In recent years, the idea of small business owners using a virtual assistant to outsource daily business tasks has gained popularity. But many people don't know how to hire or benefit from one. As someone who has successfully hired a personal assistant for my business as well as several virtual employees, here’s an overview of the issues involved in setting up and managing such relationships:
1. Determine if a virtual assistant will suit your business needs. First, figure out which tasks you would like to assign to an assistant and if it’s cost-effective.
Do an analysis of your business activities over the course of a day if not an entire week, writing down the minor tasks that are taking up time. Don’t rule out anything as a task a virtual assistant could not do.
While a United States-based virtual assistant can earn a salary that can start at about $15 an hour (and those with a specialty might command higher rates). Solid administrative-task virtual assistants from abroad, though, can be secured for as little as $3 to $6 an hour.
2. Understand the pros and cons of hiring a freelancer from an agency. It might be costlier pound for pound to hire a virtual assistant who's working for an agency, due to overhead costs, says Rich Pearson, senior vice president of categories and geographies at Elance-oDesk. (His company provides an online marketplace for hiring freelancers through the Elance.com and oDesk.com websites.) But an agency might arrange for an entrepreneur to use multiple assistants to smooth over gaps in availability or in skill sets.
Listings of available freelancers on the Elance and oDesk platforms include those who are paid by agencies and those who work independently. The entrepreneur can also post a job listing.
Pearson says using a freelancer who's not on contract with an agency can result in more personalized attention, given that it's just that one person on the gig. An agency might rotate in multiple virtual assistants for one assignment or pull one away at a whim. The most dedicated personal assistants almost always are independent freelancers with whom the entrepreneur builds a relationship with (as opposed to those freelancers hired through an agency), Pearson says.
When deciding between choosing a virtual assistant who's located in the United States versus someone abroad, Pearson says, consider how important is it for the person to be awake while you work and how aware of American culture you need the person to be.
Related: 4 Ways to Manage Remote Employees
3. Do prep work to create a great job listing. When writing your well-edited, detailed job listing, always put in a call to action that merits a response to see if the applicant has read the description. For example, ask the applicant to provide examples of his or her work.
There will be indications when a candidate seems motivated. I found it particularly telling one Saturday to receive a phone call from Nairobi from Joan, who’s now my personal assistant, asking if she could be interviewed right away (even though I had not yet had a chance to look over all the messages from those who responded to my ad).
4. Hiring the assistant. Go through the bids that come in and create a list of the applicants whose responses you like, read their reviews and then line up interviews. A platform like oDesk's can show an entrepreneur how a candidate scored on an English proficiency exam and how many jobs he or she has previously done. I like oDesk for its ability to generate a contract, monitor work and set up a payment system.
A video conference interview with an applicant is a must and will serve a few purposes: It can reveal the person's grasp of English and the setting that he or she will likely be working from -- and if it's an orderly place from which to make a phone call on your behalf and the applicant's overall demeanor (enthusiasm and ability to think on his or her feet).
5. Managing the assistant. While the hiring of a virtual personal assistant can free up your day, the burden is on you to allocate tasks smartly and effectively so that happens. Generally speaking, the more specific you are in explaining tasks, the better. Ideally, as a result of good management, a virtual assistant will in time learn your work style and you will be able to give that person more responsibility and encourage more initiative taking.
Don’t hesitate to share with the assistant Google Drive documents outlining the who, what, where and when of daily tasks, including relevant rules, permissions and passwords.
A Google search for “virtual assistant tools” reveals an abundance of gadgets that can be used by entrepreneurs who are open to managing assistants on their own.
Online social-media entrepreneur Audrey Melnik of ZootRock in San Francisco explained to me how she hires and manages her virtual assistant. “We use two tools," she writes in an email. "The first is called Process Street that allows you to set up a repeatable process," for the virtual assistant to run through each time. The person checks off the steps and add comments where appropriate. "The second is a screen shot tool that takes images of the [assistants'] screen regularly and tracks their productive time so you can be clear on what they are working on when and capture evidence of them working the hours they are charging you for.”
Encourage your assistant to offer you feedback, lending more warmth to the remote-work arrangement. Assistants might not provide feedback unless you ask, yet their ideas are often spot-on given their proximity to the work.
It will be up to you to decide whether to trust your assistant with information like passwords and other sensitive materials. Start out with small things, such as granting access to social-media accounts. You may want to consider having an assistant sign a nondisclosure agreement.
“Big things like the virtual assistant's booking your vacation can come later," Pearson says. "Training starts with trust, and that means small things at first.”
When possible meet your virtual assistant at least once in person and try to have a video conference at least quarterly. Ultimately, a virtual assistant is not just another cog in your business machine, but an employee and certainly a human. So remember to treat this person as such.
Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to clarify that a virtual assistant in the United States can earn a salary that starts at $15 an hour.