Leadership   //   August 2, 2021

‘Change without story is a mandate, change with story is purpose’: Why marketing and comms execs are being tapped for chief-of-remote roles

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Paul McKinlay had been a senior communications executive at e-commerce firm Vistaprint for a decade, before he was tapped by its parent company Cimpress to become its chief of remote-working seven months ago.  

Now with the title vp, communications and remote working for Vistaprint and Cimpress, McKinlay is focused on delivering the CEO’s mandate to make remote-first working fundamental to its culture, in a way that gives it a competitive edge. He spends more than half his time leading the transition to remote-first working for the 8,000 staff members worldwide.

Such a big shift goes hand-in-hand with a robust communications strategy, he believes. “Real-estate, HR and tech leaders are stepping up to lead remote in their organizations. Why wouldn’t the incredible skills of communications and marketing leaders be equally applicable to the challenges of evolving to permanent remote-first working?” he said.

The evidence is certainly mounting for companies to invest in heads of remote. A study of 95 technology companies by real-estate and workplace advisory T3 revealed that the proportion with a designated leader for remote work jumped between August 2020 and February 2021 from 2% to 15%. 

That coincides with a 147% jump in jobs advertised as remote in the U.K. at the end of last year, according to online jobs marketplace Adzuna, and 42% of U.S. startup founders have said they will set up remotely.

Cimpress is one of a number of companies like Facebook, Dropbox, Okta, LinkedIn, LogMeIn and more that have recently hired specific leadership for remote working — a role remote-first software company GitLab claims to have pioneered.

And like Cimpress, Gitlab’s head of remote, Darren Murph, sits within the marketing department, which also includes a whole team allocated to owning and telling the company’s remote story.

Companies shouldn’t assume a head of remote is a HR role, Murph said. For those with a “solid level of remote fluency”, a head of remote may thrive in marketing and communications. Their core responsibility will be to evangelize new ways of working both internally and externally, he added — and storytelling is crucial, especially in the midst of the hotly tipped “Great Resignation”.

“Change without story is a mandate, change with story is purpose,” said Murph. “For firms making the remote transition, this becomes an immediate part of their identity.” Conveying the “why” of a firm’s remote transition, makes senior marketing and communication leaders ideally suited to pivot into heads-of-remote roles, he added. 

Marketing and communications execs are also getting the nod from HR and remote-work experts as the next chiefs of remote.

“More companies will be sharing their lessons on remote/hybrid, and much of that will require marketing support,” said Lars Schmidt, founder of executive search consultancy Amplify, and author of Redefining HR.” 

Hema Crockett, co-founder of on-demand HR consultancy Gig Talent, believes an effective head of remote will communicate with all facets of the business, especially HR, when it comes to engagement, retention, total rewards and other facets of culture. “Without this, strategies can look disjointed and fragmented,” she added. 

However, Laurel Farrer, founder of remote working consultancy Distribute and the Remote Work Association, recommended companies analyze their requirements first.

“Do you need someone to advocate for your remote practices externally as a marketing tool to attract talent or promote your remote-friendly product? Or do you need someone to maintain your remote operations with a focus on employee experience?” she asked. 

“The former will lead you to hire a candidate with marketing expertise. The latter should be a virtual operations expert. If marketing your organization’s remote value proposition is essential to growth, having a head of remote that focuses on external advocacy, through speaking engagements and content development, will help you stay relevant and attract top talent.”

Yet there is also a counter-argument that heads of remote are most effective operating across multiple functions. 

“Communication plays an important role in ensuring remote workers feel integrated, but leaving it only to comms and marketing will fail to unlock all the benefits of remote working,” said Morten Bruun, North America managing director of freelance talent management platform Worksome.

Certainly, the role’s biggest challenges may not necessarily be tackled by marketing and communications skills. For instance, a newly hired head of remote has to quickly get up to speed on the business, teams and past operating structures to steer their strategy, according to Amplify’s Schmidt. 

“They also have to understand what messages have been sent to employees, and integrate employee sentiment into the design. That’s a lot to digest while under pressure to deliver ideas and strategies ASAP,” he added. 

Either way, a good head of remote needs a proven track record of leading change, as Cimpress’ McKinlay acknowledged — making the hottest, new, corporate-leadership role potentially one of the hardest to get.

3 Questions with Arthur Mamedov, COO, TheSoul Publishing

Explain why you banned meetings and what the result has been. 

We have more than 2,000 employees and 80% of that talent is remote. Due to the way we’re structured, we rely a lot on asynchronous communications. The goal of the no-meetings policies is to make sure everyone stays productive, minimizes distractions, and spends their time on focused work. Because of the many different time zones, in-person or zoom meetings aren’t just challenging to arrange — they’re ineffective for us. Meetings are much like large conferences: Speaking live to a group of people is never entirely efficient. Some people might get distracted in the moment. For others, the information may not be relevant, or might not be ready to digest well on the spot. Time may run out. Meetings can easily become a passive activity that wastes participants’ time. It can also be challenging for listeners to focus for long periods. Finally, the flexible working that many of us have become accustomed to, doesn’t always fit around conventional working hours. 

Why is asynchronous communication so important as a method of working in remote and hybrid setups?

Asynchronous communication is about removing methods of communication that reduce transparency. We all know how frustrating it can be when a member of the team holds key information and it’s not possible to reach them. That’s why we’ve banned internal emails as well as meetings. By sharing all relevant information on a mutual platform, everyone can access it as needed. You can’t expect people to perform as a team, when they’re not all on the same page. We find asynchronous communication actually boosts collaboration and productivity. When we take away the expectation of an immediate response, employees who rely on a last-minute surge of activity to get a task over the line are likely to come unstuck. It’s about collaboration that doesn’t happen in real time, yet produces a more efficient output. This doesn’t mean it’s slow, however. By aligning as a team at the start of a project and having clear deliverables, everyone knows exactly what they need to provide and when. How they go about it is up to them. 

What are the pitfalls of adopting synchronous and asynchronous communications? 

Many companies are understandably concerned that asynchronous comms will remove the human element. We find the opposite is true. When people work together, they tend to seek opportunities to socialize and communicate both on and around the project. Naturally, we’ve received feedback from new employees that the no-meeting model is unusual and a bit stressful in the beginning. But once they get into it, they feel liberated because their productivity skyrockets. For most managers, having a reduced ability to interact face-to-face with their team and reports can be confused with mismanagement or loss of control. In our company, our established corporate culture and well functioning processes proves that the opposite is true. While it sounds simple, rolling out a no-meeting policy takes foresight and planning as well as bearing in mind that how employees communicate is part of your corporate culture too. 

Number crunch

  • 15% of 1,000 U.S. workers said they would take a 25% pay cut at their current or next prospective employer if that employer offered them the option of working remotely full-time, and 65% would take a 5% pay cut
    [Source of data: Breeze survey.]
  • 45% of 1,200 working parents feel penalized for focusing on their families during the global pandemic.
    [Source of data: Qualtrics and Boardlist study.]

What else we’ve covered

  • Offices are getting a full makeover as businesses embrace the concept of collaboration hubs over traditional layouts, and many have downsized their real-estate as a result. And when it comes to decisions around reallocating capital that would’ve spent on office space some experts believe they should be oriented around “work as a set of activities, not as a place.
  • From tunes that provided the backdrop for kitchen discos during lockdown to podcasts that made sense of the tumultuous political climate, a playlist for the pandemic has emerged. We asked ad execs to share what tracks meant the most to them through lockdowns.
  • The pandemic has required a lot of creativity and new types of energy from employees in order to be successful in their jobs while working from home. But for those on the job hunt, capturing the attention of hiring managers and recruiters has required a whole other level of resourcefulness.

This newsletter is edited by Jessica Davies, managing editor, Future of Work.