ECONOMY

The Remote-Work Czar Is the New Shortcut to the C-Suite

Ask a college senior, and “vice president of productivity and remote experience” probably isn’t on her list of dream jobs. Yet this fast-growing pandemic-era position has emerged as a previously unimaginable path to the C-suite—or at least to a virtual desk nearby.

The role, named by executive search firm Cowen Partners as one of the 10 most sought-after management jobs right now, entails keeping staff engaged and connected while working from home. Even before the pandemic, 11% of the global workforce was remote, and 20% will still primarily work from home in three years, according to consultant Willis Towers Watson. Research has shown that working remotely can enhance productivity, but it can hinder career advancement and prompt burnout, especially for working parents. So for large companies with sprawling global white-collar workforces, hiring a point person can be critical.

“There are so many things to consider with remote work: measuring performance, rewards, onboarding, plus tax and compensation implications,” says Elise Freedman, workforce transformation practice leader at consultant Korn Ferry. “You need to make sure remote people don’t get left behind.”

While it sounds like something an existing HR department would naturally handle, the job is bigger than that, says Cowen Partners President Shawn Cole. Ideal candidates might have sales, operations, or even customer service backgrounds, with impeccable leadership and communication skills.

“It’s not the responsibility of HR,” Cole says. “They don’t necessarily understand the job functions that are required.”

If done well, the job can boost employee morale and retention and keep mass defections at bay. But it’s often not done well: Research from executive search firm Spencer Stuart found that more than 25% of virtual teams aren’t performing optimally, and one-third say their virtual bosses aren’t effective.

Although this role may seem tied to today’s uncertain environment and not a permanent gig, Cole argues that it isn’t ephemeral, because companies are constantly tweaking their remote-work arrangements. Discussions around the “mobile and flexible office” have been ongoing since the early 1970s, when the term “telecommuting” was coined by a NASA worker.

Remote-work policies can shift almost overnight: Yahoo abruptly ended its long-standing telecommuting policy in 2013. In late July, Apple Inc. decided to push back its office reopening by at least a month, to October at the earliest, and other companies may follow suit. Big banks, meanwhile, might need to become more lenient if their strict in-office policies affect recruitment.

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