🦪 Future of Work Feature: Rhys Black
Head of Workplace Design at Oyster
In This Edition
🧭 Embracing remote work as your brand
🎨 Creating a culture of open-source work
🧪 Fostering a community of experimentation
Rhys Black is Head of Workplace Design at Oyster, a global employment platform committed to making it possible for companies everywhere to hire people anywhere. He leads efforts across Oyster to build the company, both operationally and culturally, as thoughtfully and deliberately as its product, while thinking of its employees as its users. Oyster employees are often the initial users of these products, enabling Rhys and his Agile People Operations team to iterate and adapt them before rolling out to Oyster’s customers, ultimately driving company growth. Rhys draws on his experience as the founder of two distributed companies, Trade Nations and Delocate — which was acquired by Oyster in December 2020. As Head of Workplace Design, Rhys is committed to helping Oyster achieve its goal of becoming one of the best-distributed companies in the world.
What sparked your professional path in this field?
I have approached my career with curiosity. I have pursued opportunities when I see them, even if they're not what I've been doing previously. To start, I completed an undergraduate degree in Geology and a Master's degree in Natural Disasters, specifically seismology. When I was in that program, a company came to give a guest lecture. It was a fascinating firm that created catastrophe models to plan for what is called black swan events — terrorist attacks, pandemics and cyber attacks. I joined their team in a consulting and customer success role. Gradually, I moved into product roles.
I wanted to learn to be a Product Manager because I had a dream of starting my own company. This position is a great generalist opportunity where I gained good experience in business and interacted with engineering. A few years later, I started that business — Trade Nations! We worked with governments' trade promotion agencies to help them increase their country’s exports internationally. We were building technology to help them be more data-driven with their trade promotion and worked with developing countries in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa.
In November 2019, I decided to move on and focus on consulting. Because I had experience leading distributed teams at Trade Nations, as well as when I was a Product Manager, I started helping businesses operate better as distributed teams. When the pandemic hit a few months later, I became really busy because companies needed emergency help as they pivoted to remote work. Where I work now, Oyster, was one of my first clients! They had just raised a $4 million seed round in March 2020. I worked with them as a consultant throughout 2020. At the end of that year, Oyster acquired my company and me and my team came in-house. I feel very privileged to have been there from Day 1.
How has your role evolved from Head of Remote to Head of Workplace Design?
For all of 2021, I was Head of Remote where my role was wide-ranging. We were the glue between other parts of the organization. This began with Operations to put into place processes to help people work async, such as knowledge management and project management frameworks around communication. I also worked with People Ops and the Employee Experience — the cultural side of our work.
We wanted to be a source of knowledge and inspiration to help others following a similar model. As we started building out the company, I began working with other teams and eventually, my role turned into the Head of Workplace Design. In some ways, it comes full circle to my Product days as it led to this ethos of thinking about the way we work — our company is a product, the users of the product are our employees, and the People Team is responsible for building the features of that product, allowing our users to achieve certain outcomes. With this product approach, we’re more agile in how we build. We also focus a lot on experience and the user journey.
Consider offer letters. There are so many touchpoints that employees interact with before they begin. Usually, these letters are very legal-focused. Thinking about the offer letter from a user experience — it's a huge opportunity missed. The offer letter is the celebration after a likely nerve-wracking experience. Hopefully, it’s an amazing moment to join your dream company. However, the artifact that is delivered is devoid of that emotion! In some cases, it actually detracts from the experience with legal jargon. Thinking about the company as a product helps set you up to capitalize on these moments, and that’s the type of work I focus on every day!
What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished over the years?
When I first started at Oyster, I helped us articulate why being a really good distributed company was important to us — connecting our mission to how we work. I was really pedantic about this, articulating everything from how we run meetings to how we document our knowledge and much more.
Remote work is our brand. We literally sell it. We’d look really dumb if we weren’t good at it. However, it’s much more than that. It’s also the mechanism by which we create social impact. We’re a mission-driven company, a B-Corp that holds dear the positive impact we give to people by giving them access to high-growth, high-paying jobs regardless of where they live. If we make that connection work between our mission and the day-to-day ways of working, it will help us unlock our social mission and have a huge impact.
This led to writing it down beyond verbalizing. The docs are public on our website as public Notion pages — why we are a distributed company and how we work together at Oyster. I knew writing these two documents was valuable, but it’s become valuable in ways I never expected. Eventually, we open-sourced these docs. That was the seed that has now perpetuated a culture of open sourcing as much as possible for others to learn what’s gone well and what mistakes we’ve made.
When I wrote these docs, I thought customers might be interested in them. We work with People Teams who geek out on these topics so I thought they’d find it interesting. However, it’s now become an important part of our recruitment process. Almost ubiquitously, when people join the company, they say that these two docs convinced them to apply. They express that they had never seen such visibility in a company. We’ve had a wild ride in terms of head growth — from 17 people in 2020 to 600 people so far in 2022. To know that I’ve played a significant part in us being able to achieve that growth and encourage high-quality people to join this company, I’m proud of that.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in your role?
It’s such a generalist discipline. The impact of remote work is wide-ranging. You need to rethink and reoptimize in many areas. The first step is being okay with having a broad remit. Most companies aren’t going to hire a Head of Remote, the responsibility will likely sit with someone in People Ops or a Committee, such as the senior leadership team.
I care about people having good work experiences and developing in their careers. I start with the processes and the systems. Tools are the easy part, but they are only as good as the processes and the behaviors of the people using them.
I sit in this area between Operations and behavior change. You need to define a clear process for people to know what they need to change — a lot of it boils down to putting systems and processes in place. Then, all the cultures work on top of that to connect it to the bigger mission — the storytelling piece and the habit change and formation.
In your role, how do you partner with Internal and Employee Communications?
We’ve just hired an internal comms team member, and I’m so happy to have them on board. Part of my role has been defining how we communicate as an organization and evolving that. To have someone who is a specialist take it to the next level is very exciting. There is generally a challenge to internal comms with distributed teams. One of the major tenets is transparency and open communications, but it’s a double-edged sword — as much as you can filter through the noise and find what is important and relevant to you.
It’s an ongoing challenge to define the right comms channel. That’s what we are building out as a big focus this year. Our Q2 planning process is focused on defining our internal comms strategy. We are starting to look at a cool product called Pyn where we can create personalized campaigns for your employees. We are about 600 people in 69 countries and to be able to deal with that diversity of circumstances will need to leverage internal communications.
How do you continue learning about the field?
There are only a handful of companies that have a Head of Remote. A lot is testing it out on my team. We’ve always had a culture of experimenting at Oyster and sticking with what works and sharing it publicly.
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☎️ Every edition of The Switchboard is personally curated by me — Julia Levy. This post is based on a live interview conversation and edited for publication. Learn more about why I write.