The Way We Work
November 16, 2011 by Julia Camenisch

Admit it. Sometimes you just need an extra hand (or two) to accomplish all the items currently crammed into your to-do list. It’s a familiar feeling — for every one task crossed off the list, two are added. While you might not have the capital to hire a full-time assistant or the office space to house an on-site secretary, how about a virtual assistant?

A good virtual assistant — which you can find through oDesk — can be your right-hand man (or woman). From answering e-mails and managing social media accounts to setting appointments and providing programming support, the list of tasks a virtual assistant (VA) can help you with is long. And good VAs will not just shorten your to-do list; they can also increase your productivity and, by correlation, your business profitability.

The “Help-Wanted” Checklist

To determine whether hiring a virtual assistant is a good option for you, make a list of the following:

  1. The tasks outside of your core competencies that siphon off large amounts of your time
  2. The items on your to-do list that you never have time to get to
  3. Repetitive tasks that could easily be accomplished by someone else
  4. How you would use your time if the above items were taken off your plate

Take a look at your answers to the first three questions. If your lists are long, you should strongly consider hiring a virtual assistant. On the other hand, if those lists are short, you may need to regularly set aside a few hours each week to knock out those items on your agenda.

As to the fourth question, it’s important to consider whether or not a virtual assistant would save you money by freeing you up to concentrate on other revenue-generating tasks. As with all hires, ROI is important!

Find True (Virtual) Help

You have determined you need the aid a VA can provide — now it’s time to find the perfect match. Here are a few points to keep in mind as you conduct that search:

  • Look for an assistant who has verifiable references, preferably from other business owners. Your VA will potentially have access to important business and personal information, so you need to be sure they are trustworthy.
  • Re-examine the list of tasks you need a virtual assistant to do. Based on that list, jot down some of the key skills and qualities your VA needs to have. Then, examine potential candidates’ resumes in light of those essential characteristics.
  • Craft a straightforward contract that clearly stipulates your expectations for your assistant as well as what she should expect from you. Discuss that document with your top candidates to ensure you’re both on the same page.
  • Hire a VA for a test run. Assign him some non-essential tasks in order to see how he handles communication, as well as how diligent he is in completing the tasks as assigned. This type of trial run allows you to see if you and your virtual assistant are a good fit. Remember though, even if it’s just a test job, they still need to be fully compensated for their time. Here’s a great past oDesk post on how a test job should work.

Effective Management Tips

If you are used to being a lone ranger, it can be difficult to get into the groove of managing someone else’s time and work duties. But if you don’t, you might find yourself frustrated with your assistant … and it won’t be his fault. Keep everyone happy by following these guidelines:

  • Make yourself available. One advantage an on-site secretary has over her virtual counterparts is the ease of communication with her boss. Your VA doesn’t have the luxury of being able to poke his head inside your office door to ask a question, so you need to make yourself accessible to him during a set period of time. Also, provide multiple lines of communication. Twitter, Skype, e-mail, and similar channels all make good communication tools, so make use of them.
  • Set deadlines and priorities. Let your assistant know which tasks are most important as well as when you need them completed. That way your VA’s work can mirror your expectations.
  • Create a manual of key processes in order to cut down on FAQs. Especially when there are repetitive tasks, having a procedure manual will speed up the training process as well as provide a benchmark for a job well done.
  • Make sure e-mails don’t get missed. As outlined in my past post on using Gmail, you can employ filters to sort your e-mails in whatever way you choose. Use this type of filtering to put e-mails from your VA at the top of the list.

The Power of the Virtual Assistant

Like the idea of having an assistant, but still unsure of how to use one? Here are 10 ways a VA could lighten your workload:

  1. Keep your social media outlets updated with content you provide
  2. Do research
  3. Filter incoming e-mails to identify good prospects for follow up
  4. Manage your schedule
  5. Make travel arrangements
  6. Work on lead generation
  7. Update mailing lists
  8. Write newsletters
  9. Handle customer service
  10. Do bookkeeping

For more ideas, check out this (very) long list of 101 ways to employ a virtual assistant.

Do you use a virtual assistant? If so, what are some best practices for effectively managing and making use of your assistant’s skills? And if you’re a VA, how can employers make your job easier? Share your advice below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to Upwork a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.