It was October 2019 and GitLab, an open source code database and development platform, was hosting a half-day symposium on the dynamics of remote work. At the time, GitLab was one of only a handful of tech companies operating fully remote, a principle it had cemented into its core values, which were posted on an online Notion-style wiki-page accessible by anyone with a link and a server — an expression of what they call being “public by default.”
Leading one of the talks was Darren Murph, a sort of remote-first pioneer turned evangelist, who was discussing his role at GitLab and reviewing the tools, operating principles and communication styles that make remote working possible; things like asynchronous communication and maintaining social bonds at a distance. His job, he explained, was to oversee remote work at GitLab, to understand what works and what doesn’t, and to spread the word. This made him, as he puts it, not only an operator but a documentarian, historian, taxonomist, and storyteller.
After the conference, speaking to Murph and his CEO, one of the participants had an idea: what if you call his role the ‘head of remote’? Murph and the CEO looked at each other for a second, and agreed. It worked. Murph changed his title, becoming the world’s first professional to adopt the designation. It’s a classic case study, Murph says, of why it’s important to be public by default. “Literally my job title was incepted by someone who did not even work at GitLab.”
Fast forward to March 2020 and this somewhat fringe, unusual position would shift from a novelty found at a handful of technology companies to a near-necessity for any large company serious about getting remote right. All of a sudden, Murph, GitLab, and the systems they’d created became a critical early case study in a tectonic workplace shift, with thousands of firms—big and small—scrambling to play catch-up.
From remote averse to remote first
A few years later a lot has changed. Search for “head of remote” on Linkedin or Indeed and countless listings pop up, with companies from Dropbox to Lockheed Martin hiring for their own variations of the role. Some call it head of virtual first, or director of distributed work, or VP, team anywhere, but the details are mostly the same: figuring out how to make remote work work. Just as chief diversity officers went from a nice-to-have to a competitive requirement, Murph explains on his personal ReadMe page, the same thing has happened with head of remote. It’s just one of a handful of new roles created by the necessities of the last few years.
It’s a shift that Paul McKinlay, the VP of communications and remote working at Cimpress, the parent company of Vista, has seen first-hand. In the span of a year, his company went from “remote-averse to remote-forced to remote-permanent,” he told me. Working alongside seven executives, McKinlay’s job centered on leading Vista’s seven-thousand person workforce through a drastic change management process, spanning areas from traditional HR to real estate to tech. It wasn’t an evolution, he says, “it was a revolution.” It completely transformed the way the company operated, he says.
To support the shift, McKinlay hired a nine-person team, all focused on different areas of remote work. Some were focused on onboarding, he says, some on real estate, some on data and analytics, and others on learning and development. “Their job is to wake up every morning and do nothing else other than improve team member experience in a remote setting,” he says, which can mean a number of things, from designing collaboration centers to upskilling employees to arranging Peloton subscriptions. This group, called the “Remote First Team Success Team,” (a mouthful, he admits), is doing work that would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. Extensive employee polling, McKinlay says, is how it was made possible.
For Rhys Black, the head of remote at Oyster, an HR company that helps with the logistics of hiring remote teams, polling is just one part of the playbook. The real shift, he says, is when you start to view employee experience as a product, and everything they interact with as a feature. When you use a product management lens for structuring and designing work, he says, then, essentially, your people team begins to act like product managers and engineers and designers. The work of setting up a company for remote, he says, “is stuff that every company should do, regardless of whether you are in the office, hybrid, or fully distributed.” It’s just good design of the workplace, he says.
For a traditional brick-and-mortar company like Vista, the consequences of this type of shift can be massive. “We went from 300,000 square feet to 75,000 square feet to now just 12 and a half thousand square feet of collaboration space, which is still under-utilized for the site,” McKinlay said. The change has helped them bank over $50 million in annual savings.
McKinlay says this is where the real opportunities come in. In the past, he says, 80 percent of in-person time with co-workers was designed to be strategic, and 20 percent was social. Going forward, he says, the opposite should be true. The savings you bank in one area should open up opportunities to reinvest in people in other ways, he says; ways, hopefully, that actually matter to them.
It’s an idea he picked up from Gitlab’s Darren Murph, who helped guide him at the start of the pandemic. Speaking about this ethos, Murph told me in our interview that remote work, in his view, should restore the respect and intentionality to in-person meetings that always should have been there in the first place. “The highest ROI,” he said, “will be breaking bread with one another, building rapport, and getting to know each other as humans, because that's still better done in-person and it catalyzes a lot of great digital or asynchronous work.”
“The next frontier”
The shift to online work, however, hasn’t been peachy for everyone. In June, a workplace newsletter called Hear Me Out published a newsletter about “The Extremely Online Workplace” where Slack channels at big tech companies go toxic and become mouthpieces for disgruntled employees. “With Twitter driving the news,” the article says, “we are all, whether we want to be or not, extremely online….and employers, long used to avoiding politics to preserve harmony (and productivity), have been left reeling as remote work emboldens and extends debates.”
Rather than being explicit about what’s okay inside company channels, the article argues, most employers are “dodging the issue of community management entirely.” What’s the fix? The piece offers one solution: companies should hire and train community moderators, whose job it is to set guidelines for speech and enforce oversteps.
Murph says this kind of issue is a quintessential symptom of the copy and paste approach to remote work: “they simply copied everything they did in the office and pasted it onto the virtual world.” This is not a symptom of remote work, he says, it’s a symptom of poor leadership, poor operations, and poor culture. Remote work, he says, “simply exacerbates what was already true.” Black and McKinlay basically agree.
But community moderation does play an important role in remote work, Murph says, and, in time, he hopes it will be combined with other jobs that focus on enabling employees to enjoy their newfound freedom. For example, he says, companies may hire in-house consultants or coaches that help employees redesign their lives now that they don't have to work nine to five. “If no one teaches you how to redesign your life,” he says, “you may squander the opportunity.”
For Murph, the future offers promises that are both elegant and simple. The next frontier, he says, is time. Could work be more efficient if it wasn’t tied to the traditional nine-to-five? How about, say, broken into two-month sprints with longer periods of off-time?
Among McKinlay’s more radical positions is his insistence against mandating any in-person work; you lose 90 percent of the benefits of remote working if you have to work one day a week in a specific location, he says, like the opportunity to relocate or travel abroad. It’s a point on which the three agree: remote should mean remote.
Of course, not everyone shares their point of view. For months, traditional firms like JP Morgan have been dishing out unsuccessful back-to-the-office mandates, with “thought-leaders” like Malcolm Gladwell weighing in. Who knows whether this vision of an entirely remote future will bear out; in any case, it seems there will be a whole industry dedicated to figuring it out.