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Remote-Work Directors Oversee Employees' Virtual Experience

A person in a wheelchair talking on the phone at home.

​As more of its employees work virtually, how does an employer deal with the isolation, the longer hours and subsequent burnout those workers may experience? How does it keep them engaged? How does it streamline its operations?

Some employers, like CocoFax in Singapore, are creating a position for a director of remote work to manage the virtual employee experience and introduce best practices. The company's assistant HR manager serves as head of remote work.

"I realized the world of work as we know it has changed forever," said Olivia Tan, co-founder of the online fax solution provider. Before the pandemic, five of her 20 employees worked remotely. "Just like the CEO, COO and other C-suite decision-makers, my organization needed a head of remote work in order to streamline remote operations."

Lawmatics founder and Chief Executive Officer Matt Spiegel appointed an HR employee to serve as head of remote work for his San Diego-based company, an attorney-client relationship management platform.

The majority of employees work from home (WFH), and the head of remote work is expected to manage the online WFH policy, organize and oversee scheduling of the virtual workplace, and address any WFH-related grievances or concerns, Spiegel said.

"Our appointed remote-work director also has a background in tech and IT" and understands the technical issues remote workers experience so that she can refer them to the IT department, Spiegel said.

Head of remote is a position that existed for years within a small circle of organizations—typically tech companies—whose employees were exclusively remote workers, according to a May 2021 white paper from companies Remote and Distribute Consulting, which specialize in virtual-work solutions.

More organizations have created these roles since 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the mass adoption of remote work. While not all companies need a head of remote work, the authors wrote, all need someone to advocate for the well-being of their virtual workforces.

It is "absolutely necessary to think 'Are we working remotely effectively?' " Remote founder and Chief Executive Officer Job van der Voort told SHRM Online. "There are no standards, there is no history. You have to rethink … are we doing this well? Can we improve this?"

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Such roles also are popping up in hybrid workforces, such as at Spyic, a Spokane, Wash.-based provider of parental control and remote monitoring programs.

"The person occupying this position has a role to ensure that all employees have the same experience," said Katherine Brown, Spyic founder and marketing director. They make sure every employee has all the resources they need "and does not face any challenges that will put [the employees] at a disadvantage" in their job.

"This aligns with our HR strategy," Brown said, "because we have always cultivated a culture of inclusivity."

What to Consider 

There are two types of director-of-remote-work roles, according to Remote's white paper: an internal advocate and an external advocate. However, "many of these leaders spend their time in both worlds, improving the internal experience while advocating for the remote-first model beyond the organization," the report said.

The internal advocate usually is aligned with HR or business operations and is primarily responsible for ensuring all employees have an equal experience across the organization. Responsibilities include monitoring employee performance, planning engagement strategies and making sure workers have the necessary digital resources.

At FindPeopleFast in Los Angeles, a Web-based people-search site, founder and business manager Daniela Sawyer said its head of remote work is in its HR department and is expected to:

  • Educate executives on how to function with remote employees.
  • Provide more input into the hiring process, shortlisting and conducting phone interviews with job applicants interested in working remotely.
  • Audit remote-work infrastructure to assure employees are suitably supported.
  • Arrange a framework for teamwork.
  • Process ongoing inspections of remote workers and their infrastructure, such as good Internet service, proper workspace and a comfortable work environment.
  • Adapt company initiatives for remote workers.
  • Instruct other executives and decision-makers to guarantee inclusivity.

"Micromanagement is not on the list when the goal is to build a seamless work experience between remote and in-house workers," Sawyer said, noting that 60 percent to 70 percent of her company's 80 employees work remotely.

An external advocate tends to align with marketing and talent acquisition—supporting thought leadership around remote work, marketing and recruiting—and communicates the company's brand as a flexible-work organization, according to the white paper. This is useful when the majority, or all, employees work remotely because they still need an advocate, "especially if most of the leadership team continues to work in an office."

Whether an internal or external director of remote work is needed depends, the white paper said, on the percentage of its workforce that regularly works remotely. If 1 percent to 25 percent are remote, an internal advocate can help make sure workers have the proper resources and represent them "to prevent risk of invisibility, such as career stagnancy, discrimination [and] isolation."

A critical mistake many employers make in designing a head-of-remote-work role is expecting the person to be responsible for "building the backend systems that enable workplace flexibility," the authors stated. "They can maintain and optimize a virtual organization, but not construct one." 

When hiring your head of remote work, Remote's van der Voort recommended looking for someone who has experience working at a similar-sized organization that has remote workers, being clear on your expectations and empowering the person.

"They should be able to make decisions … and not have to fight for every change they make," he said. "You don't need to have a person with this title … but [this position] empowers [them] to really make changes. It shows leadership cares about this." 

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]


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