GitLab pioneered the Head of Remote role in 2019. Here’s why some companies might consider following its lead.
In 2019, when working from home was something only the lucky few could do, Darren Murph stepped into a new role at software company GitLab.
His new title would be ‘Head of Remote’. And, unbeknownst to him at the time, it would become an undeniably important role in the years to come.
“I began as one person, and have grown the [remote] team to three. GitLab has been all-remote since its inception in 2014, so we’ve had years to build on that foundation,” says Murph.
“When I joined GitLab, my mission was to create the world’s most comprehensive library on proven principles of remote work. Since then, there has been a significant evolution of my role [since the onset of the pandemic].”
Almost 40 per cent of Australians are working remotely at the moment, according to the latest report from the Productivity Commission, and the likelihood of all those employees returning to the office full time is slim.
So if we are to accept remote work as the new normal, do organisations need a Head of Remote?
According to Murph, yes, they do.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that working with remote teams is too important to leave to chance,” he says.
“Hybrid-remote runs the risk of creating two opposing cultures and workflow defaults, further reinforcing the reality that charting a path forward must be someone’s job.
“Not just a part of their job, it’s [their] whole job.”
“Remote is a journey of iteration. A tireless, evolving trek that demands a leader.” – Darren Murph, Head of Remote, GitLab
What is a Head of Remote?
The point of this role is to apply a remote-first lens to every process in the workplace. In this sense, the role is cross-functional and will intersect with many parts of the organisation.
“What [a Head of Remote does] on a day-to-day basis could vary, but it could include writing guidelines for things such as reducing meetings and navigating time zones, supporting sales and go-to-market conversations on organisation design/collaboration, and planning online events,” says Murph.
A usual day for Murph involves responding to employees queries in GitLab’s remote work Slack channel, researching best practices that GitLab can incorporate or share with its users and refining its remote onboarding process.
Since remote work is still relatively new to many employees, Murph takes a keen interest in the onboarding process to help employees acclimatise to remote work and develop that remote-first way of thinking.
“We are continually iterating our onboarding because it has to be unique, prescriptive and well documented. We’re continually looking at feedback from people after they are onboard, looking at what didn’t go quite as well, and what areas we can improve.”
Another major task for him is staying across what GitLab’s leaders are working on.
“Whatever decisions are being made, the Head of Remote is there to make sure that the decision is made in a remote-first way,” he says.
All these tasks are important, says Murph, because they prevent your organisation from falling back on conventional habits that don’t work in a remote workplace, such as not adjusting to remote performance management or expecting employees to be accessible all the time.
“Remote is a journey of iteration. A tireless, evolving trek that demands a leader,” he says.
“The larger your organisation is, or the more deeply it is entrenched in co-located tradition, the more significant the challenge is.”
Why it shouldn’t just sit with HR
As we’ve seen in the last 18 months, HR has been tasked with making remote transitions as smooth as possible. So why should an organisation create a separate role for this going forward?
“It is unlikely that an existing team or leader will be capable of directing adequate attention to these needs without backfilling for other responsibilities,” says Murph.
“The smartest, most transparent and progressive companies transitioning to remote will hire an executive to lead their journey over the next one to two years. This hire will be a litmus test to job seekers who expect remote work to be supported, not merely allowed.”
However, it’s possible that a Head of Remote would fall within an HR department, if that’s what your organisation needs.
“A company’s remote leader should be sat where they can exert the most cross-functional influence,” says Murph.
“Equally important is a direct reporting line to executive leadership to effectively evangelise and cement new ways of working from the top.”
While it was one of the firsts, GitLab is not the only organisation to currently have a Head of Remote. Other organisations have similar roles, albeit under slightly different job titles. For example, Facebook has a Director of Remote Work and Head of Remote Learning, LinkedIn has a Vice President, Flex Work and the Q&A website Quora has a Remote Work HR Specialist.
“The head of remote role will not only remain relevant, it will become as well-known and in-demand as relatively new roles, such as the Chief Diversity Officer and Chief Data Officer.” – Darren Murph, Head of Remote, GitLab
How do you hire a Head of Remote?
Ideally, your Head of Remote will have remote work experience, but since WFH has only recently become mainstream you might need to look beyond that.
Instead, Murph offers some skills employers can look for when hiring a Head of Remote:
- Exceptional communication skills – “Communication, often in written form, is crucial to successful remote working. The Head of Remote may have to encourage hundreds or thousands of people to let go of familiar ways of working and paint a persuasive picture of how their working lives can change for the better.”
- Flexibility to act across departments – “The Head of Remote will need to rally and influence every part of the organisation. An important part of their role is making sure that priorities – such as paying people fairly if they are fully remote – do not fall into the cracks between departments (HR, legal and finance, for instance). That means having allies in every function and being well-connected is a must.”
- Native visionary and problem solver – ”The candidate should be someone who seeks outside perspectives, tools and workflows to continually evolve an organisation’s workplace design, culture and strategy.”
Overall, you want some who can adapt and evolve as your organisation’s approach to remote work changes.
This is also not just a role for COVID-19 times. With employees demanding radical flexibility, employers will need to meet their demands or risk losing them.
“The head of remote role will not only remain relevant, it will become as well-known and in-demand as relatively new roles, such as the Chief Diversity Officer and Chief Data Officer,” says Murph.
“Remote work expertise and leadership will become highly marketable as this new career path emerges.”