N2 Publishing, a community-newsletter publisher in Wilmington, North Carolina, holds exercise classes led by an in-house trainer every workday. And not just cubicle dwellers break a sweat. More than half of N2's 180 full-time employees are permitted to work from home, and some reliably tune in.

"The notion of 'I'm working out with somebody else' keeps them accountable in a way that they wouldn't be if we just emailed them the workout of the day," says Marty Fukuda, N2's chief operations officer. So what kind of advanced technology do they use to work out together?

"It's pretty primitive," admits Fukuda. "I think it's a laptop."

Any founder wrangling remote work forces faces myriad challenges--negotiating staffers' varying schedules, tracking projects being worked on across multiple time zones, building and maintaining company camaraderie. This requires tools more advanced than webcams. Like, for instance, robots.

Seriously. For videoconferencing, you can call on the usual suspects: FaceTime, Skype, and Google Hangouts. But Suitable Technologies' BeamPro, a five-foot-tall, screen-equipped mobile robot, offers something more interactive: Employees away from the office can use Beam's video game-like app to drive a Beam bearing their likeness into, say, a conference room at speeds of more than two miles per hour. Mash+Studio, a New York creative agency, has used it to do happy hours with workers in London.

Engine, a nonprofit that engages in research supporting tech entrepreneurship, is partial to another video platform: Zoom. With eight staffers in New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., Engine does at least one all-hands video call each week. While other services Engine has used resulted in choppy video or distorted audio when people talked at the same time--common pitfalls of 1.0 conferencing tools--Zoom gives conference leaders more control, such as the ability to mute certain participants. It also shows the quality of each user's internet connection. "It saves us so much time to not have to say, 'Oh, I'll log out and log back in again,' " says Brooke Hunter, Engine's chief operating officer.

Other tools foster the virtual equivalent of the water cooler. Mash+Studio--which this summer had staff working from Nashville and Tel Aviv-- favors Slack, a messaging platform that straddles the line between email and instant messaging and makes sending memos and sharing jokes so easy that companies using it see their email traffic drop dramatically (see why Slack is our Company of the Year). Since Mash+Studio adopted Slack, says co-founder and creative director Greg Privett, "I've sent maybe two emails to the team."

Employees at Bumble, an online dating service that launched in 2014--and whose core team is based in Texas, California, and the U.K.-- sometimes send one another Snapchats to encourage the kind of co-worker sharing and caring that happens more easily in the office. "A Snapchat can be really big for changing the mood when you're not in the same place," says founder Whitney Wolfe. Wolfe's other favored app is GroupMe, a messaging platform ideal for sharing photos, video, and links among different groups of people. She and her team use it to communicate with their 300 freelance ambassadors, who are all over the U.S. "It's huge on college campuses, where a lot of our ambassadors are," says Wolfe.

For project management, Wolfe likes Trello, a website and app that creates a kind of real-time bulletin board. Action items can be dragged from one category to another (from, say, "to do" to "doing"), eliminating unwieldy email chains and (real-world) sticky notes, which can pile up with team projects.

But to keep the wheels running smoothly when everyone's on their own, regular reminders of what the person across the internet looks like IRL (that's "in real life") help. Wolfe gathers Bumble's staff once a month. Some recently retreated to a ranch in Texas to grill, drink wine, and ride horses. "There is nothing like getting going as a team," she says.

Working From Home

The Data on Distance

  • 80 to 90 percent of the U.S. work force would like to work remotely at least part time.
  • 38 percent of U.S. employers allow some employees to work remotely on a regular basis.
  • Almost 3 percent of U.S. workers work remotely at times--up from 1.5% in 2005.
  • In 2014, 50 percent of U.S. workers had jobs compatible with some remote work. That's a 103 percent increase since 2005.
Source: Global Workplace Analytics

How to Run Your Remote Work Force

Tech tools can help. But so can smart management.

Hire accountable people
When N2 Publishing first began allowing employees to work from home, chief operations officer Marty Fukuda foresaw staffers zoning out in front of soap operas and SportsCenter, fake-working. That didn't happen. "If you hire the right people, you don't need to worry," he says. "If anything, we've become more productive." N2 holds regular seminars on best work-from-home practices.

Don't forget to meet
If Wednesdays begin with an all-hands meeting in the conference room, there's no reason to let remote work break that tradition. "We'll have communal times when staff are all logged in to a particular tool and working on a project at the same time," says Amy Webb, founder of the strategic forecasting firm Webbmedia Group Digital Strategy and Inc.'s technology columnist.

Make time zones your friend
Nonstandard hours encouraged by working from home can allow a New York City-based staffer to collaborate with a counterpart in London without hazardous amounts of caffeine on either end. Knowing someone's already ahead of you can also rev engines. "I like the fact that there's pressure from London," says Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe. "I'm up at 5:30, because they're already halfway into their day."

Set clear expectations
Since remote flexibility lends itself to working oddball hours, if you want employees available at certain times of the day, make that clear. Online status messages can help. "It's as simple as a Gchat status: letting people know when you're available and when you're not," says Fukuda.

FROM THE DECEMBER 2015/JANUARY 2016 ISSUE OF INC. MAGAZINE