The dawn of the age of Chief Remote Work Officers

The pandemic may have accelerated a shift to remote work models, but progressive organizations have been embracing the benefits of working remotely before COVID-19. And a new pivotal role is emerging as a result: the Chief Remote Work Officer.

But it’s important to understand the nuances between an intentionally remote workforce and an under-crisis pivot to WFH before being able to grasp what kind of additional efforts your organization could invest into remote work.

“What we’ve been doing for the past year isn’t remote work; it’s pandemic-induced work from home. There are many benefits of remote working that can’t be accessed right now, and the stressors of the pandemic are creating an added layer of complexity to what a typical remote worker would usually experience,” says Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab, who was deemed an “oracle of remote work” by CNBC.

So to appreciate this new form of executive leadership Murph is spearheading, you have to appreciate the true meaning, advantages and practical applications of effective remote work first.

Some of these concepts might be considered cutting-edge right now, but as companies continue to build on the disruption that has been forced on them and anticipate more changes, they will become the new standard.

“Progressive organizations have hired leaders into workplace strategy and organizational design for years. This is the most recent incarnation. The role will focus initially on shepherding a successful remote transformation, then morph into ongoing workplace design and strategy leadership,” according to Murph.

Here’s everything you need to know about remote work in 2021 and onwards and the dawn of the age of Chief Remote Work Officers.

What is effective remote work and what are its benefits?

“Remote work enables an organization to offer a remarkable amount of flexibility and create a fundamentally inclusive atmosphere. It’s a tremendous competitive advantage when leveraged appropriately, requiring leaders to realize that it’s not about where team members work, but how the work gets done,” says Murph.

For example, at GitLab, team members are encouraged to work non-linear workdays instead of having rigid schedules — and this is made possible by favoring asynchronous communication and measuring output instead of hours.

What is asynchronous communication? Think workflows that facilitate input from different sources at different times and provide visibility into key updates instead of a continuous stream of ineffective meetings. It can feel counterintuitive at first, says Murph:

“There is a significant amount of unlearning to do. Many conventional workflows are steeped in tradition and will require a tremendous amount of effort to break old habits and upskill workers to understand concepts like asynchronicity and defaulting to documentation.”

But the benefits are worth it. From increased resilience to healthier cultures, remote workforces put the onus on management to focus on things that matter a lot, but that might have been neglected in the past.

“Structuring a workplace in the most flexible manner possible creates resilience and de-risks a company from disruption linked to future crises,” says Murph. “Remote work forces you to be intentional about elements that colocated leaders should be intentional about, but largely haven’t been. Culture, values, informal communication, and mentoring require dedicated resources and investment and can’t be left to fate.”

However, it’s notable to mention that even the best remote workplaces leverage moments of in-person engagement, which are key for building rapport and sustaining culture.

What remote work leaders do and how they’re shaping the future

Now that you’ve wrapped your head around the idea of highly effective, highly intentional remote workplaces, you might be wondering what exactly a Chief Remote Work Officer does — and how that role is different from a People & Culture one.

According to Murph, you can make parallels with the emergence of Chief Diversity Officers: “For some time, diversity efforts were a part-time job of the Chief People Officer. Now, we all instantly recognize why it’s vital to have a dedicated leader to champion diversity in an organization. A leader for remote work is vital for very similar reasons.”

“A head of remote considers each action and decision from the remote worker’s perspective. Our job is to frame everything through the lens of our remote-first workforce to make sure no decision has unintended consequences for our distributed workers.”

It’s actually one of the most cross-functional roles that exist. “I work at the intersection of culture, operations, people, talent branding, marketing, and communication,” says Murph.

Executives like him are shaping the future of the workforce because they will be supporting professionals through a massive shift in the way things were traditionally done — and there is no rulebook for undergoing that change successfully, especially considering the vast pool of industries, companies and teams out there.

“The world is full of workers who were conditioned to operate professionally in an office. Even our grade-school construct mimics an office environment. We have millions in the workforce who all have different expectations of remote work, and each organization will embrace it slightly differently.”

For instance, Murph says many organizations will be shifting to a hybrid model in the next year. But hybrid models present even more challenges, with two sub-groups of workers requiring equal consideration.

“A head of remote can act as an advocate for the remote workers who may not have a physical presence. In 2021, as folks head back into the office, a head of remote is crucial to maintaining equity between all employees.”

Or consider the differences between a tech startup and a hospital. The hospital will need a tailored approach to make sure its remote functions support critical (as in, life-or-death) work such as medical procedures. A Chief Remote Work Officer can implement best practices tailored to their organization’s needs.

A role that can help companies stay competitive on the job market

53% of U.S. employees are not engaged, according to Gallup. While that doesn’t mean they’re actively disengaged — they may be performing but are less emotionally connected to their work — it does mean they’re easier to lose to more appealing offers. And organizations with execs in charge of remote work will become appealing to top talent.

“Just as a chief diversity officer signals to prospective employees that diversity is taken seriously in an organization, hiring a dedicated remote leader sends a positive signal to top talent who are seeking a workplace with fewer politics, more transparency, and colleagues who are comfortable finding their identity in something other than work,” says Murph, who predicts there will be a divide between companies that allow remote work and those who support remote workers.

“The former will see their Glassdoor ratings drop as top talent shifts to companies who are investing in creating a fantastic remote experience.”

And beyond the cultural impact of prioritizing a healthy remote workplace, it’s also about embracing the tides of change instead of resisting them. Top candidates might find companies who are at the forefront of technological advances and HR trends more enticing.

“By not having [a head of remote work,] you indicate that rearchitecting your workflows and culture isn’t a priority. This is akin to continuing to ask candidates to fax their resumes rather than hiring a dedicated leader to implement a digital transformation. Faxing works, yes, but competitors who evolve will eventually be far more efficient and attractive to top talent.”

Skills needed to become a remote work executive

Curious about what it takes to step into a Chief Remote Work Officer role? You might find this surprising, but storytelling skills are essential to bringing the vision for a remote workplace to life.

“Remote-first organizations need phenomenal writers, as the bulk of work and culture is documented,” says Murph. According to him, it’s all about being “capable of crafting expert internal campaigns that explain the why along with what, how, and when.”

Having influence and being good with people so you can get buy-in from stakeholders is also paramount, as being a head of remote work means being a “masterful change agent.” You won’t be able to get far without internal support and resources.

Finally, it’s important to have lived through a remote work experience — ideally a leadership experience — to be able to bring insights to the table. “You can’t sympathize with those offsite if you have never experienced geographic bias,” says Murph.