A move by Facebook last year to hire someone to lead its remote workforce sent a message to many organizations worldwide that this new work revolution is likely here to stay.
The social-media giant named a chief remote officer in November, further solidifying its belief that having staff telecommute, at least partially, merits having a dedicated leader to support the virtual workforce.
Other organizations are following Facebook’s example. Call it a sign of the times.
The Covid-19 outbreak last year forced businesses worldwide to send staff home to work to stem the spread of the disease. Many, like Facebook, now plan to allow employees to continue working at least partially from home even after the pandemic ends.
Building an ‘inclusive employee experience’
While businesses struggled in early 2020 to transition away from in-office work, many now are focused on optimizing and supporting their remote staff a year into the pandemic-spurred work movement.
Research from real estate specialists T3 Advisors found that only 2 percent of tech companies had a remote-work leadership position in August 2020, but that number grew to 15 percent by February 2021.
Jeffrey L. Bowman, co-founder and chief executive officer , a New York City company that provides software-as-a-service (SaaS) for human-resource departments, said remote-leadership positions are becoming more common.
“Given the seismic shift to remote work, many organizations are trying to understand how to make it sustainable and how to build an inclusive employee experience no matter where they work and live,” Bowman said.
He believes having a dedicated remote-work head is a smart choice and that businesses were tending in that direction even before the pandemic hit.
“In many ways Covid-19 accelerated change that was already deemed necessary for the future of work, because the millennials and Generation Z were demanding the benefit of working remotely,” he said. “They are the dominant generations in the workforce, hence companies have to adopt a sustainable model.”
Maintaining and disseminating organizational culture
Experts in human resources say these new remote-leadership roles will play a key part in helping bridge HR, communications and technology policies among staff working outside the office.
According to Diane Schwartz, CEO of the New York City-based media company Workplace Wellness Insider, these leaders must ensure a unified and efficient workplace that incorporates employees’ technological, professional and psychological needs.
“The credentials should be consistent with the director of human resources,” she said.
In addition, the person must devise processes for maintaining and disseminating organizational culture in a remote-work environment and may also need to act as a liaison between the HR team and employees.
“This position is a natural transition or even a potential hybrid role for most HR professionals because it is explicitly about administering people during the transition to remote work,” Bax said.
Web-development hub GitLab, which already had a head of remote before the pandemic, tasks its remote leader with that ensuring staff can operate regardless of physical location.
The chief of remote work should lead an “unlearning” process of old habits and introduce new ones, Gitlab says on its website, adding that the leader should develop new job descriptions, create metrics to analyze remote-work performance, assist with onboarding and advise on communications etiquette.
Dr. John Sullivan, an HR thought leader who specializes in talent-management solutions, emphasizes that one important role of a head of remote should be to determine if the company needs to be a “remote-first” team, with more than half of the staff working from home.
Additionally, the leader should identify which jobs fit into different categories, such as work at home or work on site, he said in a blog post.
“Because of the significant strategic impact of effectively managed remote work, the person overseeing it should be an expert that is focused full-time on maximizing the impact of remote work,” Sullivan added.
‘The ability to work across multiple HR roles’
Organizations looking to add a head of remote work should look for certain credentials, experts say.
A candidate should have experience not only in HR but also in facilities management and technology, says Reframe’s Bowman.
“The director of remote has to have the capabilities of working across multiple HR functional roles and [be able to] grasp an HR technology ecosystem,” he said.
Resume.io’s Bax, who has managed remote teams for several years, believes that project-management skills — in addition to HR mastery — is a must for anyone heading up remote teams.
Successfully executing changes will require an intimate understanding of the digital transformation process with respect to communication, collaboration and task management, he said.
The candidate must have “an intimate macro-analytical understanding” of the company, including which aspects employees may have the most trouble integrating into the remote paradigm, Bax added.
Do you need a head of remote?
It may be difficult for companies to determine if they should have a remote leader, and whether to place an existing employee in the new role, let an employee absorb remote-leadership tasks in their current role or hire someone new, expert say.
After all, many businesses aren’t sure how many staffers — remote or otherwise — they will have post-pandemic.
Indeed, adding a head of remote may not be a wise choice for all companies.
“From our experience, having a director of remote is great if your organization is ready for the role,” said Bowman, adding that a business should have an inclusive employee-experience design in place before adding the position.
Whether or not adding a remote leader is the right move depends on the company’s culture, said Schwartz of Workplace Wellness Insider.
She cautioned companies to examine employees’ needs in terms of workplace culture and how that aligns with business goals, advising that they should add a remote leadership role only if necessary.
“We’re coming out of a pandemic. … We don’t know how employees are going to embrace the new workplace, the new rules and whether they even want to work remotely,” Schwartz said.
Sullivan, the HR thought leader, says companies that plan to add the position should move fast.
“In my view, now is the opportune time to hire a Director of Remote Work,” he wrote in his post. “It is a hot topic, but organizations also need to act now before others realize the importance of this position. Any delay in action will result in the competition for this limited talent pool becoming intense.”