Hot new job title in a pandemic: 'Head of remote work'

On any given day, Darren Murph can wear many hats at work.

He might play relocation expert, helping co-workers leaving a big city like San Francisco think through which cheaper locales have good access to broadband. He can be an executive coach, assisting senior leaders in structuring new projects in remote-friendly ways. He may serve as tech adviser (evaluating new messaging tools like Yac or Loom), communications pro (distilling work-from-home policies into remote work handbooks) or event planner (scoping out virtual team-building activities such as a group online cooking site).

Murph's job title - "head of remote" at the open-source software firm GitLab, which has been all-remote since 2011 - is not a common one. But the 36-year-old former tech editor and communications adviser believes it will soon become much more so.

"I think it will have to," said Murph, who has held the job since last summer and lives near North Carolina's Outer Banks, while GitLab's more than 700 other U.S. workers are sprinkled around the country. "I do think it could become the next evolution of the chief operations officer or the chief people officer or maybe the chief culture officer."

As the pandemic has rapidly accelerated a move to remote work - and widespread work-from-home arrangements are predicted to become permanent over the long-haul - some tech companies are carving out new jobs for executives to act as advocates for virtual workers and think more broadly about a lasting remote future. While the practice could spread to other companies, at the moment it appears concentrated among tech firms.

Facebook posted a job with the title "director, remote work" who would "drive a company-wide shift toward remote-first ways of working" after the social media giant said in May it would allow employees to apply to work from home permanently. The position would lead a team of "cross-functional" leaders across the company to help make the transition to remote work, the job posting said.

Okta, the identity management software firm, is planning to hire someone to help shift to a "dynamic work" model, in which more people are hired to work in locales besides its main San Francisco office.

Quora, the question-and-answer social platform, is in the process of hiring a "head of remote work" after 60% of employees said they'd rather work from home even after the pandemic is no longer a threat.

"You need somebody with an HR background, but they also need to be really strong at [communication skills] and to be pretty adept - or at least knowledgeable - about technology," said Adam D'Angelo, the CEO of Quora, which has about 200 employees. "This pandemic has forced us to just flip a switch and now this is suddenly a role a lot of companies need."

Job sites such as Glassdoor and LinkedIn said they were not yet seeing much in the way of listings for similar job titles, though Murph, who is something of an evangelist for the role, said he is talking to more companies about adding such a job. "What ends up happening is they realize it's too big for their current staff and there's no one who has a universal level of expertise to do this job," he said. GitLab likes being transparent about what it's learned as an all-remote company, he said - there are no GitLab offices - but it also sells a tool for online remote project collaboration.

He compares a "head of remote" setup to adding a chief diversity officer - someone held accountable for keeping equity and inclusion issues at the forefront when decisions are being made about policies, hiring, retention and benefits across big companies. In practice, Murph says the job could include writing guidelines for things like reducing meetings and navigating time zones, acting as a liaison to legal teams thinking through tax issues for employee moves, planning online events to keep the company culture from fading and advocating for remote employees when planning benefits.

"You have to re-architect or at least rethink every element of how you work, from [technology] tools to 'Do we have set working hours?' " he said. "Some people have access to an on-site gym - do we now have a wellness credit for those that don't?"

Some companies are giving the job to cross-company teams or executives with other jobs rather than hiring or promoting someone new. At Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, the 60,000-plus employee tech firm has 10 senior executives from real estate, human resources, IT and communications working on its approach to remote and on-site work, though Dave Antczak, HPE's vice president of global real estate, said it wouldn't rule out naming a single person to lead the effort in the future.

Others have assigned the role to longtime employees who know the culture well. At Slack, Vice President of Customer Experience Ali Rayl, an 8-year employee of the messaging company, has taken on efforts to transition the company to remote work. She thinks it's likely to be a short-lived role. "This is something that is temporal - it's changing how our companies work, it's building new habits of practice," she said. "And then that's just how it is."

However it's set up, or however long it lasts, warns Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor who has been studying "work from anywhere" companies and has written a case study about GitLab, one key to such roles is that the CEO must also lead the initiative and should also work off-site at least as much as other employees. "If the whole company is working remotely but the C-suite is working in an office, then middle managers will just line up to get face time," he said.

Liz Burow, the former vice president of workplace strategy at WeWork and now a Minneapolis-based consultant, said she too believes more companies will put someone in charge of coordinating remote work, or name someone to lead a "hybrid" workplace where some are in the office and others are not.

In her work, she said, much of her discussions have to do with, "Will we or won't we need real estate?" she said.

But "if we really want to rethink the future, it's not about space. It's about new roles," Burow said. "People are forgetting real estate is just a platform for things to happen. We need to think about who's curating what's happening and how."

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