

Well, considering their “real value” is to strategize and monitor the impact of remote work on the company, according to Distribute founder and CEO, Laurel Farrer, doing this effectively will be their most macro-level challenge.

“This might be how workplace flexibility is influencing productivity rates, or how products and marketing should be updated for a work-from-home market. The biggest challenge will be to continuously adapt to the changing remote landscape,” Farrer confirms.

“New tools, legislation, and industry regulations will be rolling out at an incredible rate and will be difficult to monitor without feeling overwhelmed. The head of remote will continuously collaborate with key cross-functional leaders in HR, Finance, Legal, Operations, Marketing, and IT to manage the impacts on a company.”

Distribute founder and CEO Laurel Farrer

On a day-to-day level, this could range from maintaining company culture and morale, creating best practices for remote hiring, onboarding and retention, and identifying and addressing burnout, adds Niki Jorgensen, director of service operations at SMB HR provider Insperity.

“By offering greater insight into the remote segment of the workforce, communicating clearly and openly with current remote and hybrid workers, and maintaining a positive company culture to ensure productivity, the head of remote can make a difference in the success of a company,” states Jorgensen.

This can all be made seamless by someone who demonstrates three key attributes, believes Amie Lawrence, director of global innovation for talent assessment platform PSI Services. These are agility, achievement and affiliation.

“Agility to respond to change and help people handle challenges independently, a focus on achievement to drive action and accountability, and affiliation to overcome the physical distance,” Lawrence explains.

How tech is set to play a starring role

Digital tools are obviously the backbone of remote work culture and processes, and linked intrinsically to the role’s challenges, rationalizes Paul McKinlay, VP of communications and remote working at Cimpress, parent company of printing solutions brand Vistaprint. 

McKinlay has been in a senior communications role with the company since 2010. But in 2020, he took on leadership of the Cimpress’s remote work strategy, energized by the company-defining potential of the position.

“The challenges to our day jobs of communicating with remote audiences has certainly forced a reboot of thinking, tools, channels and other aspects core to our roles,” McKinlay notes.

Heads of remote should even have influence and autonomy over such tools and operations, asserts GitLab’s counterpart, Darren Murph. He has been in the head of remote role since 2019; in fact, Gitlab claims to have pioneered the job.

Murph naturally uses GitLab, a software development platform, to collaborate across the entire organization, declaring it the “single source of truth for all of its goals, objectives, and projects”.

He also created the company’s handbook via GitLab, but otherwise admits to a “minimal tool stack”, featuring Zoom, Google Workspace, Slack, Dropbox Spaces and connected digital work hub Qatalog.

But, embedding the right tech tools is just half of the equation, Murph notes: “Once tools are in place, the rest is building a culture of utilizing those tools in a remote-first fashion.”

Also a fan of Slack and Google tools, Samantha Fisher, head of dynamic work at user authentication platform Okta, has developed and launched an in-house workplace experience app.

“Atmosphere acts as a ‘digital concierge’ for employees. This enables them to make decisions around their work location, and gives real-time updates on aspects like events, site info and co-worker schedules,” shares Fisher, who was appointed to the role in January, as Okta’s head of remote equivalent.

Other tools include Open Path for mobile badging, Miro for virtual whiteboards, Uniflow with Canon for mobile printing, and Matterport for virtual office tours. 

“I spend a lot of my time working with cross-functional teams thinking about programs, services and experiences that we offered while in office, and how we can translate them for a hybrid environment. I focus on enabling productivity and connectivity, while using data and feedback to be iterative in our approaches,” Fisher adds.

Chris Perrotti, VP of digital workplace at digital collaboration tool company LogMeIn, is an advocate of shifting away from “siloed technology” geared towards just in-office workers. He feels tech should “eliminate information isolation”.

“This includes looking beyond just live collaboration tools, like video conferencing, to asynchronous tools like corporate knowledge bases, goal and process tracking software, and other technology to support communication and collaboration amongst teams,” says Perrotti, who took on the role in June after holding various director and VP roles with the company since 2013.

But hybrid work technology on its own won’t instantly enable employees to effectively work remotely, he warns. 

“An equitable environment must be created alongside the implemented technology. Businesses must invest in a dedicated digital workplace team that would look not just at the technology, but also how employees engage with that technology,” Perrotti says.

Alternatives to a head of remote 

But do all companies going down a remote or hybrid path need a head of remote? Some UNLEASH spoke to, including Drift, Aquent, Plex and The Soul Publishing, are adding leadership of remote culture into existing HR roles. What’s their rationale behind this approach?

“Since announcing our digital-first future of work in February, we considered hiring a head of remote to help us through the transition but felt that our existing people organization had the capability and expertise to create a thriving remote culture,” comments Dena Upton, chief people officer at marketing platform Drift.

“We were able to bypass a head of remote because our people and leadership teams are obsessed with employee feedback at every stage of the decision-making process.”

Global streaming service Plex has been fully remote since it was founded in 2008, and has been successful without a head of remote, reveals VP of people Christa Foley.

“It has worked because we’ve focused on what we value, our connections, and trusting our employees – not based on their time in chat channels or emails – but in the work they produce and how they contribute to the culture of Plex,” Foley argues.

Staffing agency Aquent has gone down the route of appointing a head of culture and community, Erin Bloom, in February, following her 22-year tenure with the company that has spanned marketing, customer support and real estate.

The role, Bloom says, includes leading programs to foster community and belonging, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, with the toughest challenge managing culture change. 

Online media company TheSoul Publishing, meanwhile, likes to think that every leader in its company drives its remote-first approach on a daily basis. 

“We think globally, using strategies, tools, and incentives that are universally accepted, whether a team member is working remotely, or in the office,” says HR director Aleksandra Sulimko.

How to decide

Ultimately, a company needs to assess whether it’s in “construction” or “maintenance” mode to determine its need for a head of remote, as Remote and Distribute’s whitepaper advises. 

Companies in construction mode are building towards sustainable remote work. They should prioritize evaluating the needs of the business, make decisions, then communicate and enact organizational change. They could fill the need for a head of remote with a consultant.

But when a company transitions into maintenance mode, or some kind of longevity with remote operations, is when it’s time to consider bringing in a head of remote. 

So analyze whether your company is in construction or maintenance when it comes to remote work and let us know if will you be hiring a head of remote? Or as a HR leader, is that your next career move?

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