Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rethinking the Business Office

I was at a Chamber of Commerce mixer this morning and my thoughts drifted to my previous business experiences and how a virtual assistant would have been possible and beneficial if we'd had the technical abilities and forethought at that time.

I spent many years learning my craft at Terminix (yes, the bug people). where I once worked in an office supporting a regional manager and a regional technical manager. Both men traveled, which left me many, many hours alone in the office in a week. I had a few reports to do (at least 1 each day), mail to sort, distribute, deal with, and send out, faxes to read, an occasional memo to type, and calls to make and take. So, I had at least an hour each day of productive work, and up to 12 hours a week of actual productive work. I held back as much work as I could for days when the boss was in the office. I was bored - a lot. This mostly happened in pre-internet years when an actual body was necessary in the office.

I moved into a traveling job with Terminix where I trained, supported, and audited branch office staffs and procedures. The regional office I worked from was larger, but that meant that there were more people out of the office on any given day. I spent a lot of time on the phone to the office assistants, but I only saw them (or my office) intermittently, sometimes not for weeks at a time.

Fast forward to now. There was nothing in those offices that couldn't have been done remotely (except for some minimal filing). We started emailing the reports the regional office compiled as soon as Terminix caught up with technology. Email, for all intents and purposes has made the fax machine obsolete. (Although I have a fax number, the faxes come into and go out from my email.) The mail can be delivered anywhere and can be sent out from wherever. Telecom has come a long way and Telesphere has some great solutions for remote offices (and other offices also).

Besides saving money on office space, Terminix could have saved a lot of money on employment costs (salary, benefits, taxes) by using the assistants' time much more productively. Terminix did change before I left and closed regional offices, disbursing the staff to a small office space in a local branch. Reports started being compiled electronically. Email became de rigeur. Resources have been distributed more wisely.

Businesses often think (like Terminix did) that they have to have an office and an administrative employee. It is model we saw when we were young and starting out. That isn't necessarily true anymore. By using virtual assistants, outsourcing the office support functions becomes a viable business solution which conserves resources for core priorities and profitable activities while still having the professional support and representation businesses need. When deciding on an office model, consider using a virtual assistant instead of a full-time assistant with too little to do.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Certification and Accreditation

I just took a survey about virtual assistant certification and accreditation. ( In essence, you can't call yourself a "Virtual Assistant" unless you meet whatever criteria someone decides.) I don't know that the survey sponsor was expecting my visceral and ardent rejection of the idea. Here are my reasons why I think the idea is unnecessary, ineffectual, and potentially damaging.

  1. Each virtual assistant has different native abilities, skills, and experience. Quantifying some arbitrary skill set as being virtual assistant worthy negates the whole marketing point we use of being versatile. For instance, I know virtual assistants who provide social media marketing, SEO services, real estate agent support, bankruptcy (lawyer) support, legal assistance, bookkeeping, transcription, etc. I could be an accredited VA, but I doubt you would find that I am your best option if you want SEO support or transcription, however I am a great bookkeeper.
  2. "Virtual Assistant" is a description of the nature of the work and can also be a job title. I have a cousin who is a life coach, but is helping to support her family by working as a virtual assistant to her life coach training program. She would probably never market herself as a virtual assistant, but she is one. (She probably would also never get certified, but it doesn't change the nature of her work.)
  3. The tenor of the survey was one of trying to limit the people who can call themselves virtual assistants under the guise of protecting the integrity of the profession through some sort of certification. Like non-virtual assistants, the work speaks for itself. If your work is poor, it reflects on you. Competition is good for the profession - it weeds out the bad. Let people call themselves what they want. I doubt passing a typing test (or whatever) is going to make me quantitatively better than I am today. The converse is also true, failing the typing test doesn't make me intrinsically worse. (No one hires me for my ability to pass typing tests; they hire me for my ability to do what they need.)
So, some in my profession think that there should be some sort of accreditation. Seriously, things like this scheme benefits no one but the accrediting authority. I have skills (and patience) that managers and business people don't have; that's why they pay me. But the reality is that we're office administrators, not doctors. We may wreak some havoc if we are bad at what we do, but if a manager is doing his/her job right, it won't last long and the damage is minimal. It's not life and death.

I will conclude this post with the same comment I used on the survey. I didn't go to secretarial school; I will not go to "virtual secretary" school. My work stands on its own. (Yep, I know I'll be blasted, because we aren't secretaries, but the word gets the point across.)