She's 1,500 miles away, I've never met her but she's changed the way I work forever

Virtual assistants - the key to freeing up your valuable time
Written by Danny Bradbury, Contributor

Virtual assistants - the key to freeing up your valuable time

A virtual team could revolutionise the way that even full-time employees work. Danny Bradbury should know - he's been working this way for years.

If time really is money, then logically, you should be able to buy yourself some. The good news is that you can, if you pay an assistant to take on some of your time-consuming tasks for you.

Virtual assistants who handle administrative tasks for you online are a growing trend. Look on freelance websites such as oDesk.com or Elance.com, and you'll see them advertising en masse. Guru.com was where I found mine in 2008, and even though she works 1,500 miles away and I've never physically met her, she's changed the way I work forever.

I decided on a virtual assistant after reading Timothy Ferriss's The 4-Hour Workweek. It's a book about concentrating on your valuable work and eliminating the mundane, administrative parts. These are the parts that don't exploit your skills, and therefore don't earn you as much money.

My value lies in researching, reading, interviewing, understanding the industry, and writing about it. I'm also good at chasing down elusive interviewees in investigative mode, and of course, the occasional sales call.

The mundane stuff best left to someone else involves juggling calendars with willing non-investigative interviewees, collecting photographs of them for publication, invoicing for articles, and processing payments. PR companies must be told what I'm writing about so that they can pitch interviewees. Articles of mine must be assembled into an electronic clippings file for new prospects, and also sent to interviewees for their records.

woman working on keyboard virtual assistants

Could a virtual assistant help you reach a four-hour working week?
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

I eventually found a virtual assistant called Kim, based in the midwestern US, who understands the nuances of my job, and who charges a reasonable, and tax-deductible, fee.

Technology helps to make it work. Google Apps lets me share a calendar with her, so that appointments she arranges synchronise with my iPhone. If an interviewee has to shift interview times, she handles it without me needing to know. If I get sick and have to reschedule eight interviews booked that day, I can go back to bed and let her take care of it.

There are some critical factors that will help keep the relationship with your virtual assistant productive.

Don't be tempted to handoff your value-added work. Set the threshold for the type of work that you are comfortable outsourcing, and don't go beyond it. I would never let my assistant choose my interviewees, or interview them.

At least until you build up a level of trust, monitor their activities every once in awhile. I have full access to an email account that my assistant uses to communicate on my behalf.

Set security boundaries. My assistant regularly books flights and hotels, I get her to invoice me via PayPal and buy the tickets on her own account, rather than handing over credit card information that could be stolen from her house or PC...

More people like Kim are finding themselves able to work from home in a business model that Sebastien Ruest, VP for services and technology research at IDC Canada, calls the "single person corporation".

"The boundaries of corporations are disappearing, and we'll see extended enterprises, expanding across concrete borders," he said.

"Everyone across the value chain will be a provider, and you can assign a dollar value to each of those components. They each become a capital entity.

"In the future, people will come together in virtual teams, assembling and disbanding mini-companies on the fly. Today's virtual assistant concept is simply the start of that process."

However, this won't come without its problems. As more people partake in what he calls a virtual industrial revolution, jobs that were previously tied to companies will suddenly become more fluid.

"There will be casualties. People will have to evolve or die," Ruest said, predicting that some of these jobs may even move overseas. In his book, Ferriss advises readers to look to India for virtual assistants, where you can pick up services for as little as $5 per hour.

Won't this leave us in trouble, as tens or potentially hundreds of thousands of data entry personnel, clerks and secretaries suddenly find these freelancers competing for their jobs, potentially from overseas? And as these jobs become more automated, thanks to increasingly sophisticated online tools such as web scheduling systems, won't human freelancers have to compete with computerised tools, too?

Geoff Shmigelsky at Singularity University, a San Francisco bay area institute that teaches about the effect of new technologies on future societal developments, said the jobs will evolve in line with the technologies and business models.

"People said the internet would replace banks and travel agents. Has that happened? No. It simply empowers people to do much more," he said.

And taking these tasks offshore isn't as easy as it might seem. I initially used a virtual assistant company in India but found the experience to be unsatisfactory. The single liaison these companies give you generally hand off your tasks to a team comprised of tens of individuals that can find it hard to provide consistent service.

For now at least, virtual assistants in the West have huge career potential. They offer significant benefits, perhaps even for full-time employees who might outsource some of their tasks to help ease their work day.

The relationship raises potential security problems, however, and will depend on the company's policy when it comes to allowing information beyond its borders, and evaluating staff performance. For us freelancers who represent a growing proportion of the working population, however, it's a no-brainer. So, if we happen to run across each other, dear reader, let my people talk to your people.

You do have people... don't you?

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