The pandemic didn't just make offices virtual. It has also made office assistants virtual.
More than half of American employees say they'd prefer to be remote at least three days a week even after the pandemic, according to a recent PWC study. Some of these workers now migrate between rentals in the Sunbelt during the winter and their homes up north in summer. Others have completely untethered, trading in their homes for RVs and total location independence.
"The pandemic proved that all of the talent doesn't necessarily have to be in the office," says Jeff Amon, CEO of The Clear Desk, a company that provides outsourcing services. "In fact, oftentimes it is beneficial to have them out of the office."
The fix is a new kind of assistant — a virtual assistant (VA) — trained to meet the needs of the nomadic labor force.
But what's a virtual assistant? How do you use one? How much should you pay for a VA? And how do you find one? More mobile workers than ever are asking themselves those questions, including me.
A virtual assistant is a freelancer who provides administrative, creative or technical help for clients remotely, usually from a home office.... Virtual assistants take their craft one step beyond freelancing platforms like Upwork or Fiverr, providing mobile entrepreneurs with assistants on an ongoing basis. And the virtual aspect can also translate into savings.
"The quality of virtual assistants is extremely high while their cost — particularly for overseas VAs — remains relatively low compared to traditional employees," notes Nickell. "Virtual assistants often have college degrees, valuable skills, extensive work experience, and the perfect disposition to work effectively in a remote environment."
Mark Whitman has used virtual assistants for "all kinds of tasks." Those include content writing, search engine optimization (SEO), social media and newsletter production, and general administrative tasks like managing calendars and email accounts.
Whitman is the CEO of the travel site Mountain IQ. During the pandemic, with demand for virtual assistants on the rise, he started a new venture called Tasket, which matches location-independent entrepreneurs with virtual help.
Whitman told me that even though virtual assistants can do almost anything, it doesn't mean they can do it well. When you're not working in an office, you have to spell out all of your expectations. That's how he does it.
"Every task comes with a detailed step-by-step standard operating procedure that sets out exactly how a task needs to be completed," he says. The procedures must be so detailed that anyone could pick one up and complete a task without training."
I've also spoken with other location-independent entrepreneurs who say they've switched most of their business to using virtual assistants because of the money they save. You can find an English-speaking virtual assistant for as little as $5 an hour in some countries. But that can be problematic on several levels.
Kari DePhillips works with several virtual assistants who help with her public relations and SEO business, The Content Factory.
"I have a few different virtual assistants I work with for different types of projects," she explains. "For instance, one is a systems expert who manages our email marketing setup. This virtual assistant charges $45 per hour. But I have others that I pay $20 per hour. It's less specialized work, like research."
She even outsources the work of finding and vetting virtual assistants. She turned to Digital Nomad Kit for help. The company provides a matchmaking service for people who want to find a qualified virtual assistant.
Hannah Dixon, who runs Digital Nomad Kit, says anyone considering a VA needs to think about ethics in their hiring decision. Hiring by nationality — which is code for paying substandard wages for virtual help — can be an issue.
"People are beginning to seek out and pay virtual assistants according to the value of their skills and experience, with nationality not being a factor," she says. "This is something I have been advocating for years, and it's really encouraging to see a marked shift in direction for this space."
If the idea of a virtual assistant resonates in a post-pandemic world, you are not alone. My life is so disorganized that I can't even find the words to describe it. So when I saw Emerald Storm's site, which listed "chaos management" as a specialty, I had to know more.
Storm, whose eponymous virtual assistant company has grown by 263% this year, says her growth has come from referrals — people whose lives have been changed by hiring a virtual assistant.
"From our perspective, we sell the most important resource a person can have: time," she says.
But there's a right way and a wrong way to buy time.
Take inventory. Make a list of all the things you do in a day, in a week, in a month. Then decide what you can delegate and ask the virtual assistant you're considering if they can do those things. You might find you need more tech support than calendar management, so you want to make sure your virtual assistant aligns with your needs.
Don't go with the cheapest option. It's almost always the wrong one. "I've had so many clients who come to me after two or three bad experiences hiring overseas or even domestically because they went with the cheapest option," she says. "They are burned out, hurt, and out all the money and time that went into trying to make the cheaper option work."
Do a gut check. Are you ready to let go of the reins and trust someone to do the work? Are you prepared to train your virtual assistant to do things to your preferences? Are you ready to make yourself available to answer questions and give guidance, especially during the first eight weeks? If the answer is yes, you're ready for a virtual assistant, she says.
After researching this article, I decided to tame the chaos in my own life. I'm going to find a virtual assistant. But that's another story.