More people are working remotely than ever before, and the number will continue to increase as more companies try to improve work-life balance.
The International Data Corporation (IDC) expects deskless employees to account for about 72 percent of the total American workforce by 2020.
"Telecommuting is rapidly becoming one of most attractive benefits a company can offer," said Sean O'Brien, chief strategy officer at PGi.
It's easy to see why flexible work options have steadily gained popularity among employers and employees in recent years. Companies with a mobile workforce can save money on office space and tech equipment while increasing their overall productivity. Meanwhile, remote workers can enjoy the freedom to work from anywhere they choose, reduce time and money spent on transportation, and find a greater sense of work-life balance.
Managing remote employees comes with a set of unique challenges, and overcoming them should be a top priority for many employers. Here are four big challenges employers should address. [Keep remote employees engaged with these tips.]
As a manager, it's your job to keep all your employees informed. While it's simple to effectively communicate with staff members you see face-to-face, deskless employees must rely on technology, so you can't let remote team members become "out of sight, out of mind."
According to a study by Zogby Analytics, remote workers reported lack of information from management (38 percent) and the timeliness of the information (39 percent) as the biggest obstacles of working from home.
It's also harder for remote employees to learn something such as a new procedure because they aren't able to learn by watching in person. That's why Gregory Galant, CEO and co-founder of Muck Rack, recommends documenting all procedures and writing down as much as you can.
"Many people think this is a sacrifice made to allow remote work, but documenting how things are done allows a company to scale faster even if it's not remote," Galant added.
The best way to communicate with remote employees is through technology. Some common apps remote workers use to communicate with co-workers are text messages, Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Google Hangouts, according to the Zogby Analytics survey.
In addition to having reliable communication solutions, it's important to make sure that your workers know when and how to reach one another. Jonathan Erwin, CEO of mobile messaging platform Red e App, advised establishing core hours that all team members will be online and available, and commit to responding to each other within a set period. Collaboration tools such as shared storage and cloud-based project management software can also help a scattered team work together efficiently, Erwin said.
2. Tracking productivity
When you can't physically see your employees every day, it can be difficult to track the amount of work they complete daily. While many telecommuters are motivated self-starters, some will take advantage of the fact that there's no boss over their shoulder.
Galant suggests tracking a remote worker's productivity the same as you would with the rest of your team, including employees who work in the office.
"With anyone, remote or not, it's essential to establish metrics and goals," he told Business News Daily. "Judge someone's effectiveness by their output, not by how long they're at their desk or how hard it looks like they're working."
3. Employee trust
While you should check in and make sure your employees are doing what they're supposed to, a successful flexible work arrangement ultimately comes down to trust.
"Trust that your workers are doing what you pay them to do, even if you're not always there to check in," O'Brien said. "While many of the personality traits and behaviors required for telecommuting can be vetted during the hiring process, you never really know if their personality is a good teleworking fit until someone comes on permanently. Trust is earned, and it's earned over time and that street runs both ways."
If you're going to be an effective virtual manager, your team needs to trust in you as well, O'Brien said. Let them know that you're there to help them solve problems, break up workflow obstacles and give direction as needed.
4. A unified company culture
Mobile workers often say that they love the flexibility of their jobs, but that doesn't necessarily mean they enjoy missing out on being part of office culture. If possible, try to have your remote employees plan a day to come into the office every once in a while.
If your team can't coordinate a quarterly in-person meeting, the next best thing is frequent virtual meetings so everyone feels connected.
"Employees collaborate best when they have personal connections with each other," Erwin said. "To maintain this connection while working remotely, small teams should have a short daily conference call to discuss hot topics and unanswered questions, and use video chat for team meetings."
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.