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Human virtual assistants are changing how entrepreneurs live and work

hands on a laptop keyboard
Ivan Kruk
There's a growing number of trained professionals who provide administrative services almost entirely online.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a significant sector of the workforce online through Zoom calls and other digital interactions. This lifestyle is the norm for virtual assistants, a growing demographic of trained professionals who provide administrative services almost entirely online.

While “work from home” became a household term during COVID, the decades-long proliferation of the internet put an emphasis on the flexibility provided by VA jobs, noted Youngjin Yoo, associate dean of research at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management.

“The biggest difference is the ability to maximize the efficiency of a VA, because their selection is not bound by your current location like it would be with an executive assistant,” said Yoo. “The rise of virtual office technology allows us to bring this very personalized service to busy people whose time is scarce.”

woman stands outside holding a stack of books
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Rebecca Ferlotti used a virtual assistant to help her stay on top of her many tasks as a freelance editor.

Cleveland-based content creator and marketing strategist Rebecca Ferlotti doesn’t have an office – much like the virtual assistant she hired in 2023, Ferlotti can work from anywhere.

“This is the perpetual entrepreneur issue, especially when you’re in the growth stage,” said Ferlotti. “We often have trouble marketing ourselves after spending so much time marketing for other people. I wanted to see if (bringing in a VA) was a good pathway to marketing myself. It was a really good experience.”

Ferlotti creates tailor-made materials
such as blogs and social media posts for companies across industries. She tasks her VA — hired after a client referral — with marketing duties as well as scheduled emails related to upcoming assignments. Weekly video chats make project delegation simple, Ferlotti said. 

“She was scheduling posts, so I got those to her by a specific time so she would have time to do that on her end,” Ferlotti said. “That got me to actually write those posts, and at times she wrote posts herself. It was like having a built-in accountability partner.”

man stands in kitchen with his hands on counter
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Nick Began used a virtual assistant to help with more than one of his businesses, including one that sells kitchen countertops.

Having a dedicated hire tracking your goals and commitments is only one benefit of a VA, said Nick Began, a Cleveland entrepreneur who owns several businesses including countertop supplier International Countertop Consultants.

Began, a long-time entrepreneur, has hired in-person assistants over the years, and now utilizes VAs for almost every job at ICC that would have gone to an in-office helper, save the obvious like running errands . Outsourcing email and additional time-consuming responsibilities lets Began focus on core competencies, he said.

“They can do 99% of tasks,” said Began. “We have VAs from India, Brazil and the Philippines, and everyone adjusts their schedule to work in our time zone. If I need my VA, I just Google Chat with her — it’s almost like she’s in the office.”

A real time saver

Began has decided to hire online assistants for all of his top-producing salespeople, with an eye on increased productivity and efficiency, he said.

Remote work became a literal household term during the pandemic. A study from Stanford University found that having remote workers can cut attrition rates nearly in half, while adding a 13% increase in productivity due to VAs’ inclination toward fewer breaks and sick days.

A reduction in onboarding costs is another plus as compared to traditional, in-house employees. Following a rigorous testing process, Began pays his overseas telecommuters a living wage, with his personal VA handling email, payables, travel arrangements, and meeting coordination.

ICC mostly finds virtual assistants through referrals, a process, despite its at-times laborious nature, that is a key facet of the company’s overall success, said Began.

“I couldn’t even imagine not having an assistant to help with the business,” Began said. “You have to be competitive in the workplace — it’s like doubling the productivity side when you hire a virtual assistant. When they’re used effectively, you’re getting 100% of your time back.” 

VAs are particularly useful for small businesses that don’t have resources for a full-time assistant, noted Began.

Finding the right VA

Referrals are the ideal way to find a reliable VA, although freelancing platforms like Upwork are another potential recruitment option for either a digital helper or in-office professional. What a virtual worker can never deliver, however, is the high-touch relationship naturally provided by an executive assistant, Yoo said.

“There is nothing like being there together,” said Yoo. “When you have a person sitting in a room with you, they will see your body language and understand the room temperature. They will come out from the meeting and say, ‘I noticed X, Y or Z happening in the room.”

“This is the perpetual entrepreneur issue, especially when you’re in the growth stage. We often have trouble marketing ourselves after spending so much time marketing for other people. I wanted to see if (bringing in a VA) was a good pathway to marketing myself. It was a really good experience.”
Rebecca Ferlotti

An entrepreneur may also simply be uncomfortable with a VA managing sensitive medical or financial information. To that end, employers must put safeguards in place to protect delicate data. Ensuring VAs use strong passwords when accessing a company’s private accounts is a good start.

Yet, even technical issues like poor bandwidth - or operating from a busy coffee shop – can damage the owner-VA relationship, said Yoo.

“Have clear expectations that they have the right bandwidth and are in a quiet place where they can work,” Yoo said. “Are they putting in the right amount of time, and what is their availability during the day? You can talk with a VA (before hire) to make sure you have a cultural alignment. Is this strictly a transactional relationship, or are they going to be part of the ongoing team?”

Yoo does not expect the in-person executive assistant position to go away. With more businesses large and small outsourcing work to VAs, executive assistants can offer their valued services across multiple companies, he said.

Ferlotti, the Cleveland content creator, temporarily dissolved her VA relationship when selling her house. She plans to rehire her virtual assistant early next year, with an understanding that virtual helpers will continue to transform how entrepreneurs live and work.

“There will always be tasks for a virtual assistant; it’s just a matter of how much time can you dedicate to assigning those tasks, and making sure they have all the resources they need,” said Ferlotti. “There’s always going to be opportunities to market yourself and find ways to better edit your content marketing plan. Whatever you’re doing, virtual assistants are helpful.”

Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.