Technology is constantly changing not only the way that we work but also where and when we work. Nowadays, employees don’t all work in the same office — and sometimes don’t even work in the same state or country — as their team leaders and managers. This flexibility contributes to greater autonomy and increased employee happiness, but can undermine team initiatives and organizational processes if not met with effective virtual leadership strategies.

Remote on the rise

The number of people working remotely around the U.S. is growing at an amazing rate. Some would go so far as to state that online connectivity in the modern age has lead to a “virtual work revolution.” The experts at University of Alabama Birmingham Collat School of Business presents these statistics about remote work:

  • Since 2005, the number of people working at home has grown by over 100 percent.
  • 50 percent of U.S. workers do some type of virtual work, with up to 25 percent teleworking at some frequency.
  • While 3.7 million people, or 2.8 percent of the total U.S. workforce, work from home at least half of the work week, up to 90 percent of workers in the United States have reported they would like to work remotely at least part-time.
  • Fortune 1000 employees nowadays spend up to 60 percent of their time working away from their desks.

The numbers illustrate one of the fastest growing trends in the world of digital work. This is a beneficial arrangement for both parties, as allowing employees to telecommute can actually save businesses money, with Ohio University’s online resources indicating that letting a single employee work from can save a business $10,000 a year.

Of course, without effective management, businesses can lose a lot more than that due to inefficiencies in communications and reduced productivity. Balancing remote work with deft mobile management is essential to successful operations in the current digital world.

How to manage a virtual workforce

Digitization has changed the way that managers and employees interact, meaning that leaders of the past may not be quite as effective in the “now” as they were in the past. Face-to-face meetings may not happen as often as they used to, if at all, and textual communication may trump verbal in most cases. The ways in which modern-day managers assert their digital presence may be too lax; on the other hand, they may not be loose enough. Here are eight tips for leaders managing mobile workforces:

  • Set Fixed Working Hours. Enforcing regular “office hours” helps to cultivate the psychological distinction between work and everything else. It creates the feeling of being “at work” and ensures that your team is present and able to ask or answer questions without major delays.
  • Use Online Hours Tracking Solutions. This one might seem like a no-brainer, but time tracking software with screenshot solutions and detailed breakdowns of work will not only help monitor productivity but will remind employees when to be productive.
  • Supply Their Equipment. While some employees may already have a laptop that they prefer to work from, supplying them with work-sanctioned equipment will ensure they have all the tools that they need.
  • Hold Weekly Video Meetings. In lieu of actual face-to-face meetings, use conferencing software to hold video meetings. This will make up for the non-verbal cues that may get lost in strictly textual communication and will help strengthen your relationships with you employees.
  • Find Applications That Work for You. While you might not currently have the tool for the job, chances are, it’s out there. Adaptively test out new solutions, and don’t be afraid to ditch the ones that aren’t working (more on adaptation in the next section).
  • Send a Digital Newsletter. Weekly notices can go a long way to keep employees clued-in on the most important work happenings. Digital newsletters can also boost morale and create a sense of cohesion among remote employees.
  • Set Clear Expectations. Missed communication is a productivity KILLER among virtual workforces. Be direct, communicate concisely, and leave nothing up to chance or the imagination.
  • Make Time for Banter. Last but not least, take time just to talk. The remote workforce doesn’t have a water cooler — but that doesn’t mean employees can’t build morale like there is one all the same.

These eight tips are not the end-all-be-all, but they are a great start for anybody looking to become a better digital leader.

Adaptation and consistent learning

Beyond the above tips, one of the most crucial pieces of advice that leaders in the digital age can and should follow is to stay adaptive and to embrace consistent learning. The rate at which new technologies and digital solutions are being developed, adopted, modified, and even discarded, is breakneck.

New solutions bring about new problems, which in turn may require new solutions — it’s enough to make one’s head spin. This is why managers need always be taking in data, analyzing their industry, and learning how it is changing day to day.

From there, leaders must strive to operate in an adaptable fashion. This means that no matter how good business looked yesterday, all of your operations are ready to pivot based on today’s outlook. The world moves extremely fast, and organizations that want to survive in that world need to move just as fast.

For those who want to take their learning to the next level, traditional post-secondary education may be worth attaining. According to learning company Context, programs such as the executive MBA (EMBA) are designed for mid-career professionals and can be earned while working full-time.

Whether or not taking that extra step is worth it will vary from individual to individual, but ASU online prompts those considering whether an MBA is worth it to ask themselves a number of questions; “do you aspire to be a leader?” is one of them. Modern education on leadership takes into account remote work and the digital arena, and its only rival is experience.

Current and future managers won’t be spared the remote working experience. Chances are that if you’re not already leading a virtual workforce in one capacity or another, you soon will be. Make sure that you’re prepared and that the team you’re leading doesn’t get left behind.

Andrew Heikkila is an entrepreneur, artist, and writer from Idaho. He likes to cover global issues in business, the Millennial workforce, and leadership topics. When he’s not enjoying habanero pizza and craft beer, you can find him on a run in the beautiful foothills above Boise. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndyO_TheHammer