By Alison Maitland
“To me, it was critical to grow my business in a 21st century way,” says Ms Doyle, founder and director of Reward First, a specialist compensation consultancy. “It had to be possible to build a relationship that was sustainable on a virtual basis. I was testing myself as well.”
Having had conventional personal assistants in her previous corporate career, she had misgivings about hiring someone she would not see. How long would it take to find the right person and build a relationship of trust, she wondered.
“I did some research and a lot of checking around and setting up calls to understand how they worked, and I talked to their clients,” she says. She also checked what systems and security they used to manage client data. Positive experience of collaborating via the internet over a distance – working virtually – with a fellow consultant in the US gave her confidence.
After one false start, she found her ideal virtual assistant by word-of-mouth recommendation. “I’m still learning, but the benefits are huge,” she says. “I’m outsourcing everything other than the things I do very well myself. I feel I have the capacity to grow the business and the confidence to do it successfully.”
Her assistant, who works from her home in Kent and has several other clients, provides research and marketing support as well as managing Ms Doyle’s diary and emails and liaising with her business associates. They have a Skype call to update each other and set objectives at least once a week but otherwise communicate by email.
Ms Doyle is invoiced monthly with a breakdown of the work done. “With an employee, you’re paying for all the services,” she says. “With a virtual assistant, you target the services you need.”
The arrangement is part of a growing trend in the use of virtual assistants, or VAs, enabled by collaborative technology and globalisation. Many VAs do “fractional work” – specialist tasks for different clients, each of which takes a few hours a day or week.
Fabio Rosati, chief executive of Elance, an online employment platform, predicts that by 2020 at least 10 per cent of all work will be online and fractional. “Currently it’s less than 1 per cent,” he says. “It’s a nascent industry and we’re about a decade behind e-commerce.”
The US is by far the biggest market for virtual assistants, followed at a distance by Australia and the UK, with continental Europe only just starting to show interest, he says. The Elance website shows the total number of administrative support jobs posted rose by nearly 40 per cent to more than 180,000, worth $146m, in the past year.
While most American clients hire US-based virtual assistants, business people elsewhere in the world currently recruit mostly from lower cost countries such as India and The Philippines. Mr Rosati attributes this difference to the relative maturity of the US market.
Initially, clients go for low cost, he says, but as they become comfortable with the model they seek someone in their own time zone, familiar with their cultural needs and able to become a partner “like a true assistant”.
Solo entrepreneurs and small businesses are the most enthusiastic adopters of virtual assistants, but project teams and some executives in large companies are using them, too. However, Elance does not expect the rise of the VA to kill the market for full-time PAs. Instead, says Kjetil Olsen, vice-president for Europe, “what we will see is that there will be more hybrid organisations combining online and on-site staff”.
Scotland-based Martha Christie spent 15 years as a corporate office manager and PA and now works as a VA. She runs her own business, Martha’s SOS, and provides services for seven clients on different continents. “I do everything apart from bringing them tea and coffee,” she says.
She started offering administrative support through Elance six years ago while in a full-time corporate role. “I was working from home and I wanted to do something extra because I was getting bored.” She subsequently expanded into web and graphic design and social media management.
“Each day is different and that’s what I like about my job. Working nine to five for one person, day in day out, tends to get a bit monotonous.” She enjoys the autonomy of being her own boss, in control of her own time. “I get paid for the results of my work. Working from home in the online industry gives me the flexibility to do what I want. We’ve just had the school holidays and it’s been perfect for me. I’ve had the kids here and taken time out without having to go to my boss and say ‘I need time off’.”
While Ms Christie does not believe that corporate executives will easily give up having a personal assistant close to hand, she recommends PAs to research virtual work to see if it would suit them. “The way things are going in the economy, with the amount of redundancies, I do think they should be looking at the online industry, getting a feel for it, and being prepared,” she says.
Being an online contractor is not for everyone. It means living with uncertainty and having to make contingency plans in case clients suddenly move on. “To make a success of it, you have to be driven, focused and a quick learner. You’re an entrepreneur and your website is your resumé. You have to market your products continually.”
The importance of building trusting relationships between clients and VAs cannot be understated. Ms Christie advises clients to have a phone or video chat with a prospective VA, after the initial consultation. “Give them a test project. Work with them for a couple of weeks and see how you gel as a couple, because it is a relationship.”
Ms Doyle agrees that the personal chemistry has to work. She says her virtual assistant must reflect her values, and that is hard to discover until you start working together. “Long term and delivery are my values, so I expected to see these in my virtual PA. For her, delivering a really good quality of service to clients is very important.”
Clients also need to be very clear what they want their VA to do – far more so than in a face-to-face relationship. “It’s really important to give them as much information as possible. I prepared a complete summary of the business and each call in the early days was to explain every aspect of the business,” says Ms Doyle.
How easy is it to recreate the “human touch” in a virtual relationship? “It probably took at least a month to establish, so it’s fair to say that is longer than would be the case for a regular face-to-face relationship,” she adds.
“Developing good two-way communications is critical in any relationship, but is even more relevant for a virtual one as you have fewer signals available to interpret. We have regular weekly calls, usually on Monday or Friday, so we take the time to chat about life outside work and weekends. My VA has a young boy and I have two boys aged 11 and 13, so that makes conversation easy.”
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