HR & Employment

How virtual assistant services can help businesses

Bryan Brown | 9 September 2021 | 3 years ago

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

If you are new to the concept of Virtual Assistants and are not sure if you go down that route, here are some statistics which might, or might not, be relevant to your business needs:

  • The business professional outsourcing market was estimated to be £33.5 billion in the year 2000.  It climbed to £77 billion in 2014, and by 2020 it was estimated to be at £170.7 billion. The current estimation for 2021 is £180.5 billion. That is a growth of over 500 per cent in twenty years and a 9.4% growth year on year.
  • Hiring a Virtual Assistant could reduce your operating costs by up to 78% annually.
  • Office space, internet, and other sundry employee expenses are eliminated.
  • Training costs are reduced as a virtual assistant is comes with targeted skills.
  • Foreign Virtual Assistants are often less expensive than local employees due to a lower cost of living overseas, e.g. £600 per month versus £2,900 per month.
  • Virtual Assistant costs vary according to the number of tasks outsourced to them. A salary never varies.
  • Virtual Assistants value the work-from-home factor significantly and, therefore, tend to be more productive than in-office assistants. Studies show productivity improvements of thirteen per cent from remote working.
  • Fifty-six to seventy-seven per cent of staff felt they contributed more or were more productive from home.
  • Some studies are suggesting that traditionally high-performance workers show greater productivity working remotely while traditionally low-performance workers have further reduced performance when working remotely.
  • Work-from-home employees have fewer sick days.
  • Flexjob.com refers to research stating that £440 billion is lost annually due to workplace distractions.
  • Upwork has 8 million virtual assistants on its platform.
  • Due to the success of the arrangement, fifty-nine per cent of Virtual Assistants are offered full-time employment contracts while retaining the virtual component.
  • The majority of online brands have virtual workers located around the world.
  • The USA has forty-one million+ workers operating remotely, and 1.7 million workers in the UK are operating remotely (five per cent of the workforce).
  • Salaries or wages are more variable with Virtual Assistants as 87.7 per cent of them are paid hourly. Payments are made in relation to work achieved.
  • In-office workers are productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes per day. You pay for eight hours.
  • A study involving workers across the United States and Europe determined that ninety-seven per cent of freelancers or work-from-home employees were happier than their office-bound peers.
  • Fifty per cent of remote workers stated in a study that they work after-hours 2.5 days a week or more.
  • The number of freelance workers has increased globally by 29%. This trend is accelerating year on year.
  • The late-millennial generation is swiftly moving away from choosing 9-5 jobs. Gen Zers will be following this trend as disasters, such as global pandemics, have shown that having all your “employment eggs” in one basket is very high-risk for employers. Having multiple jobs, a.k.a ‘side gigs’ or ‘side hustles’, is a growing trend, and the top talent is going to demand, at the very least, a combination of in-office and at-home.
  • It is estimated that, in the United Kingdom, you can save approximately £10k per employee by utilising outsourcing or remote working.

The benefits of a Virtual Assistant

To put some of the benefits into tangible examples, here are some operational benefits obtained from using a Virtual Assistant.

Efficiency – Regardless of cost-saving, Virtual Assistants save you time. Delegate specific tasks that don’t need your expertise. Focus on what you do best: growing your business.

Diversity – A Virtual Assistant can handle diverse tasks. They don’t need to have a neat, focussed job description, e.g. fielding phone calls to designing websites.

Social media management – Social media accounts are an integral part of anyone’s business. If you are avoiding it, that is usually because of the extensive time it takes to manage them all. A Virtual Assistant can definitely help with this.

Sales leads – The data capturing of all potential customers and logging relevant updates are vital for sales conversions but is labour intensive and devours time. A virtual assistant can compile and analyse your leads database, weigh them, and keep your sales activities updated.

Customer service desk – Due to global time zone differences, responses to customer requests can land up taking 24 hours as you also need to prioritise tasks. You might miss their time zone by the time you are ready to reply. Your virtual assistant can reply faster, even if it is with a holding email. The longer they work for you, the easier it will be for them to answer queries independently. They can capture emails from queries into the aforementioned sales lead database or update your FAQ page on your website if necessary.

Optimisation – A virtual assistant is a good candidate for monitoring markets on your behalf, keeping track of competitor’s movements or marketing, monitor, take action or reply to reviews on social media.

Employee testing ground – This is not often considered but is a growing trend. You can use the Virtual Assistant model to test out potential employees. It is not easy finding the ideal employee who goes from a glowing interview to a soaring career. Using the virtual assistant model is an excellent opportunity to test out an employee short to medium term. If they work out, you can then offer them a permanent position.

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