Protocol | Workplace

Do you need to hire a 'head of remote?'

Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, shares what he does and why the job is here to stay.

Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab

Derren Murph is working to share his blueprint as the head of remote at GitLab.

Photo: Darren Murph

Tech company titles run the gamut, ranging from happiness engineers to self-proclaimed security princesses. But one of the latest and more frequent titles to hit the job boards is head of remote.

Though the titles for the role vary slightly, a growing number of tech companies including Facebook, Okta and Dropbox have hired remote work leaders in the past 12 months. Organizations are finding the needs of the new remote and hybrid workforce stretch far beyond the job description of chief human resources and people officers.

Darren Murph is the head of remote at GitLab and is said to have pioneered the role. He has been leading remote work at the company since 2019, though the software developer has been fully remote since 2015. As an open-source company, GitLab has treated its head of remote role much like it does its products — by openly sharing its learnings, inner workings and guides for others to plug into their own organizations. The software company offers a public remote playbook for people to download and use as a roadmap.

In a conversation with Protocol, Murph shared more about his role, the future and what a company should look for when hiring a head of remote work.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Could you start by telling me what brought you to GitLab and what your original role was supposed to be? I think it's unique that you came before the pandemic occurred.

When I joined the role itself was pretty nascent. I actually wasn't called head of remote at the time, that was an evolution of the role, which is a very GitLab thing. We're all about iteration, so iterating on job titles is something that happens frequently here. When I joined, my mission was to create the world's most comprehensive library on proven principles of remote work. So GitLab has a fascinating organizational design — we have no company-owned offices.

Prior to joining GitLab I'd spent around 15 years in senior leadership roles across the spectrum of remote, in co-located roles as well as hybrid roles, but this was the first time I had joined an intentionally all-remote organization. I was fascinated by the underpinnings, the ways of working, how much was documented and how much of that was public and transparent.

I'd love just to hear how you describe your role. If you had to go speak at an elementary school for a career day, how would you describe what a head of remote does?

A head of remote pressure tests the entire organizational design to make sure that all culture and workflow operates well in a location-agnostic way. Everything from elementary school all the way through university teaches you how to function in a workplace with four walls and a roof. It's vastly different in an intentional fully virtual environment. You can leverage new tools, you can use common tools in uncommon ways — that's step one.

Step two of my role is to be both an internal and external advocate for remote-first principles to make sure that the people who joined GitLab as well as those who have been here for a really long time are kept up to date on what we're doing to thrive as a remote team, what new tools we are piloting, what new workflows we're incorporating and how our values are iterating over time. And the external advocacy part of it is the Remote Playbook in a nutshell — we open-source and share all the ways that we work remotely so that we are a key contributor to the broader workplace community.

Now, not every head of remote will be that involved in all of those efforts, but GitLab is a pioneer in this space and we've had years of building that foundation that puts us in a great position to be able to advocate and share. We've been officially all remote since 2015.

From your time when you started in 2019 to now, what are the differences in what remote culture looks like at GitLab and how has your job changed?

One of the first assets I added to the GitLab handbook when I joined was a section on what it's like to work at GitLab. There wasn't a section that really distilled down what it is like to work at GitLab, an all-remote organization where things are done potentially different than how you would be used to seeing them done in an [in-person] organization. The pandemic reinforced why something like that is necessary, because you have people joining as the company scales and it's really important to share in the interview process, as well as during onboarding, what remote-first looks like. So I've worked really deeply with our people operations teams and our learning and development teams to refine our onboarding process.

I added a remote work fundamentals course that is now a part of onboarding so everyone that onboards at GitLab goes through the remote work fundamentals course. That's something that did not exist beforehand. This gives someone during the pandemic a colored view of what remote work is. I've frequently said, the past 18 months have not been remote work, they've been COVID-induced work from home. Almost every part of intentional remote work is different, and so working with onboarding to clarify that has been really important.

Can you give a little bit more context about how this role can evolve within different organizations?

Part of this role's purpose in the near term is also being a chief storytelling officer. There's so much about this transformation [to remote] that if you just roll this out as policy it will feel like a mandate. But if it is rolled out with a forward vision of how you can re-architect your life, that creates purpose. So part of the role on an ongoing basis is to always look for what is the next iteration of the workplace, what is the future vision and how do we continue to generate purpose in our workplace.

That is increasingly important because there are only a limited number of years where we'll even refer to the word "remote'' before work. At some point, this will become so proliferated that it's just work. The question becomes, are you working today or are you not? It really doesn't matter if you're on an airplane flying over the Atlantic, if you're in your bedroom or if you're in a company office. You're working.

So I see the future of the role really focused on workplace innovation and strategy. Remote is needed now because it is the central point of change. Internal advocacy will be increasingly important as companies scale, because things will be changing rapidly. Your meeting hygiene will change rapidly, your rigor around documentation will change rapidly, the amount of time zones that you support will change rapidly. And all the while people are joining at different stages of this. You really do need someone there at the helm so when candidates come in you're able to give them a crystal clear view of what remote looks like in your organization, because it will differ from org to org based on size and industry.

How do you explain to chief people officers the difference between the jobs and how it overlaps with what they're already doing?

We look at opportunities to complement one another. The existing people operations role is largely responsible for the processes and policies that are required for people to do great work. But this role fits at the nexus of operations, people and communications. And so why I argue it deserves such a senior seat at the table is that if it needs collaboration from those three pillars of the organization, but conversely, they all need this role as well. A lot of organizations are underestimating the complexity of it.

What are three things that someone should be looking for if they want to hire a head of remote, especially if a candidate doesn't come from that job already?

[The candidate] has to be a phenomenal storyteller and communicator, because you are going to be the chief visionary for the company. You have to be an amazing operational mind, because you are trying to convert older ways of working into new ways of working. And lastly, you have to be an amazing cross-functional leader, because you are going to need the support of the entire organization and your work will impact the entire organization. Everything you put out there will impact the entire company, no matter what department they're in, so you want to make sure you enjoy collaborating and you enjoy lots of feedback from different departments as you try to implement things that will benefit everyone.

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