Advances in technology have changed the way we work. It’s no longer necessary to have employees based in a central location. That gives small business owners freedom and flexibility when it comes to hiring but also creates challenges in communicating, collaborating and managing.

A slew of technologies are available to small business owners to help overcome remote worker obstacles, and many of them won’t break the bank. Here’s a look at three of those must have technologies available to help manage your remote workers.

Video Conferencing

For oDesk, the online workplace that has 225 full-time contractors working remotely, a must have technology is video conferencing. Sure a small business owner can communicate over the phone but according to Gary Swart, Chief Executive of oDesk, with that you won’t be able to read subtle cues.  

“You don’t have the benefit of body language, eye contact and face to face nuances on the phone unless you are using video chats,” says Swart.  oDesk uses Skype for video chats and has conference rooms at headquarters set up with large monitors dedicated to video conferencing.

“Frequent communication is really important to help detect and prevent any potential problems,” says Swart.

Instant Messenger

When it comes to remote workers, you can’t simply walk over to their desk or holler from your office if you need to communicate something, which is why instant messaging is a good tool to maintain real-time, instant communications. Not to mention many of them on the market are free, including instant messaging applications from Yahoo (YHOO) and Microsoft (MSFT).

According to Bob Gaines, security and compliance manager for All Covered, the information technology services company, whether or not the small business should use an in-house IM system or one of the free options depends on the type of business. If all of the communications of the business have to be saved or if high level executives are communicating through IM then a secure and private application may be the way to go. But if the information being shared isn’t sensitive then the free ones will be ideal.

Mindflash, an online training software company which has about half of its employees working outside of the company’s headquarters, uses Yammer as its instant messaging platform. 

“Yammer creates a walled, secured environment where only the folks you invite in can connect with each other,” says Donna Wells, chief executive of Mindflash.  

Document Sharing Tools

For companies that are data intensive, having a share spaced where employees can work on and manage documents remotely is imperative. While many small businesses are fine with emailing document revisions back and forth, low cost technology enables them to collaborate in real time over a Website. One popular tool, at least at oDesk, is DropBox. DropBox is an online service that lets a business store and share documents.

“It’s great for making sure we are all singing from the same sheet of music,” says Swart, noting that since tools like Drop Box are in the “cloud” users don’t have to log on to the company server potentially creating security vulnerabilities. Another popular document sharing program: Google Docs.

Know the Brand

It’s easy for small business owners to be drawn to the no-name vendors that are offering business applications for little to no money, but experts say it pays to go with the well-known ones. They may not be perfect but they are more likely to be around for the long-haul and can give greater assurances that the data is safe and secured. Still that doesn’t mean the small business owner shouldn’t write off new applications altogether.

Wells says her company is always eager to experiment with new collaborative tools.
“We are constantly trying new ones because each of the existing ones has challenges,” says Wells. 

“There’s a lot of innovations with the small non brand name collaboration tools.” Another plus: often times when new applications come out they are free, she says.