by Tricia Sciortino | February 28, 2017
More than one-third of U.S. employees telecommute at least part time. That number represents a fourfold increase over the percentage reported two decades ago, according to a Gallup study. And many startups are doing away with office space altogether to manage teams that are entirely virtual.
 
Whether your team telecommutes part time or is 100 percent virtual, you'll need a strategy to manage offsite employees -- an approach that maximizes efficiency and fosters long-term commitment. You'll need to find a way to connect virtual employees to the organization and help them maintain a healthy work/life balance.
 
Most managers recognize the dangers of burnout in their onsite teams, but offsite employees can become overworked as well, which hampers their overall effectiveness. It pays to create conditions that are conducive to long-term employment and efficiency in your virtual team. Here are three tips that can help:
 
Help employees set healthy boundaries

When there is no physical distinction between home and work spaces, it's important to draw bright lines between work life and home life. The employer's company culture plays a critical role here: As a manager, make sure you recognize employees as individuals with lives of their own, and clearly communicate your expectations to virtual staff.
 
For example, provide employees with clear start times and end times so work doesn't consume their lives, and make sure they know you don't expect them to routinely work nights and weekends. Encourage them to turn off email notifications after hours. Suggest that they leave their laptop in their home office and shut the door. Encourage them to take breaks (including a lunch break) during the day -- taking a walk, resting in a room away from the home office, etc., can help employees recharge. 
 
Take advantage of communication technologies to stay in touch

Remote employees are at risk of feeling isolated since they don't interact with peers in traditional ways. This can lead to a pattern of overwork, where employees feel driven to compete with unseen coworkers. But modern communication technologies can help you build a strong virtual community.
 
Help employees stay engaged by creating frequent touchpoints. Instant messaging, video platforms, web-based meetings and employee portals can provide a critical defense against isolation. Similarly, phone conversations, email, and company social media channels can help employees stay connected. If you manage a large virtual staff, it's a good idea to delegate one or two people to focus on keeping remote employees connected to the company -- it's that important.
 
Make sure your company supports openness and clearly conveys that value

It's impossible to overstate the importance of company values in shaping a healthy, productive workplace. Corporate values should foster trust and encourage candor, and all employees -- whether onsite or remote -- should adopt those values. In this way, companies can avoid a lack of candor stemming from fear of discipline and other negative results associated with disconnected teams.
 
My company, BELAY, centers our culture on values that include gratitude and having fun. We live those values by being grateful for our customers and team members and working hard and playing hard. We infuse these values into our orientation program and reinforce them frequently in our management strategies and communications to ensure that our remote workforce is aware of these values and understands how they drive our operations and shape our success.
 
Managers who work with onsite teams may face similar challenges with fostering employee trust and encouraging openness. But the issues are magnified with virtual teams, which are uniquely challenged by the prospect of isolation, and with it, a lack of trust. A strong company culture is the appropriate remedy for isolation and the challenges it can bring, including overwork and employee burnout.
 
By setting boundaries early, taking advantage of technologies like collaboration platforms and social media to form and maintain connections and ensuring employee buy-in to your corporate values, you can combat isolation and create a highly effective virtual team. Following these tips will not only result in a strong workforce, it will create a more resilient company.

Tricia Sciortino is the chief operating officer of BELAY. She joined BELAY in November 2010 as a virtual assistant and the first employee of the company. She has a background in senior retail management, including experience overseeing a team of more than 150 employees and supporting senior leaders in the church construction industry.