More companies have decided to go virtual. We're not necessarily talking VMware or Microsoft Hyper-V here, but an arrangement by employers to allow employees to work from home.

Whether for part-time or full-time work, that flexible arrangement creates an interesting dynamic that changes just about everything: how all staff members, virtual and non-virtual, communicate with each; how they exchange information; how they network and collaborate.

In the ideal scenario, those changes are all for the better; but, as you can imagine, things don't always flow smoothly.

Deploying a team of remote employees can help companies increase productivity, boost morale, and achieve substantial cost savings. However, managing those workers can be extremely challenging.

Here are some tips for effectively monitoring your virtual workforce and ensuring that it's consistently productive.

Appoint the right management personnel

If a virtual workforce is going to be successful, the management personnel you assign to oversee it are just as important as the individual employees who compose the troop.

Someone who has thrived in the traditional management role for years could easily become frustrated because of the lack of face-to-face encounters and other issues the remote working arrangement introduces. A manager is generally responsible for watching over staff both in and out of the office; accordingly, assigning a manager who is capable of monitoring them and keeping them motivated is critical to a successful virtual workforce.

Make expectations crystal clear

Having clearly defined objectives is imperative for all employees, but the importance of clarity increases tenfold when remote workers are involved. In the traditional office environment, staff has convenient access to all the information they need to perform their jobs efficiently. Their virtual counterparts should be afforded the same access. Remote workers don't have the luxury of being able to walk down the hall to clarify specific issues with management, so they need not only accurate details up front but also the freedom to tap into informational resources whenever, from wherever.

Use good tracking tools

Accountability is one of the biggest challenges an employer will face when deploying a virtual workforce. When employees are on the clock, you want to be certain that they are actually being productive and not goofing off with Facebook or other nonwork activities. Companies have to trust that their workers will hold themselves responsible, but project management software and other apps prove useful with features that document their progress. Coupled with clearly defined expectations, these tools can help management track and measure virtual-team performance with the utmost efficiency.

Make consistent communication a priority

The most productive virtual employees are self-disciplined, motivated people who can work independently. That said, they still need good communication from people back at the office if they are to perform their roles efficiently. Dialogue with management as well as co-workers must be fluid and ongoing. Here are some tools that will make communication as smooth as possible:

  • Email. Yeah, it's simple and a bit old-school, but email is still one of the best ways to stay in touch. For many virtual employees, it is the standard link between the office and remote work environment.
  • Social media. Social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn are also proving to be great communication tools. The concept of social media in general is ideal for collaboration, which is why enterprise platforms such as (Twitter-like) Yammer have become popular for virtual team initiatives.
  • Video chat. Platforms such as Skype and Google Hangouts are the next best thing to in-person interactions. When circumstances prevent a team from physically coming together, these kind of tools deliver the face-to-face communications necessary for all parties to absorb what's being said.

Although technology offers the potential to make communicating easier, it is up to employers as well as employees to put those tools to use. It takes a balanced mix of tools and commitment to ensure that the virtual work train continues to move forward.

* * *

Managing a virtual workforce is difficult, especially initially; and it can be considered a skill in and of itself. Because very few companies have positions and resources dedicated solely for this role, it is often a skill that existing managers have to develop from scratch—all the while maintaining tight tabs on in-house staff.

It's hard work, but the good thing is that once the right environment is established, the rewards prove to be more than worth the effort for all parties involved.

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How to Manage Your Virtual Workforce

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image of Chiko Noguchi

Chiko Noguchi is a best-practices activist and advocate of Benchmark Email, a provider of online marketing services.

Twitter: @email_wiz

LinkedIn: Chiko Noguchi