Not so long ago, going to work meant showing up every day at a central office or facility where you collaborated with your boss and colleagues.

However, an increasing number of employees work not at headquarters but from home or a remote location. Up to 10 percent of employees telecommuted in 2009, triple the number that did so in 2000, according to a report in MIT Sloan Management Review. And 82 percent of senior executives surveyed expect that the number of employees who work remotely will increase over the next three years.

The challenge is to keep remote workers feeling connected—to managers, peers and the organization—despite physical distance and lack of face-to-face contact. Luckily, there’s a new tool in town: social media.

Social media has the ability to replicate the informal interactions that naturally occur when employees are co-located. Options like Twitter, wikis and social networking sites also:

  • Help employees better understand the company’s goals, values and strategy.
  • Give managers easy ways to stay connected with their team members.
  • Increase the visibility and accessibility of senior leaders.
  • Allow employees to share ideas and help each other solve problems.
  • Create opportunities for feedback and two-way communication.

A three-step approach
Ready to explore the potential of social media for reaching remote workers? Here are three ways to get started.

1. Analyze your audience.
You know this already: The more you understand about who your remote workers are (demographics, job responsibilities, locations) and what they need, the better you can design a social media solution that works for them.

For example, the U.S. division of the accounting firm Deloitte began exploring social media when communicators realized that the average age of its workforce was 27, which meant that employees were already using social media tools outside the office. So Deloitte created an internal Facebook-like social networking site called D-Street, which was quickly adopted by employees eager to connect with each other.

The situation was quite different at a major insurance company with a growing segment of employees working remotely. At this company, most remote employees were baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1962), which meant that social media didn’t necessarily come naturally to them. The company focused its efforts on providing collaboration tools (such as wikis or work-group sites) that appealed to employees’ need to get work done, not get to know one another.

A key aspect of analyzing your audience is understanding their needs. An MIT Sloan School of Management study found that remote employees most often cite these challenges: workplace isolation, lack of face-to-face communication and low visibility to their boss or co-workers. By identifying your employees’ most pressing challenges, you can choose solutions that best address them.

2. Choose the right tool for the job.
The social media universe offers an abundance of choices, and it’s sometimes difficult to know which tool to use for which purpose. That’s why you should learn from the experience of IBM, which has been a pioneer in using social media to engage employees.

IBM has good reason for investing in social media to create a sense of connection: More than 42 percent of its 400,000 employees work remotely at least part of the time, and 15 percent work solely from home.

What IBM has discovered is that each social media tool serves a distinct purpose. For example, the company uses:

  • A wiki to allow employees to collaborate.
  • Blogs to give employees an opportunity to share their knowledge and perspectives and allow others to comment and participate. (At IBM, 17,000 employees manage internal blogs!)
  • Microblogging (as in Twitter) to duplicate the “water cooler” experience of employees engaged in casual conversation about what they’re working on.
  • Social networking (à la Facebook) to build relationships.

3. Test, launch, adjust and reinforce.
Here’s one thing that drives communicators crazy about social media: It’s a moving target. Although many of us prefer when communication is more controlled, the fact is that social media is evolving. (After all, employees contribute and shape social media, making it an unpredictable experience.)

That’s especially true when dealing with remote workers who are themselves in motion. So you need to take a page from electronics retailer Best Buy and be prepared to morph social media as employees’ needs and experiences change.

When Best Buy first introduced a web site for store employees called Blue Shirt Nation, its objective was to give the company’s remote employees—those who work at one of more than 1,100 stores worldwide—an opportunity to share best practices to better serve customers. But very quickly employees began to use the site for a different purpose: to connect with co-workers throughout the organization.

So communicators made changes to Blue Shirt Nation to fit employees’ needs. Today, the site includes such features as:

  • An online discussion forum where employees can share information about any topic.
  • An area to post innovative ideas and gain feedback from peers, and gain approval for those ideas.
  • prediction market tool that allows employees to vote on concepts and predict business results based on their experiences.
  • Wikis on a variety of customer issues that allow employees to add and edit based on their experiences.

Companies that use social media to communicate with remote workers also find that you can’t just build it and hope employees will come. Even the most intriguing social media tool needs to be launched with some fanfare to get employees’ attention. Then you need to keep communicating about the tool until your workers try it out, see the value and grow accustomed to using it.

Sound like a bit of work? Yes, social media definitely requires an investment of time. But it’s worth it when, despite the fact that they don’t come to an office every day, remote workers feel connected to the organization.

Alison Davis is CEO of Davis & Company, a firm that helps companies like BNY Mellon, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and Rogers Communications reach, engage and motivate their employees. Contact her at alison.davis@davisandco.com.