HR & Employment · 9 September 2021

How virtual assistant services can help businesses

3500 Virtual Assistants with websites for VA services

If you search for the phrase ‘Virtual assistant services’ on Google, you will get approximately 800 million results in just 0.54 seconds. That is an astonishing amount, but we are not here to glorify the seemingly steroid-enhance performance of Google’s A.I. The purpose is to highlight the explosion of the industry as business owners and executives become more aware of the benefits of VAs for their specific business needs.

The history of Virtual Assistants

Before Virtual Assistants, there were, and still are, Secretaries and Personal Assistants. What most people forget is that the original secretarial position was only open to male applicants. In the first half of the 19th century, Sir Isaac Pitman published a shorthand method he had invented and founded the world’s first educational centre for secretarial services, viz Pitman Secretarial Colleges. These colleges were, again, only for men. Nearly 150 years later, the colleges transformed into Pitman Training in the early 1990s.

Sir Isaac Pitman introduced office efficiency and communication solutions that revolutionised the work environment. Initially, as with all market disruptors, his methods were looked upon with scepticism, but, retrospectively, we can see that he was centuries ahead of his time (On January 4th, 2013 was Sir Pitman’s 200th birthday).

It was many decades before women were accepted into a secretarial job, and some may argue that the near-failure of the typewriter was a catalyst. In 1873, the first triumphant supply of typewriter machines was launched by the US gun-maker E Remington and Sons, but they met with huge resistance and were on the verge of the product being filed away as a failed invention. A very talented, lateral thinker in the Remington marketing department proposed the concept of selling typing as a woman-appropriate task as it was not heavy labour nor required intellectual input. The target market became the middle-class businessman’s daughters.

Up until the second half of the 19th-century, women were absent from offices. By the fourth quarter of the 19th century, there were less than 1000 females hired into offices. There was, however, an explosion from then onwards, with records showing 125,000  female office ‘clerks’ by 1911. Jump forward to 1961, and you will find 1.8 million females in the office environment and, by 2001 records, show 2.5 million females in clerical office jobs.

This emancipation of women, which, no doubt we still scoff at in our liberal times, was remarked on in the American Journal in 1898: “No expert can manage either the typewriter or the bicycle while she is held in a close-fitting cage of whalebone and steel.” Riding a bicycle was considered a very liberal activity for a woman in the late 19th century, so add an office job to that, and it’s quite revolutionary.

By 1942 the number of females in offices, as secretaries, brought about the formation of the National Secretaries Association (NSA) in the USA, changing to the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) in 1998.  Secretarial positions are again moving away from being gender-specific, with the appointment of men becoming more socially acceptable again. Fifty-four years after the creation of the NSA, a new industry sector has emerged, viz the “Virtual Assistant”.

The beginning of the Virtual Assistant industry

The Virtual Assistant industry is not as new as most people assume. Many online articles link the ‘start date’ to the year 1996, but it is, in fact, a few years earlier in 1992. A female entrepreneur, Anastacia Brice, left her mainstream employment with the wish to work from home. Clearly, decades ahead of her time, she established a remote-based business of travel planning and executive assistance in 1992 for business owners and C-category executives. In 1996, she became the virtual assistant to the owner of Coach U, Thomas J. Leonard, and in 1997, Ms Brice founded AssistU, a dedicated virtual assistance business.

Today, virtual assistant services range from call centres in Asia, which are cheaper, to highly specialised options with specific language, profession, or technical capabilities. With technology making the services seamless and more diverse, the services offered are almost unlimited, bar the making of tea or pouring your whisky.

Virtual assistants can assist in every industry, from medical to real estate to space exploration. All industries need back-office, front desk, or administrative support.

It is estimated that approximately 90% of Virtual Assistants are women who are balancing home and child care with work. This balance creates a motivated, healthy workforce who are deeply invested in their work.

The industry continues to grow globally, and the past two years have seen many other positions become virtual or remote jobs. The Virtual Assistance industry in the Philippines, for example, consists of an estimated 20,000 people and contributes to approximately 2.5% of the Philippines’ GDP. In the UK, an expected ‘mobilepreneur’ revolution over the next three years, which should add £790million to the GDP, is also anticipated to generate 35,000 new jobs, including virtual assistants.

How to hire a Virtual Assistant

A virtual assistant is a remote-based freelancer who provides administrative help with diverse professional functions that support a company in achieving its goals. They will use technological tools to carry out the tasks and to give you task tracking ability.

In order for you to get the best match of assistant-to-needs, we recommend you follow these steps:

Step 1: Define your needs – While the services will have general headings, the combination or basket of services will be different per business or entrepreneur. Every virtual assistant business will have unique strengths, so the more precise you are with defining your needs, the better your match will be to a Virtual Assistant.

Step 2: Post the position – Advertise the position online and add a few litmus tests in the posting to filter out, for example, individuals who pay attention to detail, have legal skills, or have proficiency in English.

Step 3: Remote interviews – Interview your shortlist remotely, testing punctuality, comfort with technology, and language and social interaction skills. Get all applicants to complete test tasks related to future tasks but be cognisant that they are not familiar with your needs.

Step 4: Probation period – Nominate the winning candidate on the basis of a paid probation period with a contract. The freelancer must set up a contract for you to sign as a client, with an end date (probation end date) and a clause stating that early notice, of a few days, can be given by either party. Freelancers have no rights to notice periods but giving a few days notice is fair play. Hopefully, it works out well, and you can sign a longer contract.

The statistics around the Virtual Assistant industry



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