Great ResignationDiversity and InclusionCompensationCEO DailyCFO DailyModern Board

Companies are hiring product managers for a new in-demand role: Head of remote work experience

June 16, 2022, 1:35 PM UTC

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the future of work, accelerating pre-pandemic trends like hybrid and remote work. But the newfound permanence of what had previously been dubbed “the remote work experiment” has spawned a new leadership role: heads of remote work experience.

A number of companies, especially those in the tech sector, are hiring individuals to oversee the impact of new work models on the talent experience. The role is a multifaceted one that is responsible for office design decisions, workplace attendance and remote work policies, employee health and well-being, and workplace technology.

“You have to have someone who owns this,” says Josh Bersin, an HR consultant and former partner at Deloitte, adding that the areas of responsibility are expansive. “There’s tools, there’s culture, there’s measurement, there’s pay, there’s taxes.”

Companies like Twitter, Zillow, Facebook, Dropbox, and Okta have hired leaders to oversee remote work, and many have product management backgrounds. That experience serves them well in this role, which, at first glance, seems like another HR offshoot. Yet heads of remote work are tasked with testing and iterating workplace apps, crafting new policies, and developing digital services meant to improve the employee experience. The role is driven by user research and data, and the goals are tied to employee engagement and retention.

“I think most heads of HR have realized we need somebody on this,” Bersin says, given the strategic importance of getting the post-pandemic work model right, and against the backdrop of a competitive talent market. It’s part of an HR shift that acknowledges the need to continuously evolve, manage, and improve the digital employee experience and find solutions to key gaps, including fostering collaboration among distributed teams, creating equitable compensation models for employees in different locations, and cultivating an inclusive culture in person and online.

In most cases, the remote work leader reports to the head of HR because “that is the role overseeing employee experience and bringing people together. But [a remote leader’s job] cuts across disciplines,” says Brian Elliott, SVP at Slack and executive leader of the Future Forum research consortium. Hiring for remote leadership roles, he adds, is “growing like crazy.”

The job description

The responsibilities of a head of remote work are wide-ranging and span all business functions. But the main priority is to optimize the employee experience for a workforce that may very well have differing attendance requirements, with some in the office, some fully remote, and others somewhere in the middle.

While shaping company culture and improving the employee experience have long been priorities for HR strategists, bringing a design framework, which has long been the bastion of engineers and product leads, is relatively new.

Elliott points out that historically, user experience designers were deployed for product and marketing needs. But design-thinking concepts are now directed internally to optimize hybrid conference setups, compensation decisions, office layouts, and other matters that are crucial to the success of dispersed teams.

Bersin highlights three elements that can serve as KPIs (key performance indicators) for a remote work leader: human capital (engagement, retention, health and well-being); productivity; and mitigating legal risks.

Meghan Reibstein, vice president of product management and flexible work at Zillow, manages a team of 70—six of whom oversee all matters of flexible work. Her role includes customer-facing product responsibilities and HR initiatives, ranging from compensation and benefits to COVID-19 policies.

Reibstein joined Zillow in 2019 in a blended role overseeing “organizational operations.” Prior to Zillow, she worked in product management at Amazon, leading the launch of the retail giant’s Prime Day, and later became technical adviser to Amazon’s SVP of HR, Beth Galetti. Reibstein joined Zillow because she saw an opportunity to apply design thinking to the workplace and talent strategy more broadly.

“I got really interested in how one might apply this consumer-facing product management discipline, and an operational approach, to work culture and work experience,” Reibstein says. “How do you build great experiences for the individuals that show up at your company every day?”

At Zillow, she’s rethinking topics like organizational design, total rewards, and how to leverage technology and user research to plug employee experience gaps. “If you want to do something and do it well, you have to resource it in some way, shape, or form,” Reibstein says. “We chose this combination of having a leader and an owner of it, and a small team.”

Getting started

Liberty Planck calls herself a builder and a designer, noting that she’s been the first to fill new roles many times in her career. She’s worked as Justin Bieber’s personal assistant; chief of staff for Peter Thiel at Thiel Capital; and product experience manager at Apple. “I love the ambiguity of it,” she tells Fortune.

In April, Planck joined the HR software company Gusto in a newly created role as head of remote experience.

“I’m really trying to focus on how [employees] feel, and then also how to use those insights to build delightful moments and meaning into their experience at work,” says Planck. “It’s critical that I have a feedback loop that allows us to test to see if what we’re doing is working, and then the ability and flexibility to iterate when it isn’t.” 

One of her first tasks is auditing the company’s 2,000 employees—47% of whom say they plan to work fully remote. She expects the audit to provide some insight into “the systems that are in place, how the different business segments work together, what works, what doesn’t, and if there’s anything that certain teams have done that has worked.” And most important, sharing those learnings across the company.

Ultimately, remote work leaders are tackling long-standing challenges. But this time around, they’re creating a new playbook to address and make use of remote work’s rapid expansion and evolution. 

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.