The pandemic has shuttered offices and transformed companies into virtual workplaces overnight. Now it’s giving rise to a new corporate job title: head of remote work.
Facebook Inc. (FB-Q) appointed a director of remote work in November to help the company adopt “remote-first ways of working,” according to the job posting, and U.S. tech firm Okta Inc. (OKTA-Q) recently hired someone for a similar role.
Canadian companies have also recognized the need to appoint someone to manage the post-pandemic, longer-term shift to remote work, says Kevin Katigbak, a senior workplace strategist at Toronto design firm Gensler. “We jumped ahead a decade on how people want to work,” he said. “If you’re not strategic about how you prepare people to return to the new reality, it can be really bad for your company.”
The role may seem like a pandemic-era fad, especially with vaccines beginning to roll out. But experts contend that even after offices can safely reopen, many companies will allow employees more flexibility in terms of where they work. Managing both a remote and an office-bound workforce creates a host of challenges for organizations, with implications for real estate, technology, human resources, finance and corporate culture. “This role will need to tie all these different components together,” Mr. Katigbak said, “and will be responsible for trying to ensure smooth sailing in the hybrid workforce.”
GitLab, a U.S.-based open-source software firm, hired Darren Murph as its head of remote work last year. From his home in North Carolina on any given day, he could be tweaking the company’s virtual onboarding process, advising colleagues on their home-office setups or coaching managers to “unlearn” behaviour endemic to in-person work. One common instinct, for example, is to call a meeting to hash out even the faintest of ideas rather than allowing people to provide feedback via other means.
“This remote migration has exposed a lot of subpar workflows that have been a reality for a long time for many companies,” Mr. Murph said. “Now they need a head of remote to fix all of that.”
GitLab, which has more than 700 employees, is already an all-remote company, so Mr. Murph’s role is not as unusual as it may seem. He is a member of the company’s marketing department, and his evangelism serves the bottom line: GitLab makes a product for remote team collaboration.
But he argues that jobs like his will become more common, even at companies that adopt a hybrid approach. That setup is especially challenging, Mr. Murph said, because it requires managing two completely different employee experiences. Companies will have to ensure off-site staff are equipped with ergonomic workstations, that perks and benefits are equivalent for both groups of employees and that managers are clear that promotions are not dependent on being in the office all the time.
Appointing a head of remote work also sends a signal to those working from home that they will be supported, not merely tolerated, within the company. “You’re showing that you’re breaking down some of these old traditions of office politics, like whoever dresses the best or who’s the loudest voice in the room,” Mr. Murph said.
A head of dynamic work started this month at San Francisco-based software provider Okta, which has an office in Toronto. The company has been piloting flexible work arrangements for more than a year, but the pandemic accelerated those efforts, according to spokesperson Laura Szatkowski. The new hire will help the company shift away from traditional office work and ensure that employees are productive regardless of their location.
Many Canadian companies are still figuring out what the workplace will look like after the pandemic, but a few have offered hints.
Open Text Corp. is not planning to reopen half its offices after the pandemic, and Bank of Montreal said earlier this year that between 30 per cent and 80 per cent of its employees could work from home at least some of the time. A spokesperson for BMO said the bank is planning to test new work models, including a hybrid option.
Shopify Inc. CEO Tobias Lütke tweeted in May that the company would be “digital by default” and that “office centricity is over.” (The e-commerce giant has said it will maintain offices as hubs for recruitment and will redesign spaces to allow employees to collaborate when necessary. In June, it increased the space it will take at its new Toronto building.)
The company’s chief talent officer is leading the push to become digital-first. Shopify’s merchant support team has always worked from home, and the company already has employees focused on the remote work experience. A spokesperson says the company has been able to launch products faster during the pandemic with staff working remotely, but that social connections and brainstorming sessions remain a challenge.
To hash out a plan, some companies have formed committees with representatives from various departments, which are usually chaired by someone from HR or real estate. Hiring someone capable of pulling so many elements of a company together could be beneficial, said Doron Melnick, the national leader of people and change services at KPMG in Canada. “Creating a single role responsible for remote work provides leadership at a time when it might not be obvious who should be leading,” he said.
Whether companies can find qualified candidates is another matter. Rarely has the average HR representative been tasked with envisioning entirely new ways of working. “Many of us have studied these things for decades, but not at this scale,” said Stephen Harrington, the national lead for workplace strategy at Deloitte. “If organizations are lucky enough to find an executive that has program management experience, but also credibility in remote working, that’s a bit of a unicorn.” (Facebook ended up hiring Annie Dean, who co-founded a startup that analyzes data to predict flexible work needs for employers.)
Some companies already have individuals in charge of employee experience, focusing on recruitment, career development and corporate culture. Responsibility for the well-being of remote workers could eventually fall under that role. “I can see the executive in charge of employee experience will become accountable for the experience in a physical office, as well as the virtual workplace,” Mr. Melnick said.
Some studies suggest that a wider shift toward flexible work arrangements is not a given, and that if it does happen, it will be driven by employee preferences. A recent report from RBC Economics shows that among organizations that can consider work-from-home arrangements, only about 30 per cent are likely or very likely to do so after the pandemic. But a majority of employees want at least some flexibility. “Companies will need to create flexible arrangements if they’re to compete in tight labour markets for highly skilled and mobile knowledge workers,” according to RBC.
As for the future of the head of remote role, Mr. Murph compares it to the development of chief diversity officers. At first, the responsibility for diversity and inclusion rested somewhere within HR. But corporations realized the task was too important to append onto another title and appointed dedicated staff.
“This is following the exact same road,” Mr. Murph said. “The head of remote is the first step at putting intentional effort into adding a remote voice to the room.”
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