Managing the careers of people you never see in person can be a daunting task, especially for those immersed in the traditional 9-to-5 office culture. But as new technologies emerge and gas prices spike, the prevalence of "digital nomads" (aka teleworkers) continues to grow. Consulting firm McKinsey named collaboration technology as one of the top 10 tech-enabled business trends to watch and reported that the growth of video and Web conferencing will likely top 20 percent annually during the next few years.
So how can you keep digital nomads motivated and productive? First, embrace the new norm. Let your employees know you support and encourage their digital wandering.
• Make video a must. Don’t wait for something serious to happen before meeting in a video conference. Face-to-face interaction during meetings builds rapport and stronger relationships. Consider cloud-based options, which feature lower overhead, increased flexibility, and minimal need for IT support.
• Use easy, engaging tools. Virtual meetings work well when people are relaxed and actively engaged. But meetings stall when participants struggle with incompatible technology or lose momentum because they can’t share documents or updates. Select technology that allows participants to connect in the way that’s simplest for them. For some, that could mean firing up the webcam and embedded microphone. Your shyer colleagues may prefer a simple dial-in conference call.
• Remember that conversations no longer require live participation. Blog posts or team wikis, for instance, allow for continuous dialogue, even if participants aren’t gathered in the same place at the same time. And as mobile gains even more ground, workers increasingly use wireless devices for texting, a great way to send a quick message that doesn’t get stuck in a cluttered e-mail inbox.
• Think of status updates as the new small talk. The water cooler is a thing of the past for digital nomads. The center of office gossip has been replaced by the status update, a brief description of what you are doing at that moment. Whether you’re having a serious case of The Mondays, eating lunch at a new business hot spot, or reviewing the latest quarterly report, your followers, friends, and connections across the social media landscape want to know what you’re doing right now. Whether on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, or even "behind-the-firewall" social media tools such as Yammer, status updates have moved from a social nice-to-have to a scaled-down business intelligence tool. By reading and writing status updates, business professionals learn tidbits about one another before they meet. Social sharing fosters ice-breaking conversations that build bonds and closer connections between disparate groups.
• Let workers know what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Yes, you should encourage employees to use Facebook and Twitter for business purposes. By friending co-workers on Facebook, you may discover you and your direct report share a passion for mountain biking or origami. Allowing employees to follow you on Twitter can familiarize them with trends you are paying attention to. But employers must establish guidelines—beyond simply encouraging them to "use good judgment." Clear policies specifying what constitutes unacceptable behavior and the potential repercussions might have saved an employee who was fired from a major coffeehouse after he posted negative comments about his supervisor. In another instance, an airline fired crew members after posts appeared complaining about passengers’ hygiene.
Still apprehensive about social media tools and the digital nomad movement? The best way to gain insight into the digital workforce is to experience it. Take a day to work from a coffee shop or park bench. Who knows, you may begin to embrace your own nomadic tendencies.