For many employees, working from home is here to stay. Just over one-third of private-sector employers expanded options for remote work during the pandemic, and about 60 percent intend to keep those policies in place, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The shift is the largest workplace transition since the Industrial Revolution, said Liam Martin, author of Running Remote: Master the Lessons from the World's Most Successful Remote-Work Pioneers (Harper Collins, 2022) and co-organizer of Running Remote, an annual conference about remote work.
"The Industrial Revolution took eight years, while moving to remote work was done in a month," he said. "It involved a complete transition of everything that you could possibly think of."
Managing virtual teams takes a different skill set than traditional management philosophies. To improve the remote-working experience, a growing number of companies are adding a new role to their leadership team: chief remote officer or head of remote.
GitLab, an open-source DevOps platform, was an early adopter of the title, hiring Darren Murph to be its first head of remote in 2019. The entire team of the San Francisco-based company has worked remotely since it was founded in 2011.
"Designated facilitators or managers of remote have become essential to ensuring hybrid- and remote-work equity, steering teams through the shifting workplace norms, enlisting new tools where appropriate, and ensuring an overall healthy work culture," said Murph. "Distributed work can unlock talent and productivity, but only with intentionality from business leaders."
Who Needs a Chief Remote Officer?
Companies with more than 100 employees should consider hiring a head of remote, Martin said. "There's a sociological concept called Dunbar's number," he explained. "It states that 100 to 250 people is the maximum size of an organization you can reach in which every single individual knows everyone else. Past that, you effectively become a number, and employers don't want employees to feel like a number."
In September 2021, Chase Warrington became head of remote at Doist, which runs the productivity app Todoist. The company has about 100 employees and is headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif.
"Remote work is core to our identity as a company, both in the way we operate and the products we sell," Warrington said. "Although we've been a remote-first company for about 15 years, we felt like the landscape of remote work is shifting very quickly. We want to be one of the best remote teams out there. We felt like we needed to level up and ensure that we're continuing to give a great remote-first experience to our employees."
Tech companies like Doist and GitLab have taken the lead in adding the position. "There has been a large push toward remote work in tech because the industry has many knowledge workers and is most likely of any industry to embrace change," said Murph, who added that the role is finally spreading to other industries. "I've already seen hospitals, such as Cleveland Clinic, and manufacturing organizations, like Cimpress [a customization and printing company based in Ireland], hire remote leaders. I expect this to spread beyond tech as more leaders focus more on how people work rather than where people are."
The addition of this position communicates that an organization is intentionally building its remote workplace culture and fundamentally re-architecting its workflow, Murph noted.
"It's a clear signal to job seekers that an employer will do more than merely allow remote work, but support remote workers," he said.
What Are the Necessary Skills?
Initially, a head of remote will set the tone for behavioral and cultural shifts required to embrace new models of working, Murph said. "This role is not purely an HR role. It's not purely an operations role. It's not purely a communications role. It's a combination of those. It also must be a senior role with executive sponsorship if it's to be successful in stewarding a re-architecting of company values, culture and workflow to align with new workplace expectations."
Warrington said he spends 50 percent of his time on the remote infrastructure and 50 percent on employer branding, showcasing what it means to be a remote-first team.
"For a lot of teams, it's getting past that knee-jerk reaction that happened during the pandemic," he said. "We figured this out for the short term, we've got a remote infrastructure in place, now we're working out the cobwebs, optimizing for what our normal will be."
Chief remote officers should address three goals, the first of which is establishing clear methods of communication within the organization. Martin suggests looking at the communication process like a pyramid. "In-person communication is at the top, then video, audio, instant messaging and e-mail," he said. "You want to start with e-mail as the first way to communicate with people. If you can't communicate that information, then you move up those levels. Ideally, in-person would be the smallest amount of time spent because it costs you the most to do."
Next is process documentation, creating an environment that promotes transparency and autonomy. For example, GitLab maintains a database of process documentations. Someone who asks a question will get a response that includes a link to the answer.
"They train people to be able to answer their own questions," Martin said. "The platform becomes the manager, which allows you to move quite a bit faster as an organization."
Finally, Martin said, the head of remote should define detailed metrics for individuals, on which performance is measured. This step helps managers alleviate their need to observe employee behavior in person.
"For remote to work, it's not about whether you use Slack or Zoom," Martin said. "It's about changing your management philosophy. Chiefs of remote need to deploy at scale and educate people. It's really a civilizational shift."
Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer based in Franklin, Tenn.