A little bit of R&R

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Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The VA industry on Radio 4 Women's hour today

Today I have both listened to the Radio 4 Woman's Hour podcast which discusses the Virtual Assistant industry and interviews 2 VA's who influenced my decision to become a VA, Emma Walker and Justine Curtis, and read Maggie Berney's (of Maggie Berney Office Services) thoughts about it here. I want to support what Maggie has said in response to Dr Brendan Burchall's comments in particular and extend them somewhat as it felt he was being very patronising to VAs as business owners.

Firstly we are not shut up in our home offices all the time, as Maggie says, we meet clients, each other and regularly attend networking events otherwise we wouldn't have any clients in the first place. Also we communicate rapidly, instantly and often (well in my case massively, you'll already know that if you follow me on Twitter!!!) using social media. It may not be face to face most of the time but it is conversation of both business and chit chat as well as being members of varying support forums and groups for our industry. Like Maggie I am also a member of VASG which offers support, business opportunities, collaboration and chat.

My second issue is that his comments regarding the marginalisation of 'people like this' and that we will find it hard to re-enter the work place seem misplaced and based on the really aggravating assumption that we are all dabbling in business around our other (often family and children) commitments. Speaking for myself I am a mother with young children and yes the flexibility of being a VA based at home is very desirable BUT it does NOT mean I take my business any less seriously. In fact I take it more so than my old day job. I am more driven, more willing to work into the small hours to make my clients businesses successful and exceed their expectations than I was when I was employed. I have a passion for what I do and the sector I cater for that drives me and means I have exacting standards for the quality of my work. Flexibility is desirable but does not equal a less committed business owner.

I have no desire to reenter the workplace but should I choose to I hope that a prospective employer would view someone with the ambition and organisational ability to start and run their own business is a damn good prospect! It demonstrates vision and self belief which will benefit their company.

I think Maggie has sufficiently covered his remarks about needing to employ somebody to entrust them with confidential information and work! Suffice it to say that his statements are misplaced and he is more than welcome to connect with UK VAs further if he would like to conduct some more up to date research!!!

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At 12 January 2010 at 23:40 , Blogger Time Management Mum said...

Having listened to Woman's Hour today, I was interested in why they had asked Dr Brendan Birchill, a Sociologist from Cambridge University to comment?

He's an Academic, not an Entrepreneur - completely different skill-sets (and mind-sets!)

He says that companies want employees because they are more loyal (and implying that a VA cannot be loyal or observe confidentiality!) - what a hideous generalisation!

I think for a more balanced piece the programme should have spoken to an entrepreneur or business who is actually using a VA, and asked them about the 'pros and cons' rather than guessing that we all miss the 'water cooler' chit chat and that we must find it 'more difficult' to work at home with teenagers around! (their words!)

I'm always fascinated by who is touted as an 'expert' on any given situation. In my thinking, experts should be experts because of their own hard won experience - experts should have 'muddy boots'! So why is a salaried academic male, commenting on a modern new way of working that is allowing many women (and in my experience, the majority of VAs are women) to successfully fulfil their domestic and career goals?

When he has taken the huge leap that is becoming self employed in the first place, risking everything and having to rely on his own skills and God given talent to make the mortgage payment that month, then I will be more willing to accept his observations. However I suspect that he will go back to his dusty oak panelled office and knock out a new study that allows him to observe modern life rather than being a soldier on the commercial front line of it!

Well done to Emma Walker and Justine Curtis of the VA Success Group for stating how a VA works though - they are both out there 'walking the talk'.

Nadine Hill, The Dream PA and Author of The Virtual Assistant Handbook. www.TheDreamPA.co.uk

At 12 January 2010 at 23:53 , Blogger HLS Business Solutions said...

This is the email that I sent to Womens Hour today:
I have just listened to the podcast of today's show and am disappointed at the content relating to VA's.

In fact, as a VA who is running a successful business I am insulted at the comments made by Dr Burchell. Perhaps he has spent too long cloistered in his university as his view of the business world is greatly different to mine.

As Justine said, my Clients use me as a sounding board, they value my opinion and they trust me with confidential information, and look on me as a PA, the only difference being I am not in the same office to make them coffee and fetch their sandwiches!

I am a mother, yes, and I enjoy the flexibility that working for myself allows, however, my Clients never suffer as a result of this, and during the recent bad weather not one of my Clients has been let down. How many physical office workers can state the same?

I do not feel lonely, I have wonderful Clients both in this country and abroad, and with the advances in technology we communicate daily to our mutual satisfaction.

Like several other VA's I am a member of a support group, we work together, our motto being collaboration not competition, and as a result of this my business is strong, I am able to offer a better standard of service and stronger skill set than if I was working in a traditional office as a PA.

The idea that I would be unable to return to the work place is ludicrous, for starters some of my Clients would hire me on the spot should I want to.

I have a lot of experience in my role, and would be an asset to any company.

I feel that your article was biased and ill researched, and the damage you have done to the reputation of professional VA's is inexcusable.

I look forward to members of the VA community being invited on to your show to correct this gross misrepresentation.

At 13 January 2010 at 00:05 , Blogger Barry said...

I was 'supremely unimpressed' (as I tweeted earlier) by the Doctor's contribution. Not just how ill informed and out of date it was - I doubt his stats really hold water - but especially comments regarding confidentiality and trust.

Having just been commissioned (with two prominent co-authors) to research and write a report on data handling and security in the SME sector, advising the UK's Data Commissioner, it is my business to be up to date with this stuff and I can assure anyone that an employment contract is no guarantee of confidentiality - especially in a recession. Indeed this is one of the biggest information concerns for employers now. There are some pros and cons of course but it is certainly nothing like the one way street he seemed to suggest - in response to what also seemed be rather a leading question I have to say.

Having had the pleasure of getting to know the VA community over the last month or so (while helping launch ReceiptAngel.co.uk) I have been extremely impressed by the drive, professionalism, skills and sheer pioneering spirit I've seen. This is the new frontier. I hope the good Doctor will take the hint(s) and 'get out more'.

Barry James www.TakeWare.co.uk

At 13 January 2010 at 00:31 , Blogger Paula - Sixth Level said...

I'm not a VA, but I am hoping to be in the position to hire one in the near future, and I think the good Doctor's comments are blinkered, archaic and misrepresentative of the VA community.

Companies want professionalism, confidentiality and flexibility. I have a number of contacts within the VA community, and they all meet those high standards. Neither are they cloistered in their home offices.

Does this assessment apply to all freelance workers?

Well done on such a slap in the face for SMEs, without which our economy would grind to a standstill.

At 13 January 2010 at 00:54 , Blogger Mark Lee (Chairman of the Tax Advice Network) said...

I've just been asked to comment via a ReTweet from @kellycairns

I used to work in large professional offices but now have a portfolio career that includes running a network of independent tax advisers. I do this with the support of VAs.

Using VAs was a conscious and positive choice as I wanted to avoid the need to employ staff, to pay employers' NIC, to run a payroll, to have to worry about employment legislation and, most of all, to have to pay a fixed salary each week. I wanted the flexibility to pay only for work when there was work to be done. And I wanted someone who would be more loyal and concerned to do a good job than might be an employee with the protection of her employment rights.

I am very happy with the VAs I have used and anticipate that the hours they work for me will increase as the business grows further (it's already over 2 years old).

In conclusion, as you might imagine, I agree with the earlier comments about the apparently ill-informed suppositions shared by the academic.

At 13 January 2010 at 01:17 , Blogger Kip FX Design said...

I am not sure that I get this blog properly, so excuse my ignorance if I sound daft.

If you are a builder and your are no good at accounts, you get someone to do your books!

If you are entrepreneur you have a PA!

If you are a painting and decorator you get a design company to do your design for business cards, flyers etc!

So if you need someone else to help out the business why not get a VA? Seems obvious to me, I appreciate not every company or self employed business owner needs one, but then not everybody need hair straightners, but there is a need and purpose for both!

If something or someone can benefit your business even 5%, then it is worth doing!

VA's are the ultimate concierge's, not only can they book a flight or arrange a print order, but they actually answer your calls and most can do your books too!

Virtual Assistants may well be a new industry, but I think it is one we will see more of!

Viva Va!

At 13 January 2010 at 10:22 , Blogger Barry said...

Yep. I'm certain Kip FX is right, and I strongly suspect 2010 will be 'The Year of the VA'.

The Internet is changing the economy forever and you guys are in the vanguard. It'll just take a while for others to catch up!

At 13 January 2010 at 11:28 , Blogger Toni said...

I completely agree with Jip FX design.

To believe that you have the skills and time to competantly manage every aspect of a successful business is naive.

I regularly advise my clients to outsource elements of their business to help free up time for more effective activities or simply to make the most of the professional support that is available.

At 13 January 2010 at 21:46 , Blogger Rebekah said...

Thank you everyone for your insightful comments. I think that the issues of trust/confidentiality between client and VA, possibility of isolation and also that businesses prefer to employ someone, are in fact broader and apply to all Freelancers.

I work in the Creative Industries sector where freelancing aspects of work out to specialists is the norm, that is another reason I took such exception to the views expressed about VAs. However, I do think we need to acknowledge that, in an economic climate that is stating it is focusing on entrepreneurs to help it recover, these type of views are belittling to all people who work in a similar way.

At 13 January 2010 at 21:57 , Blogger Portfoliolife said...

Long post coming up - you might want to get a cup of tea...

Coming to this debate a bit late but I wanted to take the time to listen to the broadcast before commenting. I'm not a VA - but I've had first hand experience of this as a Non-Executive Director / Entrepreneur as I now run a Home Office of 5 people, all set up to work remotely if they need to and we help businesses to grow and support some of our clients remotely. I know that I have a far more talented team than I may necessarily have been able to attract because of the flexibility that this affords them - and also that our clients get more for their money because they can have bite-sized chunks of access to professional support. Because we work for ourselves we spend time and money making sure that our skills are at the cutting edge of our profession and I know that many VA's do this as well. There will always be some people who won't flourish working at home - but that would be the same for accountants / plumbers / VA's - profession doesn't come into that - it's personal preference.

Now to VA's - I had an extremely talented and capable PA called Sarah Bradley in my last corporate job as a Finance and Operations Director - she ran my life, prepped some pretty serious pieces of work for me and was one step ahead of my needs all the time. Many other people I know thought they had PA's but they actually had secretaries who administered things for them - and I think that Dr Burchall missed this nuance - the true PA's are the ones who are transitioning to become entrepreneurial VA's.

I never had reason to doubt her confidentiality as an employee - neither did I when we set up a business together and I still don't now that she supports me through her own VA business called Help Ahoy - www.helpahoy.com - where I am proud to say she is utilising many of the skills that she learnt when she was working alongside me - and then some! She collaborates with many like-minded and extremely professional VA's and they provide an invaluable service to many different-sized businesses. Many of these VA's are working Mums, whom we would have lost from professional life for longer because their jobs couldn't be flexible enough to work around families - as a VA this can be achieved.

But - and here's the rub - people who "study" trends can very often look at what has been happening - and even if that's very recent happenings, when something sector disruptive is happening it can be missed for a while, and I think that's what's gone on here.

Here's my take on the situation for what it's worth - I think that the professional VA's, who as extremely talented PA's previously collaborated with other people to make things happen for their bosses, have taken that skill and transferred to their own businesses - which in itself would have been powerful. However, where it gets really interesting is that a VA's natural collaborative skills have put them prime-placed to exploit the power of Twitter and they are leagues ahead of some of the other service professions in setting up collaborations and groups on there - enabling them to leverage (sorry - can't think of a better word!!) a much bigger support network than they, on their own, could offer.

So - to all the VA's out there - take heart - you're trailblazers and that's what's causing the misunderstanding - many other professions will follow suit, but I think that, along with Home Offices, you're at the cutting edge of new ways of working and I as a business applaud and embrace you :-)

Emma Warren
MD, Portfolio Directors Ltd

At 18 January 2010 at 21:43 , Blogger Mark said...

I used to think that Facebook was a website for young people to keep in touch with each other whilst on a gap year & Twitter was a way of keeping in touch with celebrities.

I now find them both to be useful business tools.

I first heard about VA's a few years ago when people were coming to business meetings & introducing the idea of outsourcing secretarial services.

This has now turned into the VA industry with many different services being offered by companies & individuals.

Outsourcing is also being used by universities. As a research company we have been employed by universities to do local face to face interviews. The MP3's of these interviews are then sent via the internet to a transcription service in another city. The word documents are then sent back to us for checking, before we email them to the university.

All very efficient and cost effective.

If confidentiality is an issue then that has to be written into the terms & conditions. They are part of out terms & conditions for any associates that we work with.

The VA's that I have met are self employed people and as such they usually spend many more hours than the standard 9 - 5 'at work'. That is the nature of running your own business.

Those hours may be different to an employee but that is one of the reasons you become your own boss.

Long live those who choose to become a VA :-)


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