Freelancers are increasingly in demand as companies value the flexibility and cost effectiveness of their services. Even personal assistants (PAs), traditionally the heart-and-soul of an office, are working out of the office.
This move has created opportunities for those who love being a PA, but not the lengthy commute or the long office hours, to do the same work as a virtual assistant, or VA, on a self employed basis, from the comfort of their home. And with email, internet and Skype technology at their disposal, there is little that they did in the office that they can’t do remotely, except, perhaps, make the coffee.
The move from PA to VA is one that has paid off for 38-year-old Zeina Barker. She spent six years commuting to London from Tonbridge in Kent to work in a number of support roles in the financial sector. But after having her son in 2007, she decided that she would like to make her work fit around family life, instead of the other way around, and began exploring her options for working from home.
She says: “I did a lot of research into becoming a virtual assistant, which at that time was quite a new concept in the UK. I joined a couple of webinars on how to start and where to start, and also took a management training course so that my skills would be absolutely up to date.”
Barker then began exploring the various online freelance websites where she could find work, eventually registering with People Per Hour where freelancers can search and bid for projects across a wide range of professions and business sectors. Although there was plenty of work available, the competition was fierce.
“I realised I was competing against a lot of other people with similar skills and experience, and because there was a bidding process against VAs in countries like India, who were bidding at incredibly low rates,” she says.
Her solution was to take a more strategic approach, promoting her specialist skills – research and foreign languages (she speaks Arabic) and targeting startups, consultancies and small-business owners, who needed those skills on a flexible basis.
She says: “It took me a good year, with very little income, but eventually I started getting the type of work that I wanted. Part of the challenge was that at that time, business people were still sceptical about the idea of their personal assistant working remotely, but more and more companies are now realising that you don’t have to be physically present to provide your service.” Her clients hail from a variety of sectors and countries, including France, Luxembourg and the Middle East.
She says: “If there is a downside, it is that the workflow and therefore your pay does fluctuate, but when it does dip I simply bid for more projects. I know my clients, and we do have a good working relationship, even though we are based miles apart. Doing this job from home suits me and my family.”
Switching from PA to VA is a move that has also suited Julia Stubblefield, 41, who previously worked for organisations such as the BBC, Siemens and Johnson & Johnson, but now works from her home in Maidenhead, Berkshire.
She says: “A lot of the work involves things like diary management and handling emails, which can all be done remotely very easily. The difference is that I can do it from home, and with three young children, that gives me the flexibility that I need.”
Her decision to become a virtual assistant was made earlier this year when she began researching freelance opportunities and resources, and came across Time Etc, a virtual workforce platform with hundreds of VAs on its books.
“I didn’t want to join a freelance website where you have to look for the work yourself and compete with other freelancers. Time etc. will find the work for you, and since I joined in March I’ve worked as a virtual assistant for two companies,” says Stubblefield.
“Hourly rates of pay are set by Time Etc and are lower than what I previously earned as a PA, but with the money I’ve been able to save on things like petrol, lunches, and clothes, I’m not too far off it. And there is scope to take on extra work from other clients, although it is a good idea not to overdo it,” she says.
Virtual assistants with Time Etc have their work quality controlled by project managers who check they are meeting deadlines and completing the work to a high standard. By using freelancer who are registered on the site, business clients can effectively build remote workforces, overseen by the project managers. As a result once VAs are signed up, repeat custom is easier to find.
Time Etc founder Barnaby Lashbrooke says: “The responsibility of having to find new business is what puts some people off. Being a VA requires being proactive, but many PAs find they have excellent contacts who are more than willing to recommend them, or keep them on part time.
“Competition can be fierce so you’ll need to be creative about how you show off your skills, and how you apply for projects and roles. It goes without saying that working across multiple clients requires excellent administrative and organisational skills. Fortunately, good PAs have these in abundance.”
This article was originally published on 25 November 2013
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