27 September 2023

New captains to charter the remote work course

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While many organisations have pivoted to remote work in an ad-hoc way, Alex Christian* says others are creating specific roles to oversee the workplace transformation.

In the new world of work, business needs have shifted. One of the most pertinent issues has been how to establish best practices around remote set-ups.

Virtual working has been a moving target with no precedent, and in some cases organisations have implemented hybrid or work-from-anywhere policies without formal processes.

While some employers have taken an ad-hoc approach, others are being proactive.

They are appointing high-ranking leaders dedicated to making remote work thrive.

These Chief Remote Officers may not have that title, but all are tasked with addressing the complex issues that arise from the new ways of working.

Figuring out remote work has been a challenge for employers, whether they opt for a hybrid-working pattern or fully-distributed teams.

The new positions have been notably happening in tech, which has a predominantly higher share of remote workers and firms that embrace digital-first processes.

One such case is Atlassian. The Australia-founded collaboration-software company, with nearly 10,000 employees across 13 countries, has been fully remote since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In March it created a new executive role to formulate its longer-term plan.

Annie Dean, who leads the company’s global distributed workforce strategy, is based in New York City.

“Building a transformation team around remote is often reactive: It’s looking at it as a problem to solve,” Dean said.

Because we’ve resourced a team and taken this seriously, most of my work is proactively solving challenges for the future.”

Dean oversees a 100-strong collective scattered throughout Atlassian to fine-tune its remote processes.

There is the Workplace Experience Team operating the office development and design for whenever workers choose to be in person.

Also, the Recruitment Team shifts hiring policies and procedures in line with a fully distributed model, such as global recruitment.

Then there is the Product Team, flagging issues with remote working generated by day-to-day collaboration tools.

“How I prioritise work for these teams is to focus on the biggest challenges and opportunities in transitioning the organisation to a distributed-first model,” Dean said.

Among these challenges is enabling synchronised work among employees based around the world.

“To be effective in ensuring teams get tasks done no matter where they work, we have to design teams on a time-zone basis, and have at least four hours overlapping between teams every day,” Dean said.

“Baking those processes into the daily operations of the business is a huge focus.”

With colleagues no longer regularly collaborating in person, establishing a cohesive workplace culture is another priority for Chief Remote Officers.

“We’ve introduced a program for intentional togetherness where employees gather around the globe with their immediate team,” she said.

“The goal is for teams who’ve never previously met in person to connect, then solve thorny business challenges best suited to in-person environments.”

Not every organisation appointing a head of remote is necessarily in the tech industry. Even employers that require some in-person working have created the role.

Paul McKinlay, based in the United States city of Boston, leads the remote-first transition at Ireland-headquartered printing company, Cimpress.

Its 14,000 employees include those based at manufacturing plants as well as 2,500 distributed workers across its finance, communications and software engineering departments.

“I bring together functional leads from real estate, HR and tech — all those who have an impact on remote working — to devise a remote agenda in response to feedback,” McKinlay said.

As a result, he has been quick to appoint full-time staff to specifically tackle the biggest challenges arising from a distributed model.

“It was clear we needed specialist roles to deal with issues like on-boarding,” he said.

“We didn’t feel that it should be a side job for someone to balance alongside their existing workload.

“We wanted someone to wake up every day and have the creation of a great remote-first on-boarding experience to be their sole focus.”

Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Tsedal Neeley says appointing a figurehead to steer an organisation through uncharted waters in the new world of work makes sense.

“You now have a workforce predominantly working online: You need new ways of thinking about recruiting, training, developing and promoting employees,” Neeley said.

“It represents a radical shift in the management, design and culture of a company, so having someone in charge of it is smart.”

Neeley believes more organisations are likely to appoint a Chief Remote Officer over time as they will see its success at other firms, or realise their distributed model creates problems that need solving.

“Many employers are still grappling with what the future of work looks like,” she said.

“Committing to the approach of hiring someone to lead your remote strategy means making certain decisions on where you want to be. This is still something that’s premature for many companies.”

She believes that employers who’ve opted for hybrid-working patterns may also gradually hire Chief Remote Officers.

“Many firms experimenting with hybrid are struggling — they still don’t know the right balance of which days should be remote or in the office,” Neeley said.

“Without intentional management leading this new way of working, you’re relying upon every single person across the organisation doing the right thing at the right time.”

The Chief Remote Officer serves a very specific purpose at a very specific moment in the workplace and Dean said she hoped to be out of her job in five years.

“I don’t think these are permanent roles. As the head of remote, you look at old ways of working, see what’s salvageable and scrap what isn’t — it’s a transformation with an endpoint.”

*Alex Christian is a United Kingdom-based freelance writer. He has reported on major criminal court cases; travelled overseas for stories and spoken to some of the biggest names in sport, music and film.

A fuller version of this article appears on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s How We Work website.

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