Make way for the new head of remote work

Large organizations are suddenly hiring for a new position that will change your work life forever. Here's what you need to know.

remote worker / digital nomad
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The biggest and newest trend in hiring is for the titles of "head of remote work," and "director of remote work" and "remote work director."

Silicon Valley notables Facebook, Twitter and Quora have all recently advertised for such positions. They're leading indicators of a position that will come to nearly all large organizations in the coming year.

Obviously there has been a huge surge in remote work since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Adzuna says searches for remote work jobs are up 680% since the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, the number of remote jobs advertised has gone up only 147% during that time, indicating a lag on the job supply side that is not keeping up with demand. Most of those remote jobs are in IT and customer service.

Facebook's "Director, Remote Work" job description calls for a "strategic thinker," who "understands distributed and virtual teams," an "outstanding relationship builder, and a change agent." They want someone to lead a "highly cross-functional team of leaders" and who will coach and educate these leaders. It's basically a senior executive position in HR, but with a host of specialized skills.

How to interpret this new trend

The trend to hire someone to lead remote work reveals an acceptance by companies that the remote work phenomenon is not a passing fad or a short term and temporary accommodation to the pandemic.

It also means companies see large-scale remote work as creating a set of new problems to be solved.

A big part of that problem involves the health and well-being of employees, and also fears about the deleterious impacts of work/life imbalance.

Some major tech companies are making an effort to address work/life balance in their products. For example, a Microsoft Teams feature coming next year is something called the Microsoft Virtual Commute. Some details of this feature are thus far unannounced. But it's designed to help users get off to a good start in the morning and then "mindfully disconnect" at the end of the work day.

One of the many roles of managers is to check in on the health and wellbeing of employees. The longstanding practice of doing this face-to-face has been disrupted by the remote work trend. Organizations are scrambling to figure out how to do this comprehensively for dozens or hundreds or thousands of employees every day going forward.

Companies are also rightly worried about the data and application security impact of remote work at scale. Remote work removes some incentives for some employees to engage in risky online behaviors, such as visiting insecure websites and downloading insecure software.

Concern is also rising over disruption of the agile workforce approach, which involves tight-knit interaction of small, in-person teams. In general, organizations will need to re-learn how to communicate effectively.

Employee burnout is becoming widespread. Zoom fatigue is real. Clinical depression is rising.

The effects of the suspension of some training programs is being felt, and it's also becoming clear that more and better training is necessary with remote workers. Formal training has always been augmented and reinforced by informal training, where employees can work together and observe each other.

The trend of hiring a head of remote work signals a new era in how companies are organized, managed, provisioned and lead.

How this affects the technology people

It would be a mistake to assume that the new head of remote work is just some fluffy figurehead position of little consequence to IT. The impact will be huge.

At most organizations hiring a new head of remote work, the job touches upon diverse areas like onboarding and training new hires, coaching, reporting on success metrics, riding herd on employee equipment provisioning and training, developing, communicating and enforcing a wide range of policies, morale management, regulatory compliance, employee experience design and others.

Let me be as clear as possible about the introduction of a new head of remote work to organizations: It's an HR position that encroaches massively on IT roles and responsibilities.

IT and technical roles will be remote, and therefore subject to the jurisdiction of the new head of remote. If you manage IT personnel of any kind, you should know that the new head of remote will be heavily involved in how you manage, train, communicate and even provision them.

The role will be involved in purchasing decisions around IT equipment, but will not usually be a person with technical knowledge or background. That means the circle of involvement for equipment purchasing just got larger, and a new and influential voice will be added to the mix.

It's also important to understand the human element to all this, by which I mean that anyone in a position of authority will be in a position to exert and expand that authority. It's likely that a head of remote work will aggressively advocate for more remote positions because that increases their purview.

What you can do right now

The first thing to consider is whether you are someone who might want to pursue this direction in your career.

If not, it's time to get active, volunteer and take a leadership role in the coming conversation at your organization about how to organize and manage a remote workforce.

In the future, the title will become obsolete because extensive remote work will be assumed in most organizations. It won't be new or exotic anymore, but just how companies are organized.

But in the meantime, dealing with the challenges that arise through remote work at scale is a major priority for most organizations, and they're counting on the new head of remote work position to quickly meet these challenges.

The shift to prioritizing the demands of fixing remote work problems is coming fast. Get in front of it. Assert yourself as one of the leaders in this change. Because the change is most definitely coming.