Is it time to hire a head of remote work?

Companies are creating senior roles focused on getting the best from their remote workforces. What are the main demands of this exacting, yet exciting, new position?

Talent management is totally different from how it looked only two years ago, with some level of remote working becoming essential in many industries, rather than the nice-to-have option it was before the Covid crisis.

The pandemic-driven upheaval has led many businesses to consider creating a dedicated role with responsibility for defining how such flexibility should work – now and in the future – and the best way to achieve this. 

At the end of last year, Annie Dean became Facebook’s director of remote work. She told delegates at a conference hosted by GitLab in June 2021 that her job was to ensure that “the playing field stays level and that every person can meaningfully participate”. GitLab itself was ahead of the curve in this respect, appointing its own head of remote work, Darren Murph, in 2019. 

LinkedIn created the role of vice-president of flexible work in April 2021. The post-holder, Shannon Hardy, says that her team was created when the company decided to trust its staff to choose “when and where they work best”, largely to ensure that its change of policy was “managed thoughtfully and carefully”.

She explains: “We’re focused on a variety of things. Our work includes updating the company’s talent policies; supporting managers in leading their hybrid teams effectively; and ensuring that hybrid working is equitable for all. We’re constantly listening, learning and adapting our approach to improve our employees’ experience.”

Hardy was previously LinkedIn’s senior director of HR business partners, a role in which she worked to nurture new talent. Despite having that experience under her belt, she admits that, although she relishes the challenge of designing the future of work, there is “no rule book for navigating this level of change”. 

Decisions taken now “could affect everything from company culture to talent acquisition for years to come”, Hardy adds. “Given that a hybrid workforce brings with it so many new considerations, it seems only fair to create a new team to focus on these, rather than expecting someone to add them to their existing priority list.”

This is a great role. It will definitely gain traction quickly on the job market

Given that the head of remote work could potentially be responsible for aspects ranging from inclusiveness and wellbeing to logistics and IT, the ideal candidate will possess a wide range of skills. 

According to Wendy McDougall, founder and CEO of recruitment platform Firefish Software, a successful head of remote work would need to straddle two distinct areas, as “head of talent meets head of tech support”.

McDougall – named by Recruiter magazine as one of 2021’s most innovative women in recruitment – adds that companies creating such posts are “making a statement to the world that they’re taking hybrid and remote workers’ needs seriously. Having someone in this position enables the logistics of remote working and the issues that pop up randomly all the time to be handled swiftly. This keeps the focus on ensuring that the remote workforce is as productive as possible.”

She sees the post as ideal for fast-growing organisations with 30-plus employees, of whom more than 40% are remote workers, adding that it needs to be a permanent role because “the remote workforce is permanent”.

McDougall adds: “This is a great role. It will definitely gain traction quickly on the job market.”

The findings of a recent survey by consultancy Actual Experience suggest that her prediction could well come true. When it polled senior executives including CEOs and HR directors in Europe about hybrid working, 65% reported that there was no single executive in charge of the future workplace, largely because the subject was so wide-ranging. 

Indicating how important having a dedicated head of remote working could be, only 19% of the respondents said that they were “very effective” in understanding the link between digital tools and employee wellbeing, while 24% admitted that they were either “not very” or “not at all” effective in this respect. 

Alex Graves is CEO of Silicon Reef, which has helped the likes of the Met Office, Unilever and Sega to develop remote working strategies. He stresses that candidates need to have a background in operations or HR, and that the role should be a C-level position to ensure that remote working remains on the boardroom agenda. 

The post-holder needs to “lead the charge”, Graves says. “They will need lots of emotional intelligence to understand why people work, not just how. This will enable them to build remote working infrastructures that serve everyone concerned. This is definitely a strategic role, not a tactical one. They’ll be planning and communicating, rather than implementing tech.”

With hundreds of its employees working remotely around the world, HR technology startup Remote lives and breathes this topic. It recently collaborated with Distribute Consulting to publish a report entitled Do You Need a Head of Remote? While this concedes that the role will not be necessary in every organisation, it argues that “all companies do need someone to advocate for the wellbeing of their remote workforces”.

Nadia Vatalidis, Remote’s vice-president of people, believes that having a dedicated person to take the lead on remote working can pay dividends, because this should help an employer to develop a culture that’s focused on the needs of its remote workers. The role would also maximise the “incredible potential” of cross-border recruitment, she suggests, given that many firms have grasped the advantages of hiring the best people, regardless of their location.

Vatalidis describes the position as “an exciting evolution”, but she warns that companies may well struggle to find suitable people to fill it.

“Individuals with the right mix of skills and the mindset to build an entirely new way of working are still rare,” she says, “so they will command a premium.”