The 'virtual assistant' is a new job for people who, armed with internet access and telephones, can now work from home for bosses they've never met, writes Lucy Taylor
Goodbye to commuting, time-wasting meetings, nine-to-five drudgery and office politics. And hello to regaining control of your working life, job diversity and flexibility, and more time with the kids. That's what many people, particularly women, are finding when they ditch their office jobs and set up on their own at home - as virtual assistants (VAs).
Still a relatively unknown career move, becoming a VA makes sense for women with office and other professional skills who want to offer services outside the confines of a traditional full-time job. You don't have to rent an office or employ staff, and getting set up doesn't require a large financial outlay. You act as an off-site assistant to any company that needs an extra pair of hands, using phone, fax, e-mail and the internet. This might mean administration, telephone answering, accounting, handling orders - whatever your customers need.
Such a service appeals to small businesses and entrepreneurs who cannot afford a full-time administrator and yet don't have the time to keep up to date with paperwork.
Margaret McKillen is the founder of the Association of Virtual Assistants Ireland and runs her own company, Just Write Secretarial Services (www.jw-ss.com). She set up the association four years ago to promote the idea of VAs in Ireland and give it a credible and professional image.
"Many employers have never even heard about the benefits of using VAs," she says. "They don't even have to leave their desk to give a VA work, and it saves money as the VA can just work for you when you need them. Virtual assistants are bound to take off in Ireland because employers want to save money and people want to have a more flexible working life."
IT WAS THIS flexibility which motivated Marie Kirk in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, to set up her company, Mypa, in 2005. Her son Joseph is three. When Marie and husband Martin moved from Co Dublin to Monaghan four years ago, Marie was still commuting.
"It was really taking its toll on me. I was PA to the chief executive of a software company and I realised I could be extremely productive at home and save myself the travelling, so I decided to become a VA. My services include typing, internet research, marketing, newsletters, spreadsheets, transcription, PowerPoint presentations, mailings, advertising support, event planning, CV writing and engagement planning.
"The first thing you should decide is why you want to work from home and then get set up properly before you go into business. I have a laptop, desktop PC and printer in my office at home, and because I was told broadband wasn't available in my area, I had a satellite put up on the house.
"My website, www.mypa.ie, is my branding tool - it gets lots of hits worldwide. I work for software companies, entrepreneurs, a plumber, locksmith, creche, whoever needs my services. Sometimes an international company without an office in Ireland but doing business here will ask me to deal with phone inquiries.
Marie charges €20 to €40 per hour and her daily rate covers eight hours work for the cost of seven hours.
"When I was working full-time we were all up by 6.30am and Joseph was at his grandmother's by 7.30am, but now he can stay at home with me. I used to spend about 40 minutes a day with him, so being a VA has been good for both of us.
"I am saving €1,600 per month in childcare, travel and subsistence costs by not commuting to a full-time job. Going to work didn't provide what I was looking for, but I didn't want to just be at home and lose my skills. I feel I have work-life balance and Joseph is happy. What I like most about being a VA is the flexibility - it's all about taking control of your life ."
Her clients include freelance IT consultant Brendan McKittrick, who says: "Marie has done everything from maintaining my diary, taking calls on my behalf, organising visitors to the country, basically the smooth running of my business life."
LEAH FOLEY RUNS Ceart Business Services with her husband Jonathan in Swords, Co Dublin. They have two daughters - Katie (four) and Megan (two).
"My last job was as office manager for a government agency. I began working from home in 2004 after Megan was born. Now I work for engineers, architects, exhibitions companies, UCD, UCC and TCD and individuals too. You don't have to attend lots of meetings - I do audiotyping for a client in Cork whom I've never met. And there are no geographic boundaries - one of my clients is a forensic attorney in Florida.
"Jonathan and I offer diary management, CVs, mail mergers, audiotyping transcription, digital photography, printing, shopfront design, corporate images, computer training and some sales, as well as his design and typesetting work. We've found you don't really need to advertise - our website, www.ceart.cc, is very effective."
Her clients include Noelle Cotter, research fellow at the School of Social Work and Social Policy in TCD. "Leah transcribes qualitative interviews for me. She is much faster at it than I would be. It's the kind of work that wouldn't keep an employee busy all the time but is perfect for a virtual assistant because it is so on and off," she says.
Leah's charges for audio typing range from between 80c to €1.50 per audio minute. Another client, consulting engineer Lawrence Buckley, explains how it works for him: "Leah does transcription work for me on an ongoing basis using digital dictation. I operate by myself from my home office and can send her files from my laptop in my car. She can then send completed work direct to clients. It's a seamless operation which is very quick and efficient. Using a VA is excellent for people like myself who are self-employed. Leah and I have never met, I found her company on the internet, but we have a good working relationship."
Leah says: "VAs in Ireland are not really understood yet, but attitudes are changing." People are working at home more, she points out, and clients are realising it costs them less money to give a virtual assistant the work than employ a temp or a part-timer.
"I work in the mornings," she adds, "when Katie and Megan are at playschool, spend the afternoons with them, then work again in the evenings."
The Association of Virtual Assistants Ireland promotes the VA industry in Ireland. The website is designed to help employers find a VA.
Virtual Assistants for You. VAs can register their details and customers will come to them.
Virtual Assistant Networking is the global meeting place for aspiring and successful virtual assistants.
Information on starting and running a VA business, with industry news.