Why a VA could be your greatest asset

Virtual assistants aren’t here to replace you, says Ruth MacKay –they’ll help relieve your heavy workload so you can work at a higher level

As rapidly evolving technology continues to disrupt the global workforce, employees at all levels are being asked to re-imagine their roles in the new reality of technology-enabled work. And, for busy EAs, hiring a virtual assistant (VA) could free you up to take a more strategic approach to your evolving role.

First, there’s an important distinction between the proliferation of offshore VAs and the rise of sophisticated virtual workforce models. The Philippines, for example, has become a hot spot for virtual staffing companies that offer cut-price workers to assist with basic duties – to be clear, this isn’t the type of virtual work I advocate.

Instead, the most effective virtual workers must be hired, trained and managed by you. They must understand and buy into the culture of your organisation and be trusted to represent your brand values to your clients and stakeholders.

Often, the best virtual employees will already have worked in a bricks-and-mortar office environment at your company and may even have been identified as a virtual work candidate for their proven track record as a productive independent worker with a sound understanding of internal business goals and strategies.

In this sense, the virtual workforce is not a set-and-forget proposition that can be outsourced to an offshore virtual staffing company. Rather, a VA would require daily management, to feel connected to your company and on a set career path just as any other employee.

Why you need a VA
Let me stress that a virtual assistant can’t and shouldn’t replace an experienced EA. After all, you’re instrumental to your boss’s success and your rapport can’t be replicated by a VA. But you can use them to help relieve some aspects of your workload and free up time for the higher value tasks that increasingly dominate the PA role.

Could a VA complete data entry, work on research tasks, virtually man your phone line for set periods or draft correspondence? Then you’re available for work that’ll make you more valuable to your manager and company – meetings with the boss, building relationships with key clients and internal stakeholders, and identifying new opportunities that will help your manager achieve their KPIs.

It’s good for building your profile too – by pioneering virtual work at your company; you can develop a reputation as an agent of change and become a trusted consultant as other departments seek to replicate your ideas in future.

Need to convince the boss?
Virtual work will deliver many benefits to your company, but chief among them is a vastly improved employee retention rate (if you recruit from within). People value the flexibility offered by a virtual workplace, and even something as simple as avoiding a congested daily commute can significantly improve employee satisfaction and keep your best people from seeking greener pastures elsewhere.

Looking externally, virtual work opportunities are becoming an increasingly important recruitment tool and it could help your manager attract the top talent without offering inflated salaries.

How to find your VA
Recruiting virtual workers from within your organisation is ideal if possible as they’ll already understand your culture and its greater strategic goals. But whether you’re recruiting internally or externally, there are some important qualities you should look for in virtual work candidates:

  • Results-orientated people with innate problem-solving skills tend to make the most effective virtual workers.
  • Look for those who are good at building relationships – and those who put time into maintaining the relationships they’ve built with their colleagues.
  • Effective virtual workers also need to instinctively set appropriate boundaries between their work and personal lives.
  • They should feel fulfilled in their jobs and not require constant in-person reassurance to be content in the role.
  • High-level communication skills are essential.
  • They should be technologically competent.
  • Finally, they must be able to demonstrate strong self-discipline.

You’ve got your VA –now, how do you manage them?
If you’re used to managing a face-to-face team, this will be a little different…

  • First, there’s no place for micro-managers (the boss who constantly looks over your shoulder) in the virtual workforce. The antidote to micro-management is trust – and communication is the key to building trust with your VA.
  • Be in daily contact and not just via email. Virtual classrooms and frequent video conferences are key tools for you, and you must also set clear expectations. For example, define exactly what you mean when you ask for a fast response –within the hour, the day or the week?
  • It’s also vital to set delivery milestones for your VA so you can track the progress of projects. This will ensure any potential bottlenecks are identified early and help you to avoid deadline blowouts.
  • Finally, it’s important not to ignore social interaction. Take some time each day to have a short non-work-related conversation – much like you would with colleagues around the water cooler in a bricks-and-mortar office environment. Building a social relationship will help you to develop a stronger rapport and ensure your virtual employee feels like a valued part of your greater team.

Get that right and you’ll be well on your way to building a mutually beneficial relationship with a VA who can shoulder part of your workload and open the door to a more strategic EA role for you, and help you increase your profile as an agent of change within your company.

Ruth is a pioneer of virtual workforce implementation and management and wrote the book The 21st Century Workforce. She is also managing director of OURTEL Fundraising Solutions and manages her own virtual workforce.