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Is Now the Time to Invest in a Head of Remote Work?

November 10, 2020 Leadership
By Dom Nicastro

The massive shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic has companies hiring roles to lead the transition. Facebook, Quora, Twitter, GitLab, GitHub and others are hiring or have hired such leaders, according to Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, a DevOps platform company based in San Francisco, and also one of people currently holding the position.

“The smartest, most transparent, and most progressive companies transitioning to remote will hire an executive to lead their journey in the next one to two years,” Murph wrote. “This hire (or the lack thereof) will be a litmus test to job seekers who expect remote work to be supported, not merely allowed.”

Remote Is the Reality, but Is the Role?

There is little doubt that many regularly-commuting employees woke up in the early stages of the pandemic in their homes and never left. Many want to stay there. This summer KPMG surveyed American workers and found that after having some time to adjust to a new way of working, 64% of workers said that they wanted the flexibility to work remotely at least part of the time.

“Employers have recognized some of the benefits to remote work, things like the need for less office space, lower overhead and more, so we anticipate that many companies will look at implementing a flexible, hybrid model of working even after the pandemic subsides,” said Matt Campbell, managing director of Human Capital Advisory at KPMG.

So the questions are: who should lead? Is a head of remote work, or some variation of the title, worth it for your organization? What would be the background of the person in this role? And, is this an overreach by organizations? Shouldn't "head of remote work" already be baked into someone's role, even pre-pandemic? Remote work didn't start when COVID-19 started, after all. Or has COVID-19 made this role worth the investment?

Related Article: Companies Grapple with the Return to Office Decision

The Right Call for the Right Environment

“The expansion of HR operations to include a head of remote work is not an overreach by organizations right now given our current environment,” said Rhiannon Staples, chief marketing officer at people management platform Hibob. “Companies must realize the world of work as we know it has changed forever. Tackling the remote work challenge should be a premier priority for businesses. Successfully doing so ensures the greatest level of employee productivity, success and satisfaction which very directly affect both the top and bottom line of a business.”

Gustavo Gómez, CEO at process automation provider Bizagi, said larger businesses possibly didn’t have an established work-from-home culture pre-COVID. The new challenges, he added, created by this monumental shift may be too large to fit neatly into the remit of an existing IT or HR leader. A “head of remote work” may not be needed forever, but it may be required for some time in order to manage the change that needs to happen right now, according to Gómez.

“It’s worth noting that leaders in IT or HR may be skilled at managing an existing operation,” he added, “but they may not have the special experience needed to effectively manage large cross-functional transformation programs.”

While we all learn to successfully migrate to this new mode of operation, having someone lead the charge is not a bad idea, Gómez said. “In the future,” he added, “this will be baked into everyone’s roles as businesses, leaders and employees develop these skills, but in the meantime, any business that expects to be remote or hybrid in 2021 would benefit from this investment in the near term.”

Coordination Is the Cornerstone

Bill Priemer, president and CEO of content services provider Hyland Software, said his team doesn’t see “head of remote work” as an individual role at Hyland. But, he said, it’s certainly not an overreach to elevate the importance of supporting remote work.

“The shift to remote work — and to virtual interactions with customers, and to contact-free, digital processes — is here to stay, and it’s critical for all organizations to ensure we’re supporting our employees, our customers and our partners in this digital-first work environment.” Priemer said. “That’s where this notion of head of remote work can provide real value — coordinating a holistic effort to ensure all stakeholders, internally and externally, have the support they need to do their best work and realize their full potential.”

Related Article: Building a New Model For Remote Work

Short-Term or Long-Term Position?

Campbell sees organizations potentially splitting up a “head of remote work” into a shorter-term version and a longer-term one. The key will be creating a framework for how work gets done in the organization and dealing with the broader question of flexibility. “Is it just about location or are there other dimensions of remote work in terms of moving to asynchronous team, which is about people having flexibility around time, not just location,” Campbell said. “It’s about having flexibility around tasks and how tasks actually get allocated in organizations.”

Campbell’s currently working with an organization and how they think about their resource management. It includes a project-centered IT group, and they currently don’t have a function that looks at work allocation in a structural way.

Measuring productivity, too, is no doubt going to have to be something a head of remote work either leads or defends, Campbell added. “It’s the conversation around how we actually ensure that there isn't a deterioration of productivity and ensure that there isn't any sort of deviation around what we're actually trying to achieve as an organization.”

Enablement, Education, Culture and Communication

Campbell also said culture will be a significant driver of the head of remote work’s agenda. Staples agreed, adding the ultimate objective of a head of remote work should be to lead the internal movement to effectively shift the workplace to a remote/hybrid environment by enabling employee productivity and driving engagement. The primary underpinnings of this approach, she said, include four main pillars: enablement, education, culture, and communication.

  • Enablement: A head of remote work should ensure the business has the technology, structure and mindset to optimize productivity for a remote team, Staples added.
  • Education: Involves coaching newly remote employees and managers on best practices and offering guidance for success. “There should be a huge focus on educating and empowering managers on how to operate effectively in a remote environment from protocol to recruiting day-to-day oversight and professional development,” Staples said. “Providing business leaders with the means by which to make the remote/hybrid model successful is key. The responsibility of success doesn’t fall on just one person, but the head of remote work will lead the internal movement.”
  • Culture: Fostering cultural development should be a component of this role. The head of remote work must find creative ways to foster an environment that leaves people feeling connected to one another and to the business, according to Staples.
  • Communication: Finding ways to initiate two-way communication from the business to the employee and the employee back to the business, Staples said, is critical to retaining talent while remote. This includes identifying metrics and tangible measurements that will let businesses know what is working and what still requires attention.

Related Article: Ensuring Internal Communications Are Heard in an Increasingly Complex Landscape

Digital Workplace Leader Requirements

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations were in discussions about who takes ownership of the digital workplace. And the requirements were real. When it was posted last year, Robert Half International’s 1,718-word job advertisement for a director of digital workplace and internal user experience listed 49 requirements and 38 qualifications.

Some examples included:

  • Responsible for leading the organization’s strategy, projects and processes for digital workplace solutions.
  • Experience with the modern digital workplace (global intranet) and design thinking (including mobile and apps).
  • Increase standardization of core processes; improve processes in support of strategic imperatives and programs.

Not to mention, you had to have a bachelor’s degree in IT, user experience (UX), human computer interaction, digital marketing or information architecture and/or business management/leadership. And only 10-plus years experience developing and supporting enterprise intranet applications, UX and digital technology solutions in large organizations.

Who Gets the Job?

The ideal leader for a cross-functional transformation project is right at the connection point between IT and business needs, according to Gómez. Job titles, backgrounds and reporting lines vary, but the ideal type of individual is always someone that is strategic, at least semi-technical and highly collaborative.

“While the people side of the challenge very much sits with HR, the ability to drive change in technology and operations is key, and that may not be a significant skill set within HR teams today,” Gómez added. “Equally, IT leaders may not have the insight they need to determine where the operational challenges lie across the business, and could benefit from a partner to work with in order to identify the most important opportunities."

Priemer does not see the head of remote work role as belonging to a single individual. Providing employees with the support they need to have a healthy, productive remote work experience requires a coordinated effort across the organization, including input from HR, IT, risk management and “basically every department.”

“In my role as chief executive officer,” Premier added, “it’s my responsibility to ensure that everyone understands our goals for the company and to align our leaders as we empower our teams to achieve those goals. Now that we’re all working remotely, supporting remote work is a fundamental goal for every leader.”

But, instead of the “it’s everyone’s role" answer, should this be the responsibility of one particular leader? Staples said yes. “The head of remote work role should be a part of the HR function because the primary function of the position focuses on people operations,” she said. “Many of the skills this role would require naturally fit into HR’s wheelhouse, from communication and education, to development and culture.”

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