You probably don't need a Head of Remote

Does your organisation need a Head of Remote? Probably not, but you will still need to tackle many of the challenges that a head of remote would be responsible for.

June 17, 2022

I recently presented at the fantastic “Running Remote” conference which this year was held in Montreal. As part of the conference I attended a compelling panel conversation about the need for a ‘Head of Remote’. The presenters were strong advocates for the role and its benefits and there was a lot to like about the message.

Darren Murphy at GitHub defines the role of Head of Remote as existing “to achieve the following:

  • Audit and pressure test all existing workflows, policies, and cultural underpinnings to ensure that they are adapted for remote-first
  • Serve as a trusted advisor and steerer to existing workstream leads, ensuring that their work is inclusive of geographies and time zones and accelerates the mission of all work being achievable regardless of one's physical location
  • Advise existing executives on proven remote work practices and lead a systematic unlearning process to replace old habits (e.g. defaulting to a meeting, forgoing documentation, working in silos vs. transparently, etc.) with more progressive ones
  • Evolve thinking and operations to suit the modern-day reality of workplace expectations
  • Deconstruct colocated office norms and rebuild workflows/culture to suit a vastly more opportunistic virtual work environment

I can see the benefits of making this explicit and there are certainly several companies that are embracing it in the organisational chart. It sends a message to both your teams and to the talent market that you are taking remote seriously and it ensures a voice at the executive table. However, to me ‘Head of Remote’ sounds an awful lot like the ‘Head of Agility’ role that became popular in the 2010s, and similar historical roles like ‘Head of Lean’ and ‘Head of BPM’. Those roles were really hard to succeed in, and I think that the Head of Remote will be beset with similar challenges. There are better ways.

From my experience there are three major issues with appointing a ‘Head of Remote’ that I’d want to carefully consider before I appointed someone:

Firstly, to quote Donella Meadows "There is a systematic tendency on the part of human beings to avoid accountability for their own decisions". Or put simply, as soon as you make something someone's responsibility it ceases to be everyone's responsibility. By appointing a Head of Remote you are subconsciously saying to other leaders in the organisation that it is that person’s responsibility to make remote / hybrid happen. In a world where time is precious, it’s likely this goal will drop down the local list of priorities.

Secondly, the head of remote is largely a ceremonial role, the person in the role has no revenue to protect, likely a small budget, and few people if any. Without revenue, budget or people you don’t have real influence in an organisation. You could grant the appointee some more influence with a larger budget, but they will still be largely advocating for change rather than delivering it, and with a larger budget comes increased scrutiny. Finance will rightly ask what benefits the organisation is getting for the spend.

Finally, I’m not a huge fan of codifying temporary roles into organisational structure. The end goal of a Head of Remote should be to make the role redundant, but whenever you create a role you create an incentive for the person in the role to try and keep it relevant. Think carefully about exit criteria - what is the definition of done for a head of remote? - and remember that under many workplace agreements you can’t just close a role without offering redundancy.

So what do we recommend as an alternative to the Head of Remote role? A remote or hybrid uplift program supported by remote:af’s proven enterprise patterns for remote working effectiveness:

1. Invest in training for your leaders in how to define strategy remotely, build remote/hybrid friendly operating models, design governance for remote teams, take strategy into teams through collaborative planning, how to work together effectively, and how to lead in the remote/hybrid context.

2. Invest in Remote / Hybrid Centres of Enablement (or Enablement Teams) at a divisional level. CoEs are a fractal pattern that we’ve seen succeed in agile adoption, as described by Jon Smart: “Each business unit pursues a limited series of small change experiments starting in fertile soil, with a small central CoE providing servant-leadership support and dealing with bubbled up organisational impediments”. Train CoE members as remote:af guides who are responsible for:

  • Launching or re-launching teams concentrating on how they agree to work together, how they plan and execute work (with a coaching focus on how to  slice work for asynchronous delivery), and maximising the value of communications and synchronous team events.
  • Identifying and resolving systemic (e.g. Operating Model and Governance) impediments to remote/hybrid effectiveness
  • Building divisional capability for decomposition of strategy and remote collaborative planning across teams and divisions
  • Ensuring that informal networks are deliberately stimulated through work that spans team boundaries and in-person / remote events

3. Expand the perimeter of the facilities management function to include:

  • Negotiating agreements with hubs / space providers to ensure employees for whom a home office is unworkable have a workplace
  • Ensuring that home offices are well equipped, safe and ergonomic, and repurposing a proportion of office lease / fit-out / furniture budget for home office setup

4. Invest in advisory support from a remote working expert for People and Culture and IT Operations functions to uplift key processes:

  • Providing a world class onboarding experience for new remote employees that connects people to brand and values
  • Ensuring that the Standard Operating Environment is fit-for-purpose for remote/hybrid and that it enables rather than constrains employee performance
  • Removing geographic barriers to recruitment, onboarding and remuneration processes
  • Protecting against proximity bias in performance management, recognition and promotion
  • Exploring the employee benefits environment for remote employees
  • Ensuring that key aspects of remote friendliness are measured as part of existing employee satisfaction / engagement measures
  • Ensuring that leaders across the organisation are measured on remote friendliness as part of existing engagement measures and that real changes are made when issues are discovered

This can be executed through the organisation’s existing mechanism for delivering strategy, or it could be established as a temporary change program.

If you’d still like to employ a head of remote there’s a great article by Darren which describes what you’ll need: https://about.gitlab.com/company/culture/all-remote/head-of-remote/. As said earlier, there are some clear benefits. However, also consider the use of the patterns that have proven effective in agile adoption as described above. A sustainable change to the way that your people work will require commitment from your entire leadership team, not just an individual.

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