Let me guess: Your virtual employees are your "easiest" teammates. You don't have to check in often, and they always get their work done. They never wander into your office to interrupt you. They've rarely -- if ever -- had drama with their co-workers. But is that true, or is that your perception as a result of hands-off policies?

While Upwork's 2018 Future Workforce report showed 63 percent of companies have remote workers, less than half have policies surrounding remote work. Worse, 60 percent of virtual employees report they don't know their company's vision. Zapier hosts a fully remote workforce, and its CEO, Wade Foster, says this half-baked approach is dangerous: "By only half-embracing remote culture in the workplace, you end up limiting the benefits you get from being a fully distributed team.

Virtual employees may seem easy, but that might be because you're not taking the time to lead them. And that's especially risky if you want to lead a high-growth business.

The danger zone: Abdicating leadership

Many studies have shown that working remotely is productive. Based in the U.S. or spread across the world, large or small, businesses in nearly every industry have found ways to benefit from remote work. But they haven't always succeeded at making virtual work a great setup for employees.

Many leaders don't take the time to lead virtual employees -- they let them float on their own. This "out of sight, out of mind" style of leadership makes it easier for bosses to manage both in-person employees and remote employees, but it tends to result in uneven treatment. In-office workers may be treated as full people, with water cooler talk and spontaneous collaboration opportunities making them seem human.

Remote workers, on the other hand, are viewed through the lens of productivity: They're seen as quiet work machines who don't stir anything up and always hit their deadlines. But culturally, they may feel distant -- like an extension of the team, but not a member of the team itself. Here are three ways you can address that feeling:

The onboarding process

Leaders can't expect remote employees to magically be trained without their intervention -- they're not in the same office, and they can't easily ask questions. Typical onboarding processes involve the leader defining the role and the type of person she's looking for, attracting solid applicants, and asking the right interview questions to determine the best fit.

But nowhere in that typical process is there room to set clear expectations about the job or communication. In talking with Nathan Hirsch, the CEO of FreeeUp, an innovative platform focused on virtual freelancer selection, he shared with me that one huge mistake is a reactive onboarding process -- or no onboarding process at all. "The leader loses track of the new hire by being busy with other things and then concludes that it didn't work out," he said.

Your communication cadence

Virtual employees want to feel connected to the team and its work, and the best way to do that is through regular communication. Tara Powers, the author of Virtual Teams for Dummies, has 20 years of experience in talent development strategy and an M.S. in organizational leadership. "'Don't underestimate' is a mindset and skill shift for leaders from old-school traditional team management to virtual team management," she explained.

And she said the method of communication can matter just as much as your words. "When building relationships in a virtual environment, effective communication boils down to choosing the right medium for the right message. I encourage virtual team members to ponder two things: What's the chance your message could be misunderstood, and what's the risk to the relationship?" Powers said.

Your ability to inspire ownership

Companies looking to sustain high growth face two problems: the pace of change and a growing sense of apathy. I studied several hyper-growth companies, and those that succeeded in growing had one thing in common: the ability to activate a feeling of ownership. My research with the fastest-growing private companies, including more than 100 CEOs on the Inc. 5000 list, found that 88 percent of leaders value leadership that inspires employees to feel like owners.

That's counter to the finding that the majority of remote workers don't know their company's mission, and that means leaders have to put real effort into giving their virtual employees a sense of ownership. Take time to individually discuss company goals and intentions, and determine together ways your remote employees can make an impact. That will help you establish shared goals and empower these far-flung employees.

Remote workers are seen as easy teammates, and many are. But if they're simply "easy" because they don't require any time or energy, that's actually a sign that they're being neglected. Push yourself to lead them -- you'll find you have more assets in your virtual employees than you ever realized.

Published on: Nov 28, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.