With the virtual workforce growing year-over-year small businesses are able to cut overhead while offering employees an opportunity for a more flexible lifestyle. Yet, according to a 2018 study performed by Upwork, 57% of organizations lack remote work policies. In my experience, that number is significantly higher for small and micro businesses. In fact, many small business owners have no written policies in place whatsoever. 

The lack of policies is only one of the many issues coming to the surface as the virtual workforce continues its steady growth. Keeping your team engaged and productive requires an emotionally intelligent approach and an investment of time, money, and innovative ideas. And it all begins with the very first discussion with your prospective employees.

1. Engage, don't interview. 

There's a growing awareness among leaders that hiring for skill alone is never a good idea. For a successful partnership, we need to hire for emotional skills--skills that cannot be taught. This includes qualities like empathy, optimism, and self-awareness. It's impossible to detect these characteristics in a rote interview. For this reason, I recommend that hiring managers engage in multiple meaningful conversations with job candidates. Get to know who's is not only behind, but beyond, the resume.

2. Maintain engagement to inspire engagement.

There was a time when employees engaged with one another in the break room and bosses had brief personal conversations or exchanged niceties with team members regularly. This new culture challenges leaders and co-workers to find innovative ways to connect. It's too easy to put off conversations with remote workers, so oftentimes business owners lose touch with their employees until it's too late. Neglected employees develop a sense of isolation and loneliness; they feel unappreciated and uninspired. From this grows a lack of passion for the company's vision or goals and productivity levels drop. 

Well-run meetings are never a waste of time. At the very least they provide the opportunity to acknowledge and inspire your employees. With the use of today's remarkable technology, it's easy to connect via video conference, but don't negate the value of face-to-face meetings. Also, take any chance you get to have private conversations with your team members. Seriously, it doesn't take much to show your appreciation and support.

3. Create written policies that include guidelines for time off.

According to a recent Buffer study, the smallest range of vacation days taken by remote workers is zero to five days. This is the norm for 16% of remote workers. Again, factor in businesses with five or fewer employees and I suspect that statistic is much higher. Many employers never even suggest vacation or personal time to their remote workers. The decline in productivity is significant in these situations, causing burnout and eventual departure from the company. It's important to not only create these policies but to enforce them.

4. Be mindful of your expectations about access and availability.

You may work around the clock (certainly not recommended), but don't expect the same of your employees. Virtual workers often tend to work at odd times, adding hours to the 40-hour work week, but as soon as you expect this from them the tides change. 

Avoid end of the day requests of your employees. When you're up at 1 o'clock in the morning go ahead and write emails to your employees but avoid sending them until morning. Your employees want to please and impress and may mimic your workaholic tendencies. Again, it's unhealthy for everyone concerned. 

5. Don't count hours, focus on productivity.

Virtual employment is attractive because it offers freedom and flexibility. Many workers take a cut in pay or give up benefits to live this life, so allow them to reap the rewards. Old habits die hard, but the days of punching a time clock are over. As long as your employees meet or exceed reasonable expectations and deadlines, allow them the flexibility to do it on their terms. A parent may work early mornings and late evenings, for instance. As long as the job gets done and he or she can make arrangements to be present for meetings or other scheduled events, does it really matter if they're at their desk all day long? 

6. Tell employees what to do, but not how to do it.

There are tasks that require strict accuracy, for which procedures are in place. And, there are tasks that can be completed in any number of ways. Allow your employees the autonomy to tap into their ingenuity and creativity. If you don't trust them to deliver results, ask yourself why. Usually, there are no grounds for concern, it's the entrepreneur's need to remain in control that's the problem. As they say, the only way to learn if you can trust someone is to trust them. 

7. Support the interests of your team members. 

This morning I discussed this very topic with a small business owner at a coffee house. He has sixteen remote workers who provide technical services to mid-sized companies. Education is an important part of his culture, so he provides opportunities for his employees to attend conferences and to access educational materials. Recently, one of his team members asked permission to attend a drone conference, which is entirely unrelated to his job. Rather than denying his request, this entrepreneur granted him paid time off to attend the conference. Smart move.

Another example is found in the many entrepreneurs who support their employees' favorite causes. There are inexpensive ways to do this. You might grant one day per quarter off for them to volunteer, provide reward incentives that include small donations, or give the charities discounted access to your services.

8. Compensate your employees well. 

Granted, there are perks included in working from a home office, but this does not replace fair compensation. Small business owners can get away with slightly lower salaries and non-existent benefits packages for a while, but never take advantage of your team. As your business grows, be conscientious about paying out bonuses and offering raises, paid time off, and health benefits

You'll make mistakes as you develop your leadership style, but that's a good thing. Share your missteps with your team, this reveals your authenticity and builds trust and respect. You may be the boss, but allow them to see you as human.