How Virtual Office Assistants Work

Virtual office assistants provide administrative help from their own home.
Virtual office assistants provide administrative help from their own home.
Image Service/Getty Images

You've escaped the cubicle or corner office to start your own business, and it's going great -- you're focused on what you've always wanted to do, you have plenty of work and new clients are knocking at your door. It's great . . . except for one thing.

When you escaped, you didn't bring your administrative assistant with you. Now you're doing her work as well as your own. At midnight, you're scheduling flights and meetings, typing proposals and filling in spreadsheets. In addition to cutting into your sleep, these administrative tasks are tying up your time and keeping you from the work that'll keep you in business.

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Or perhaps you're a successful office assistant who's tired of balancing the commute and office day with your family's needs. You'd like to have more control over your schedule --  to be there when the kids get home from school. Maybe you want to live on the beach or in the mountains. Possibly you're trying to find a way to work from a new location after your husband's job transfer. Or, you'd simply like more variety in the work you do.

Whether you're the overworked entrepreneur or the office worker longing for more control over your time, the solution may be a virtual office assistant. By taking on vital administrative tasks, these off-site workers can give an entrepreneur time to focus on doing the work he does best and bringing in new business. And becoming a virtual assistant lets a worker exchange the 9-to-5 grind for a virtual office, a home-based business with much more flexibility and variety.

But what does a virtual office assistant actually do? How much can you expect to be paid, and where can you get training and then clients? Keep reading to find out, starting with more about a virtual assistant's responsibilities.

Responsibilities of a Virtual Office Assistant

A virtual office assistant may handle billing and scheduling.
A virtual office assistant may handle billing and scheduling.
Stephan Hoeck/Stock 4B/Getty Images

By the simplest definition, a virtual office assistant is an independent contract worker who provides administrative, creative or technical services. Often that means handling the same types of tasks as an office secretary or manager, but doing them from a home office, using the virtual assistant's own computer equipment, software, phone and Internet connection [source: International Virtual Assistants Association].

Here are some of the general tasks that an office assistant may do in a virtual office:

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  • Manage contact lists and customer spreadsheets
  • Maintain a calendar and set up meetings
  • Take transcription and handle correspondence
  • Make travel arrangements
  • Handle billing and accounting
  • Prepare and send out e-mail newsletters
  • Prepare, collate and ship proposals and meeting materials
  • Send out requested information to customers
  • Handle client inquiries by phone or e-mail

[sources: Entrepreneur and ABC News]

For this type of work, you can expect to be paid $20 to $45 per hour. Businesses may commit to paying a monthly retainer for 10 or 20 hours of the virtual assistant's time, or they may buy hourly blocks of time, leaving the assistant free to work for more than one client at a time. The virtual assistant generally sets the fee, based on the complexity of the work and the turnaround time on specific projects. Rush jobs cost more than those with regular turnaround [source: PR Log].

Depending on the industry, payment may be set up differently. One real estate agent, for instance, pays his virtual office assistant a commission based on the number of closings each month rather than a salary. His assistant, who lives several states away, handles advertising, design and Web site management for him while he focuses on selling and listing houses [source: Realty Times].

By specializing in services they offer or the businesses they support, experienced virtual office assistants can often demand higher fees of up to $100 an hour. You can charge more for these and other areas of specialized expertise:

  • Translation and preparation of bilingual written or online materials
  • Medical transcription
  • Market research
  • Specialized Internet research
  • Industry knowledge in technology, financial services, law or health care
  • Development and maintenance of Web sites

[source: HomeOfficeMag]

Succeeding as a virtual assistant takes skill, contacts and personal organization. You have to be able to set your own work schedule, based on client needs and stick to it. And you need to be able to produce high-quality work on your own.

Here are the core competencies that the Alliance for Virtual Business recommends that you have:

  • Drive and determination to see clients succeed
  • Ability to work as part of a team
  • Excellent customer service skills
  • Basic understanding of business operation, including budgeting, creating business and marketing plans, contracts and agreements and time management
  • Willingness to admit and correct mistakes
  • Respect for others' intellectual property (no plagiarism or software piracy)
  • Good organizational skills
  • Good spelling, grammar and punctuation skills

You'll also need current technology, including a reliable computer, Internet connection, phone with voice mail or answering machine, fax machine or computer faxing capabilities, business and communications software and antivirus software. You'll need to be proficient at using this software, along with e-mail, the Internet and instant messaging.

If you're ready to make the move to a virtual office, go to the next page to learn about training.

Training Programs for Virtual Office Assistants

Virtual office assistants can find training help online.
Virtual office assistants can find training help online.
Lars Trangius/Johner Images/Royalty Free/Getty Images

You may work alone in your virtual office every day, but fortunately you're not alone as a virtual assistant. There are people and groups to help you. Although you can become a virtual assistant without any training, organizations and schools offer training and job placement to help you succeed. They also can give you opportunities to network with peers and potential clients, and even a virtual convention to attend without leaving home.

The biggest part of your training occurred on the job before you decided to go out on your own. Working in an office, you learned the administrative skills and picked up industry knowledge that'll help you succeed as an office assistant in the virtual world. What you may be missing most is knowledge about how to run your virtual business successfully, including how to find clients.

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Here are some places that offer training or job referrals, or both, for new virtual office assistants:

Virtual Assistance U describes itself as "an online training/coaching eAcademy site." For approximately $1,500, Virtual Assistance U offers a 20-week program of online classes, workshops, projects and individual coaching. While the training site does not provide job placement, it does pass on information from companies seeking virtual assistants.

International Association of Virtual Office Assistants (IAVOA) offers a 10-week training program with Virtual Business Training. The program focuses on starting a virtual assistant business and includes mentoring. With the Reva Training Center, IAVOA also offers online classes and mentoring for real estate virtual assistants and provides referrals for businesses seeking virtual assistants.

International Virtual Assistants Association (IVAA) is a not-for-profit trade association that offers certification for virtual assistants and real estate support specialists. For certification as a virtual assistant, the applicant would review the study guide and take an EthicsCheck exam ($45 for members) and then the CVA exam ($120). The CVA exam assesses skill in word processing, accounting, data management, Web design and digital literacy.

IVAA also provides members with benefits such as mentoring, networking, information sessions, a member directory and free Web site hosting.

The Alliance for Virtual Business (A4VB) is a consortium of virtual assistant groups who want to educate businesses about the role of virtual assistants. The consortium provides virtual assistants with mentoring and information about classes available through Web organizations and schools.

A4VB also hosts the annual Online International Virtual Assistants Convention. Without leaving home, virtual assistants can attend seminars, visit exhibit booths and network with colleagues.

Looking for training close to home? Try local schools and community colleges. Black Hawk College in Moline, Ill., for example, offers a two-semester virtual assistant certificate program. Because courses are online, you don't have to take time off work to attend classes [source: River Cities Reader].

Once you have your business operating, the challenge may be finding clients. Mentoring offered by the associations we've mentioned can help. You also may want to post your services at Web sites such as guru.com and freeagent.com that hook up businesses and providers of contract services.

But your best source of clients may be through referrals from other clients and networking. You can attend job fairs, join local business groups and do a local promotional campaign for your services. Don't forget to set up a professional Web site for your business so that potential clients can see what you have to offer.

For lots more information about virtual office assistants and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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