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The rise of the virtual assistant

Jane Braithwaite

Life is fast-paced and demanding for women senior managers and business owners. It can be a constant juggle to manage the large volume of work. As an HR professional working with women in senior roles, you’ll be looking for ways to ease their pressures and help them organise their work lives. That’s where a virtual assistant can help. Contributor Jane Braithwaite, Managing director – Designated PA.

Of course, male senior managers would also benefit from having virtual assistants. But for women, who often — but not always — take on the added burden of childcare and household responsibilities, having virtual assistants at work can make them feel calmer and less stressed in other areas of their lives. 

Managing director of Designated PA, Jane Braithwaite, says more and more businesses are choosing to hire virtual assistants to ease the pressures on women senior managers, rather than recruiting permanent staff members.

She explains: “Businesses are looking for expertise, people their senior managers can rely on and develop long-term relationships with, but at the same time they don’t necessarily want to employ permanent staff. We do all the work for clients by finding them experienced PAs. This takes the pressure off busy HR professionals. All our PAs have at least three years of experience, so clients feel confident that individuals can seamlessly fit into the work environment.”

Taking the strain
Having an experienced virtual assistant who can hit the ground running can make a real difference to women in senior roles. Before she had a PA, Fiona Hathorn, joint founder and managing director of Women on Boards, was struggling to respond to all the emails she receives in between running workshops around the UK. 

“My PA has taken away a lot of the strain I was under,” says Hathorn. “She previously worked for high-level chief executives with busy jobs so she is very experienced.”

With more free time, Hathorn feels she has the “strategic headspace” to better lead the business. “A lot of companies don’t have PAs anymore, but I think women in senior roles could benefit from a virtual assistant helping them out for an hour or two a day,” explains Hathorn. “If they release 10% of their day, they would be able to give more to the company.”

Hathorn adds that having someone to help ease the pressure at work may stop top performers leaving corporate life after they have children.

Brighton-based Sue Bailey, who owns Gateway Workshops – a provider of massage and beauty training courses and qualifications — says her PA has taken a huge weight off her shoulders. “It is so nice to feel that you have a professional looking after your daily requirements. She is proactive and works with me to make my day run smoothly.”

Meeting business needs
By hiring a virtual assistant, businesses can access expertise at a fraction of the cost of recruiting a permanent staff member. They can adjust the hours of support depending on the manager’s workload.

Marianne, a magistrate in London and the owner of a management consultancy in Saudi Arabia, says she didn’t want to be responsible for someone else’s livelihood as her workload varies from week to week. “Having a virtual assistant allows me to ramp up or reduce the hours of support I need depending on my workload. When I’m in Saudi I need a lot more help.”

Her PA helps her with work related tasks, including liaising with her accountant, preparing invoices and booking travel arrangements, as well as supporting her with home life and children.

Hathorn adds that Women on Boards also couldn’t justify the cost of a permanent, full-time staff member. “We’re a small business and need to manage our resources carefully. I’m not in the office much, as I’m travelling around the country, so it made sense to have a remote PA.”

It’s not a one-sided relationship
Some HR professionals may have concerns about hiring freelance virtual assistants, as zero hour contracts have had bad press in recent years. But as virtual assistant Christina Reilly from Oxfordshire points out, it gives people a sense of control.  

She explains: “After my second maternity leave, fitting in a full-time job and a long commute to London wasn’t doable. I had 10 years’ experience as a PA in the corporate sector, and I didn’t want to waste that. As a freelance virtual assistant you can decide the hours you want to work and when. It helps me to continue my career while looking after my children.”

This style of working offers flexibility for everyone, not just working mothers. Women might not want to do a long commute anymore or they may want to fit in their hobbies alongside work. Hannah Smith from Warwickshire says that remote working helps her to stay active. She has trained for a triathlon and a half marathon since becoming a virtual assistant. She says: “When I worked in a permanent job and had to commute I let my running go, especially in the winter months. No one wants to train in the dark evenings and I couldn’t fit it into my mornings because of the journey to work. Now I have time to go out for a run or a swim, have a shower and lunch, and be back at my desk in the hour.”

Meanwhile, London-based Camilla Hill chose to become a virtual assistant as she didn’t want to work long hours in the events industry anymore. “Being a virtual assistant has given me a better work life balance with time to fit in exercise classes, see family and friends, and take up other interests outside of work,” explains Hill. 

But despite the flexibility, the lack of job security and benefits won’t suit everyone. “It depends on personal circumstances,” adds Reilly. “If you’re in a position to work in this way, it can be life-changing. I can continue to build on my experience and skill set; it’s a career rather than something I had to take because I couldn’t carry on with what I was doing. At the same time I can be present in my children’s lives. I’m also paid a fair hourly rate for what I do; if I had found a local office job I wouldn’t be paid the same.”

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