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How A New Gig, Head Of Remote Work, Impacts The Real Estate Equation

Employers will increasingly look for self-starters and those who can manage clients in different markets.

"It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it." For Workplace consultant Liz Burow that quote from Upton Sinclair sums up the real estate industry's unwillingness to face the fact that remote work is here to stay. To thrive in the new world, real estate pros in the office sector should start thinking about how they can profitably relate with the latest role big corporates are taking on: the head of remote work.

It’s both a job title and a sign of the times. Over the last few months, numerous stories looking at the growth of remote work have cited the growth in heads of remote work, a new corporate role that fuses technology, human resources and real estate at a time when dispersed teams are becoming increasingly prevalent.

The new gig has become more important as big questions remain about when a majority of workers will return to the office. Recent estimates suggest Manhattan won’t reach pre-COVID office occupancy until 2023, and a recent report found 59% of businesses expect their office footprint to shrink.

Tech firms, like GitLab, which has 700 staff members without a central office, have helped popularize these roles, in part to make sure policies around hiring, retention and benefits take out-of-office colleagues into account. 

Whether or not the title takes root in the long term, there’s evidence more and more companies are looking to formalize and adopt more strategic policies around remote work. That means new positions and decision-makers tasked, in part, with making real estate decisions for an increasing percentage of a company’s workforce.

Burow, a workspace consultant and former vice president of workplace strategy at WeWork, said this new hybrid position expands the reach and broadens the scope of HR, going beyond the office and the on-site experience to focusing more on different types and degrees of support to enable workers to have what they need to work remotely and occasionally in an office setting. Most firms looking for such a position are typically upskilling HR staff, or occasionally transitioning a real estate position, as opposed to hiring outside the company. 

The role can take in everything from technology and materials — furniture companies like Herman Miller are crafting packages and bundles for home office workers — to figuring out what kind of group workspaces remote workers may need. 

“Because the position is about people management, the real estate team needs to be there to wait and learn what happens,” she said. That means commercial real estate companies need to pay attention to how this nascent position evolves, and how much power it has on choosing office space for remote staff. 

First, Burow said, the real estate industry needs to greet the increased prevalence of these roles as a sign that remote work is more permanent, and a reaction to more than just the pandemic. 

Working with these new heads of remote work may offer a chance for the industry to adapt and cater to those looking to make these switches more permanent.  

Burow believes even the most remote-first organization will likely keep an office footprint, albeit perhaps smaller, and seek out smaller dispersed spaces and new coworking options a few times a year for in-person events to build camaraderie and company culture. Working with heads of remote work to create collaboration hubs and flexible workspace that meet their needs will become key, especially in smaller markets. 

Most importantly, she said, the role will look at real estate decisions via a slightly different lens. The existence of the position is a “wake-up call for organizations” that they can’t work in silos; real estate, tech and HR need to work together. It’s a complex combination of needs, and anybody looking to provide real estate for remote teams needs to be fluent in the cultural needs and complexity of new norms around remote work. 

Burow suggested many start by understanding the data. Researching case studies from other firms, as well as figuring how utilization of shared spaces has changed during the pandemic and may continue to shift afterward, provide important insight that’ll be key to helping clients find the right space.

“These people will be tasked with creating remote culture, and the rituals that go along with that,” she said. “It may not directly have to do with real estate, but ideally, they’ll be working with real estate to make decisions based on these goals.”