Working remotely, or telecommuting, has rapidly become a common feature of today’s interconnected workplace. According to Gallup data, the percentage of Americans who spend at least some of the time working remotely has been rising steadily over recent years. For organizations and leaders looking to get the most out of the increasingly virtual workforce, they must develop plans and best practices for managing telecommuters. These remote employees have different needs than colocated employees, although some of the basic principles of building effective, high-functioning teams still apply.

Tips on Managing Telecommuters and Remote Teams

1. Prioritize Communication

One of the greatest problems with teleworking is ensuring that the right people get the information and resources they need when they need them. The time to start building a team culture that prioritizes regular and clear communication is right when the team is formed, not when deadlines are looming. By identifying which communication channels should be used and under what circumstances, virtual teams can develop good habits when it comes to keeping relevant team members updated on the latest developments and provide an accurate picture of what work is being done.

Even something as simple as knowing who needs to be in the loop on certain email chains or when to send a text message instead of making a phone call can help improve efficiency and eliminate confusion. By focusing on the importance of communication, team members are also less likely to become isolated from one another, which makes it difficult to build the trusting relationships that are necessary for promoting accountability.

2. Establish Schedules

Scheduling is very important for virtual teams, especially when members are geographically dispersed over large areas. In many cases, virtual leaders and their team members must contend with differences in time zones, which can impact when they’re able to start on a project or when they will be free to attend a meeting. Consistency is key. Establishing a clearly defined schedule that takes input from all team members and does its best to accommodate their needs can eliminate a lot of confusion, uncertainty, and frustration.

It’s also a good idea to engage in some long-term planning that carves out time for face-to-face meetings. Even when team members are separated by great distances, meeting in person just a few times can make it much easier for them to foster trusting relationships and take accountability for their share of collaborative work.

3. Implement Collaborative Software

Technology has been one of the key drivers in the rise of telecommuting in the 21st century. Collaborative software tools and high-speed internet connections make it possible for team members on opposite sides of the world to work on the same project at the same time. With more and more productivity software companies making the shift to an online “software-as-a-service” model, it’s easier than ever for organizations to provide employees with access to the tools they need to facilitate their creative work.

Whether a team is using relatively straightforward products like Microsoft Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud or more intensive development platforms like Google App Engine or AWS Elastic Beanstalk, identifying the right tools and making sure all members have the support they need to use them is critical to virtual team success. Other productivity tools, such as messaging software like Slack or Microsoft Teams, can improve team performance by enhancing communication and making it easier for team members to share resources.

4. Make Performance Standards Clear

One of the biggest challenges of managing a remote team is finding ways to promote accountability. Since they may not be able to observe what everyone is working on every day, it’s easy for important details to slip through the cracks, especially if good communication habits aren’t established. More importantly, assigned tasks may not always make expectations clear, resulting in confusion or work that feels incomplete. Since team members will be doing most of their work on their own, they need to have a very clear idea of what standards they’re expected to meet when it comes to completing tasks.

Accountability can be difficult to enforce in a virtual team since people can feel removed from the consequences of their subpar performance. If someone knows that a fellow team member is counting on them to fulfill a task, they’re more likely to produce quality work, especially if they have a strong, trusting relationship with that person. Having telework performance metrics in place will also make it easier to evaluate team members throughout the course of a project. Collaborative technology tools like Teamwork or Meistertask allow team members to track the progress of various tasks and deliverables, which can greatly enhance accountability.

5. Celebrate as a Team

Even if they’re separated by hundreds, or even thousands, of miles, virtual teams are still teams of people committed to both individual and collective success. That can be easy to forget when they’re isolated from one another and don’t see the connections between the work they do and the final product of the team’s labor. Taking the time to highlight and celebrate both individual performance and other wins can remind team members that each person’s contributions matter to the team’s success.

Celebrating larger team wins collectively helps to strengthen the sense of camaraderie among team members, which gradually forms a collective identity based upon trust and accountability. Teambuilding events like virtual office parties or coffee breaks can also help team members to form stronger connections to one another, all of which makes collaboration and communication function more smoothly.

As virtual teams become more common, organizations must develop plans to manage telecommuters that take their unique needs into account. Everything about working in a remote environment is more deliberate; close, collaborative working relationships don’t just happen on their own. Virtual leaders must carefully consider how to promote an environment that allows telecommuters to work effectively and be accountable to one another if they’re to get the most out of their remotely distributed teams.