Outsourcing your weaknesses to a virtual assistant

I’m a bit naff at admin. I can “do detail”, but it’s exhausting. I’m much happier operating at the big picture level. I hate creating power point decks as it takes an eternity to turn my ideas into something that looks nice. At work, I am fortunate to be able to surround myself with a group of experts that balance out my weaknesses. I can set direction, allocate budgets and empower my team to make it happen. My career has benefited from my building on my strengths rather than trying to “fix” my weaknesses. I do what I am good at and encourage others to do the same.

At home, I have outsourced remembering to get coffee to pact coffee. My wife ensures I stick on top of domestic admin like car tax and insurance. I work out all the fun stuff to do when we plan holidays (in part to avoid the fear of missing out FOMO) and my good lady ensures we turn up to the airport having booked parking, with passports, e-tickets, and reservation details for everything.

The way that I ensure I do what I am good at and don’t get tripped up by the things I struggle with is by surrounding myself with good people.

I have recently started delivering management training as a sideline to my regular day job. It’s only a day a week and providing the training is rewarding. I am contracting through a friend who has simplified loads of the corporate admin (e.g. he sorts out the professional liability insurance) and provided a template for the stuff I needed to do myself. Only a few weeks into this new venture and I am starting to think about the support I might need to excel in this role.

It was The 4 Hour Work Week that introduced me to the concept of virtual personal assistants. It’s not just software development you can offshore – you can get virtual assistants to research for you, schedule meetings, monitor online profiles, and so on. Any task that can be defined can be outsourced. Task Rabbit will even find someone to assemble your flat pack furniture.

A virtual assistant is a remote assistant that performs tasks on your behalf. They can operate anywhere in the world and can be hired to take on all sorts of your day-to-day tasks. It’s like hiring a normal assistant except they don’t sit in your office and eat your biscuits. Which is great especially if your office is your bedroom.

Politicians don’t write speeches themselves so why should you write your slides? For some tasks, it is a time optimisation opportunity. Getting someone to do search engine magic for your website is going to be more time efficient than learning how to do it yourself. For other tasks such as tax returns and legal documents, it is about ensuring acceptable quality.

The beauty of a virtual assistant is that you can buy as much or as little time as you want, typically on a flexible basis. You don’t need to worry about pay role and pensions, and you can terminate at short notice

How to hire a virtual assistant

Decide what to outsource

When considering how to free up your time it is essential not to outsource anything that can be automated.  It is much easier to delegate or outsource a well-defined task than an ambiguous task. These are also tasks that can be automated. It is also wise not to automate any task that should be eliminated. As you start thinking about paying someone to do tasks, it becomes easier to contemplate not doing them. It is easier to see the lack of return on investment when looking at money than when looking at your own time.

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.

Bill Gates

The type of task you want to outsource will help to shape the kind of VA you will need.  Some VAs are strictly business, and some offer personal admin too. Did you know you can outsource arguing with your wife – AJ Jacobs is perhaps not a typical VA user though.

Claire at Clairical recommends creating 3 lists to freedom. Each time you start a task you consider if that task needs to be done by you, tasks you should definitely outsource, and tasks which you don’t need to do day to day.  There is a worksheet on the Clairical website to help with the exercise.

If your list is filled with groups of specific tasks needing skills personnel (web development, accountancy, contracts) then you need to ensure potential VAs can provide these services.  You may also want to consider multiple VAs if, for example, you have a mix of specialist tasks and clerical tasks.

Local or Global

Recruiting a virtual assistant in New Dehli might be cheaper than one from Newport. You should consider likely VA costs not on a per hour basis but on a per task basis.  If more time is required to explain tasks and to manage rework then a lower per hour cost can deliver a high total cost. If you have not outsourced or delegated functions before it is probably easier to start with a local VA. Some local VAs work on a regional basis so that that can meet clients face to face. In the real world rather than on Skype. Going very local can limit the pool of potential assistants. This can be offset if local knowledge is an advantage, for example, to help with event planning. 

A UK based VA might cost in the range £15-£30 an hour. Globally you can get services for under $7 (USD). If you want to go global then get a copy of the 4 Hour Work Week as there is loads of advice in there on how to do it effectively.

Solo or Service

Some VA arrangements are with a specific individual in a company of one. You are essentially buying a slice of their time. Other VAs are a company with multiple assistants in a (possibly virtual) office. In the office setup, you may be allocated a lead person or each task might be farmed out across the team depending on work levels.   

A solo service is a single point of failure. What will you do if your assistant is ill or on holiday? On the flip side if your tasks are shared with an anonymous team of faceless virtual assistants you will never build a working relationship with your VA. Chose your poison.

Find potential assistants

Recommendations are the best way to find a virtual assistant. Failing that google is your friend. From the multitude of results compile a list of those that offer the services you want at a price and on terms you are comfortable with.

Screen Assistants

The next step is to conduct an initial screening to reduce down your long list. Contact the companies on your long list and make initial enquiries. Request a sample of the contract they work under and confirmation of any required qualifications. Check they have professional indemnity insurance and are registered with Information Commissioners Office. Request references.

While contacting the company and collecting this information you should rate the experience of the interaction. Are they friendly and helpful? Do they respond promptly with the required documents? This will likely rule out a number from the long list. 

Interview candidates

If you are going local with an actual person, then the interview is just like an interview for a normal job. If you are going for a service-based approach then still interview (skype etc if remote) but remember the person you speak to might not be the person working for you. While you are doing this also follow up on the references – what do their customers say about them?

If you are recruiting an assistant with a view to working with them for many hours in a typical week, you should also conduct a chemistry check. This can be as simple as a chat over coffee and it about checking out how well you might get along.

Give your top candidates a test

Based on the interviews give the best two or 3 candidates or service providers a test. Get them to do the sort of tasks they will be doing and evaluate the results. If you are prepared to splash out you could even give the same job to each of them and see who does the best job. Interviews are all well and good but it is job performance that counts. This approach is vital if you are going for a service based firm.

Give the top candidate a trial period

Once the tests results are in you are ready to start using a VA with an initial commitment period. You get to decide what best is. It might be the cheapest at an acceptable level of quality. It might be the most responsive. It might be the person that “clicked” with you. 

Case Study 1

Emma, the DyspraxicDoctor, uses Claire at Clairical as her virtual assistant.  Like many small business owners, Emma wants to concentrate on what she is good at and not be overwhelmed with routine and admin tasks.

Emma has engaged Clairical to manager her diary. Claire is super organised and helps keep Emma on top of things. In addition to simply scheduling appointments, Claire will put the time in the calendar to prepare for those appointments, travel to and from them, and do post appointment follow up. While doing this Claire is helping Emma to establish systems to make the business run better.

On an ad-hoc basis, Emma will use Clairical to plan and organise events that she is running. Like with the appointment management this frees Emma to focus on her specialities.

Emma and Claire meet up regularly to review how things are going.  Emma will use these sessions to bounce ideas off Claire. This then helps to develop goals for the business.

Case Study 2

Jonathan is an openly dyslexic senior manager in a large government department.  He made having a full-time assistant a condition of his acceptance of a demanding role. Lisa, his assistant, works geographically remote from Jonathan but they keep in touch through an open chat window and regular Skype calls.

Jonathan has always functioned better when supported by a PA. His dyslexic strengths of interconnectedness, narrative reasoning are complimented with poor time management and focus issues that border on ADHD. 

Just like Emma, Jonathan has surrendered control of his diary. Lisa schedules his time to do work and attend meetings. She will also help capture action points and ensure he follows up on them. Lisa keeps an eye out to check if things that might get missed have been spotted.

Jonathan is articulate but like many dyslexics can struggle to condense his ideas into a linear text that other people can grasp. He can talk through his ideas with Lisa to help form a structure, highlight key points and deprecate redundant information.

Jonathan’s use of a PA to capitalise on his dyslexic strengths (and overcome the consequential weaknesses) highlights the opportunity to pursue such an arrangement as a reasonable adjustment.

Much of the selection process Jonathan used to chose his assistant was like the processes he would use for recruiting any member of staff. For this particular role, he placed additional emphasis on the chemistry check during the recruitment process. It is a close working relationship with a full-time assistant, even if they are remote.  It was important to check they had compatible working styles and that conversation would flow naturally.

The magic with an assistant starts to happen when you know each other on a personal level. A tuned in PA will pick up on the significant things that may not seem that important. An example of that is if Jonathan having a sleepless night due to a teething child. This can exacerbate his negative dyslexic tendencies so Lisa will rearrange his day accordingly to compensate for this.

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