Remote work is here to stay. Post-pandemic, many companies will let employees work remotely some or all of the time.
To support those dispersed workers, a new executive position is emerging: The head of remote. That person spearheads keeping remote workers engaged, encouraging them to collaborate, while designing perks and flexibility tailored to their needs. Another goal: replicate the spontaneous connections that happen at in-person offices – in other words, create a virtual water cooler.
“Having someone in this role is critical,” said Darren Murph, who pioneered being head of remote in 2019 at GitLab, an all-remote software company. He wrote a guide on what it entails and has had companies flocking to ask him about it. He describes his job like this: “I work at the intersection of culture, operations, people, talent branding, marketing and communication.”
Bay Area tech companies, including Twitter, Facebook and Okta, have tasked executives with connecting and supporting employees who work from home – or work from anywhere – using a variety of titles for the new job.
“We want to ensure our remote folks feel a part of conversations naturally happening in the office, and we want them to have equal access to things like training and support,” said Twitter’s Tracy Hawkins, vice president of real estate & workplace and remote experience.
Twitter will make remote work a permanent option for its 5,500 employees. Even before the pandemic, the San Francisco company was moving to decentralise its workforce – in fact, it added “remote experience” to Hawkins’ title in January 2020.
“It won’t be a case of once the pandemic's done, we go back into the office and forget this period,” she said.
That brings up long-term issues.
“As we increase our remote workforce, how do we keep them connected, how do we make sure they don’t feel like second-class citizens?” she said. “We want to ensure a sense of equal participation, equal access to speak up in meetings, being part of everything.”
Behaviours and etiquette might change. Even when Twitter reopens its office (it hasn’t given a timetable for that), meetings might still occur by videoconferencing to create a level playing field, she said.
Even vocabulary could change.
“Words matter, so we will think of how to refer to folks not in an office,” Hawkins said. “Calling them ‘remote’ doesn’t play into that feeling of equality.”
Meanwhile, Hawkins and her 100-person team implemented a bevy of ways to help folks working from home, including special training for managers, tips on self-care and ergonomics, wellness benefits such as remote yoga and meditation classes, counseling and coaching, and day care reimbursements.
Last summer, the company offered “Camp Twitter”, virtual classes for children in topics like music, baking and even forensic science. It was so popular that it’s continuing.
“Families can curate their own schedule,” said Hawkins, whose five-year-old daughter loved the music and art classes. “It was very in demand.”
At Aquent, a Boston staffing company for marketing and creative pros, the 1,000 employees will continue working from home. The company will give up about 90% of its 200,000 square feet of real estate nationwide, including its San Francisco and Silicon Valley offices.
A new head of culture and community will focus on activities to help workers build relationships with a focus on fun.
The role is “a cross between extracurricular activity director in college or high school and cruise ship activity director”, said CEO John Chuang. “We’re going to build relationships based on other activities beyond work.”
Aquent has set up virtual clubs on topics like books, movies, knitting and games such as Dungeons & Dragons. When people can gather, it will offer activities like hiking, museum visits, volunteering, a company softball team and even collectively hiking the Appalachian Trail.
A virtual talent show – the first of many to come – drew dozens of workers to strut their stuff for colleagues.
San Francisco’s Okta, an identity access company with 2,600 employees, just created the new role of head of dynamic work.
“If you don’t ever want to come back to the office, you don’t have to, but the office will be available to you for collaboration with other employees,” said Sam Fisher, who was hired into that job early this year.
Before the pandemic, about a third of Okta’s workforce was remote. Going forward, it expects that number to reach 85%.
Okta uses a Slack add-on called Donut to foster serendipitous meetups between co-workers. The Donut feature selects teammates and encourages them to get together.
“A year from now, our primary focus will be around making employee experiences be really seamless so that wherever they are working, employees feel empowered that they have the tools and information they need,” Fisher said.
An online “work from home store” lets employees order technology and furniture for their home offices. Remote workers will have the flexibility to pick among a buffet of benefits, such as fitness, mental health and volunteer opportunities.
Okta is still deciding whether it will downsize its real estate – its headquarters are in San Francisco and San Jose, and it has about 10 other offices worldwide. But as employees relocate (so far 200 have done so), it may end up with even more office locations, albeit smaller ones, Fisher said.
“We want people in a location that doesn’t have an office now to have access to a place where they can go to connect with colleagues and use technologies that maybe aren’t available in a home environment,” she said.
Facebook recently hired Annie Dean, previously a consultant specialising in flexible work, for the new position of director of remote work.
“We have a long-term goal to be the most forward-leaning company for remote work at our scale and believe we will have tens of thousands of people working remotely in the future,” Brynn Harrington, Facebook vice president of people growth, said in an email.
With 58,000 employees, Harrington said, “We knew we needed someone fully dedicated to leading our remote work transformation.”
The overall goals, she said, are to create “an equitable and consistent experience for everyone who works at Facebook, maximising the potential for them to do meaningful work, and feel connected with their teams no matter where they’re working”. – San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service