Q: My employees, including five interns, work from home. What's the best way to manage them and make sure they are being productive?

Alexander Debelov
Cambridge, Massachusetts

A: I'll be happy to answer that after I grout the bathtub and catch up on TiVo. Whoops -- it's 5 p.m. Quitting time. I'll try to get to it tomorrow.

Oh, why are we all so cynical? In fact, many employees are industrious and wouldn't dream of malingering. Still, problems tend to escalate when managers and their employees occupy separate spaces. "Being a virtual manager requires more structure and planning," says Trina Hoefling, founder of the Denver-based consultancy GroupONE Solutions, which advises clients on best practices for virtual teams. "People need more clarity." In other words, spell things out -- responsibilities, protocol for dealing with customers. Arm employees with as many answers as possible, because working remotely, they are less likely to ask questions.

Also spell out how often you expect them to communicate. Scheduling check-ins is especially important for younger hires, says Lou Hoffman, founder and CEO of the Hoffman Agency, a San Jose, California -- based PR firm that allows most of its 50 employees in the U.S. to work remotely. "Someone early in their career doesn't always understand the concept of managing up -- communicating how you're doing and where you need help," says Hoffman.

Technology can lend a hand. Inexpensive Web-based software -- such as Basecamp, Zoho Projects, LiquidPlanner, 5pm, and Wrike -- lets you assign tasks and deadlines and receive updates when milestones are reached. Many programs allow dispersed users to collaborate on documents and share files. Aliza Sherman, co-founder of Conversify, a Denver-based social media marketing company, supervises her staff of 14 telecommuters using 5pm for project management and Google Apps for document sharing. "I recommend using each tool for its strength rather than trying to find something that's good at everything," she says.

Still, unless you're going to go all 1984 by installing webcams in home offices or using keystroke-counting software, sometimes you will have to trust. So hire workers with the right skills and character for unsupervised labor. "You need someone who is independent, self-directed, with the ingenuity to figure things out on the fly," says Hoffman. And Sherman points out that as long as you are happy with the product, how it's produced shouldn't matter. "If they get it done in two hours instead of five hours," she says, "who cares?"