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Are enterprise social networks the new water coolers?

The break room, the water cooler, the company holiday party: These are social institutions of the conventional office that don't always translate on a team of telecommuters. As a manager, you may direct a team of employees across the country or around the world, most of whom value the privacy and independence with which they conduct their business. While there are many benefits to virtual offices, company identity is largely derived through morale and office culture, two metrics that are hard to promote as your overhead shrinks. 

For that reason, experts say a key to managing a team of successful telecommuters is fostering community among them. Social platforms like Google Chat and mobile applications can make easy avenues for casual chatter among employees, but what about taking it to the next level? More and more, companies are implementing internal social networks, designed for communication among coworkers, to facilitate business communication and connect teammates who never share a workspace.

Last year, Deloitte predicted that soon as many as 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies will have implemented enterprise social networks, or ESN. Managers piloting programs among coworkers should remember to keep it casual, experts say. 

"Don't tell employees to use your internal social network purely for business communications," writes Nichole Kelly in the Social Media Explorer. "Encourage employees to share posts related to things they are interested in, photos of their kids if they would like, and anything else that will help employees know more about who they are out of the office."

Large corporations may opt to build their own social platforms for employees, but small businesses have a variety of options like Yammer, Jive and Tibbr. Exploring which ESN can help take your company to the next level can be as easy as it is to rent a virtual office.

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