This article is part of our Building in Public series where our Remote Operations team shares our experiences as we build and manage a distributed workforce at Oyster. Our hope is that by sharing our tips, strategies, and lessons we've learned along the way we can inspire other teams to adopt a new, distributed way of working.
One of the most important changes to the way we work that’s happened in the past decade is an openness to remote work.
While many companies spent most of the pandemic making do with their employees working from home, a surprising number have adopted a remote or hybrid model more permanently.
As such, they’re giving deeper thought to how they run their distributed teams to ensure they’re both happy and productive. And that typically means hiring a remote operations role or at the very least a consultant, to bring their expertise to managing remote or distributed teams.
As Oyster’s Head of Remote, I know a thing or two about the unique challenges of running a company when you have employees in different time zones. After a career in Product Management, I started my first company with employees located across Europe and Latin America and quickly discovered that distributed workforces require a different style of leadership and operations.
That inspired me to start my own consulting firm Delocate, which helped companies operate better as distributed teams. Oyster was an early client and soon enough my team and I were brought in-house via an acquisition and I became Oyster’s Head of Remote.
A Head of Remote is a cross-functional role that strategizes, designs, and communicates processes to ensure remote teams run smoothly. Simply put, a Head of Remote’s role is to make the company for which they work, the best distributed organization possible.
Typically this role focuses on both Operations and People operations, or in other words developing standards and best practices for how we work, and ensuring our employee experience is a good one, and people feel supported in a distributed setup.
On the Operations front, a Head of Remote builds autonomy for employees and ensures that individuals and teams can operate in a way that minimizes the effect of time zones, mainly by ensuring people aren’t too dependent on others to get their job done.
For instance, usually when an employee is working on something and they get blocked because they don’t know the answer or where to find something, they will ask someone else in their organization to help unblock them. Once they get that answer, they can continue to work.
But, when that employee is in a company that is distributed and the person they need an answer from is 10 time zones away, it becomes a problem. A business can’t scale like this.
Employees in distributed companies need to be able to answer their own questions to continue to work, and the only way to really do that is through documentation, and having a knowledge management strategy around getting information out of people’s heads and structured, centralized, and accessible to the entire company. The success of this is dependent on a culture where the company understands the value of documentation in a distributed company and employees themselves make this a part of their everyday work life.
On the People side of things, a Head of Remote will look to optimize employee experience to ensure their team can benefit from the positive elements of distributed work, such as fewer distractions, more inclusivity, more focus and flexibility, while also mitigating or minimizing the challenges of distributed work. They’ll work to prevent things like overwork leading to potential burnout or isolation, and create opportunities for social connection.
While I’ve seen other companies hire a single individual like a Remote Work HR Specialist or a Head of Remote Learning to handle a piece of the remote operations pie, I think the benefit of having a Head of Remote stems from having a dedicated and holistic approach to remote operations. This person can be a conduit between departments and pool together the areas where there’s disparate impact of remote work on the business and address it through the help of their team.
In a fully distributed company like Oyster, we’ve invested heavily in ensuring our employees are both productive and happy. And as such, we have a six-person remote operations team. Here are a few of the roles we have or will have in the future:
Remote Operations Manager: This role is focused on the operational elements necessary for us to be able to scale as a distributed organization. This spans a large number of responsibilities, including owning our knowledge management strategy to ensure documentation sits at the heart of everything that we do, creating remote-first standard operating procedures, progressing our project management capabilities so our work is well-planned and transparent, as well as developing frameworks that allow us to collaborate and communicate asynchronously across time zones.
Remote Experience Manager: This role is focused on the employee experience of working in a distributed organization. In other words, understanding how our ways of working make us feel. This role and the Remote Operations Manager mentioned above are two sides of the same coin. They work with each other to iterate and innovate on how we work and how that affects the employee experience to boost productivity and happiness together. This role also focuses on facilitating team and cross-team bonding, ensuring employees are taking care of themselves, and ensuring they have a good working environment.
Education Program Manager/Remote Learning Manager: This role’s main focus is to facilitate a remote learning curriculum, build educational partnerships with other companies, and be a learning and development resource internally. At Oyster, this person’s role has focused mainly on creating Oyster Academy, which is a program we use both internally and externally to train people on best practices of remote work.
Whether your company needs a Head of Remote is dependent on how many of the staff work remotely. In a hybrid or distributed model, I would say, yes absolutely.
A hybrid team needs to think of itself as remote first, just like a fully distributed team would because working remotely is somewhat of a constraining factor. So naturally, you design for the constraining factor.
Think about mobile phones. When smartphones became more common, web designers and developers needed to design for the constraining factor which was that suddenly they had a reduced screen size and still needed to make everything fit and scale to that screen. So web development, then, became what’s called mobile-first.
Similarly, hybrid teams should be remote first because there’s a lot of complexity that comes with not being fully distributed, but still needing to operate in that way.
When it comes to the size of the company, I think most can get away with not having this role until they hit about 50 people. At that size your organization likely has a healthy customer base, good product-market fit, investors, and your organization is becoming more complex as you’re trying to scale while maintaining the culture that has formed. If there’s not someone thinking about remote operations seriously, the cracks will start to show.
Industry may play a role here as well. Technology companies are typically the ones that will make this hire but more and more we’re seeing legal, consulting and emerging companies that are looking to make these hires too. In fact, they may have someone covering these responsibilities, they just don’t have the title yet. And if they do have the title, say at a healthcare organization, the roles may be worlds apart.
While the role is still very new, there is a community of 50-100 of us (reach out to me if you want to connect with other folks in the role). I think if companies are truly committed to being distributed teams, if they want to be able to access global talent, or if they simply want to give existing team members the flexibility, trust, and autonomy to work wherever they want in the world, then this role will quickly become a necessity.
With startups, you tend to grow organically, doing what needs to be done. But if we want our distributed teams to work and operate at their best, we need to be more intentional about it.
Most companies are still only at the level of thinking about the tools their team needs to work remotely. They’ll use Zoom and Slack, and believe it’s the tool that will make them just as productive as other remote companies. Or they’ll download the Donut app in Slack and think that solves for remote socializing. While getting the tools right is a good start, in order to really be effective, they need to think one level up to the processes.
How do we use these tools? Is there a better way? How do these tools connect to each other? How should they? And how do we change people’s habits and ways of working to ensure people adhere to these processes and use the tools in the best way possible?
That’s why we find having a Head of Remote—someone with a high level of influence, that can spend all day figuring out the answers to these questions—is essential.
And I say high level of influence because in order to really change habits and behaviors, systems, and processes, you need the leadership team on board. At Oyster, I work really closely with our Chief of Staff because part of his role is to optimize the leadership team, and it’s not enough to be a good leader at a distributed company—you need to be a good remote leader. So by working with the executive team, we’re getting buy-in from the top.
But it’s not just the leadership you need to persuade. A Head of Remote will also need to influence different departments in order to build internal champions so there’s good top down and bottom up adoption.
Whether every remote company will have a Head of Remote position on staff in the future, or if teams split the responsibilities remains to be seen. But one thing’s for certain, someone needs to be thinking about this in order to get the best out of your distributed workforce.
Oyster is a global employment platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop, and take care of a thriving distributed workforce. Oyster lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches and expense.
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