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Working with Virtual Assistants

Once you've hired a freelancer, here's how to ensure you get the work you're expecting.

In our recent article on how to hire virtual assistants we discussed the value of having virtual workers, and how to locate them through sites such as Elance and oDesk. In this article, we discuss how to work with these freelancers to make sure you’re getting the work you were expecting.

Working with virtual assistants may require a change in your mindset as a manager. You need to manage workers you can’t actually see working. That makes some managers uncomfortable. They prefer to be able to poke their heads into an employee’s cubicle or office to see what’s up.

Yes, managing virtual workers may feel like you are giving up some control. To get past that, remember that you are judging a person’s performance solely on what they deliver. A writer writes articles, a Web designer creates a website, a programmer writes code.

If you’re getting regular deliverables, you can gauge how well they’re doing. If there’s an issue, you can address it before you incur substantial losses in terms of time and money. So not being able to actually see your virtual workers day in and day out shouldn’t matter, as long as they are doing what you hired them to do.

Hire self-starters

Of course, a key to working effectively with virtual workers is to hire the best people you can, to start with. While we cover hiring in our previous article, we do have a bit more advice. Jeff Kear, owner of online productivity software provider Planning Pod, thinks hiring “self-starters” is especially important.

“We have found that self-starters need less supervision, and are much more productive in a virtual workspace”

“Most small businesses need employees who are versatile, and who need less hand-holding and guidance, so part of our interviewing process for the people we have hired includes asking questions about their previous work or school experience, and looking for instances where they took control of a project or had to learn new skills in order to advance the goals of the company,” Kear says. “We have found that self-starters need less supervision, and are much more productive in a virtual workspace.”

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Your biggest challenge when working with virtual assistants is to communicate effectively and regularly to mitigate surprises.

“If someone misses a deadline or doesn’t respond to an email, things can get pretty crazy, pretty quickly,” says Joan Barrett, owner of The Content Factory, an online marketing company. “We also have to check in with people frequently to gauge what they think of the job and the challenges they’re facing. Because we don’t see them in an office environment, Monday through Friday, we can’t pick up on body language or take note of who’s taking frequent coffee and cigarette breaks, so we have to stay connected in other ways.”

Communications consultant Dawnna St. Louis, of Dawnna.com, suggests managers let their virtual workers “know how often you would like to be communicated to, what you would like to know, and the manner in which you would like that communication delivered. You may want a phone call every day or an email every two days.”

Communication works both ways. Brad Karsh, president of JB Training Solutions, notes how important it is for the manager to be accessible.

“Of course, we know you can’t physically be there, but be present,” Karsh tells us. “Be available and reachable for your team, so they can depend and rely on you, and have a sense of support and connection. You should never be more than a phone call away.”

Set clear expectations

How can your worker do what you expect of them if you have not clearly communicated what it is you need from them? Here’s an example where sites such as Elance and oDesk can help.

“Leveraging a service like Elance can help both the resource and the employer,” St. Louis notes. “It requires the employer to create the scope of work, goals with the associated milestones and deliverables, expected delivery of work, and total project cost. All communications can be completely through the system and the cost is nominal for the worker. Further, if there is an issue, both parties can leverage the system’s moderators to help everyone come to an amicable and fair solution.”

To learn more about how these sites and their tools can help check out oDesk Work Diary.

Use project management tools

Speaking of useful tools, there are now many fantastic software tools available to help managers manage virtual assistants and track their progress. Here are some that the managers with whom we spoke recommended to us:

“Pick up the phone to call for no other reason but to say thank you and chit-chat for a few minutes about how they are doing”
  • Basecamp is “a lifesaver,” says Andy Boyd, co-founder of a network of financial comparison websites. Basecamp is a Web-based tool for managing projects and fostering collaboration. “It allows tasks to be assigned and tracked in real time. If you have even just one virtual worker, this tool is, in my opinion, essential,” Boyd says.

  • Skype, of course, is a full-featured Internet-based communications tool that allows you to make free voice and video calls. Andy Boyd’s company uses it to create a “virtual office,” where he and his virtual staff can have group chats to discuss ideas, resolve problems and so on. “It’s also really handy for sharing your screen,” Boyd adds.

  • Google Docs, from you know who, enables you to create and collaborate on documents, spreadsheets and presentations via the Web. While Basecamp also allows for document sharing, “to be honest, it’s hard to beat Google’s offering,” Boyd says.

  • Dropbox describes itself as a free service that lets you bring your photos, docs and videos anywhere, and easily share them. One manager tells us that Dropbox is a tool she couldn’t live without when managing virtual workers. She calls it the easiest way to share files with any team member.

Be appreciative!

Let’s face it, we all could use some positive reinforcement at times. A manager saying something as simple as “looks good” or “that’s exactly what I was expecting” can do wonders for an employee’s morale. Virtual workers, of course, need this kind of encouragement also, although they are less likely to get it. JB Training Solutions’ Karsh counsels managers to show appreciation for a job well done.

“Pick up the phone to call for no other reason but to say thank you and chit-chat for a few minutes about how they are doing,” he recommends.

Karsh adds that, when working remotely, “receiving something tangible can go a long way. Send a hand-written thank you note, or put together a small package of some of their favorite things (e.g., candy, Starbucks card, golf balls, magazine, etc.) as a token of your appreciation.”

Now that you know how to hire and communicate with virtual assistants, it may well be time for you to hire one (or more) of your own. After you’ve successfully hired and managed virtual workers, you may be ready to take the advice of Brian Chan, CEO of Paywallify.com, and “bask in the beauty of our globalized world.”

About the author

Brad & Debra Schepp
Brad and Debra Schepp are the authors of 20 books, including eBay PowerSeller Secrets and The Official Alibaba.com Success Guide: Insider Tips and Strategies for Sourcing Products from the World's Largest B2B Marketplace. Their most recent book is How to Find a Job on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Brad is also a literary agent for Waterside Productions. For further information, visit the couple's website, bradanddeb.com. Opinions expressed here may not be shared by The Online Seller and/or its principals.

  • Totally love this post, especially the part where you pointed out that employers need to be make themselves available to VAs to. There is nothing more confounding than a client/employer who does not answer to several emails and does not acknowledge receipt of deliverables. I know this because i’m a VA myself and work with several clients.

    • Bschepp

       Thanks Nica. It’s really true that all parties have to be in synch for the relationship to work. 🙂

  • I love how comprehensive this article is!  Good work putting this up Brad and Debra. This is exactly how we’re doing it in our company with the virtual assistants that we work with. They need constant monitoring and appreciation for their work.

    Plus, all the collaboration tools (Basecamp, Google Docs, Skype and Dropbox) we are using are on your list except for one, Time Doctor (you might want to add this up) which is a tool to accurately track the time of our freelance workers so we could be assured that productivity remains on top.

    Bottom line is that even if you do not see each other, you need to constantly communicate about the things happening not just with work but also with the personal things that could probably hinder them from working well. These things greatly help them improve.

    • brad and deb

       Thanks Robin for your comments and recommending Time Doctor. We’ll check it out!

      B+D

  • do you need to pay to a virtual assistant forthe time on yourfirst call explaining the job?
    when talking on a long term job, or teaching a new skill?

    • brad and deb

       If you’ve agreed on terms and the person is hired then yes the VA should be paid for training and briefing time.

    • Jeff Arnold

      I use a service similar to Elance and oDesk called vWorker. When you are starting a project you do not pay for that time. You post a detailed description of what you want to get accomplished and then the freelancers review it and bid for the project. All of their initial questions are answered before you commit. Your money is the put into escrow and you don’t release it to the worker until you are satisfied with their work.

  • virtual assistant

    If you feel you are far too overloaded to think about choosing such an assistant at that point you absolutely have to hire a virtual assistant. You have to take into consideration offering another person part of the workload. Delegating several of your work to an assistant is a wonderful method to begin your time management methods which are essential for any business owner to consider.

  • Erich_Lagasse

    Another tool managers should consider is the instant messenger. It allows virtual assistants to communicate with managers about issues that are important, but not necessarily need to be spoken about on the phone. We posted a guide at academy.justjobs.com that provides tips to help virtual assistants use the messenger more effectively. – Erich



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