I recently read an article about a virtual office-outsourcing nightmare. It was well worth the read, and it made me think.

I understand that although I have been working from a virtual office for all 15-plus years of my professional life, still, for much of the world – virtual often equates to fictional. At the same time – I am very much real. The entire Bauhinia Solutions team is very much real, but with new methods of working, we must adopt new expectations and methodologies, particularly when it comes to communication and data-sharing.

Hiring a virtual assistant can be a nightmare if you aren’t quite accustomed to how things will work and most certainly, if you hire a random off the internet, living in a far away land, from a culture with which you do not identify, and whose native language is not your own. Pitfalls (or challenges) such as cross-cultural communication breakdowns, different standards of excellence, as well as differences in working hours or public holidays should be expected. For some people, and for some tasks, this can be perfectly acceptable, but for most professionals who wish to be represented in a professional and expert manner, a far off assistant like one might find in India or the Philippines might not fit the bill, unless you are, of course in India or the Philippines.

Going local, but still virtual, can insure you are better grounded in your relationship with your VA on all fronts. I like this quote from the writer,

“At some point it dawned on me that I’d stumbled upon the fatal flaw inherent in any virtual-assistant relationship. To be truly useful, an assistant needs to understand everything about your life and work. An assistant is a confidant. But it’s impossible to develop a deep, trusting relationship with a guy you know only by email – a guy who communicates with you in canned professional-ese, who must be monitored by security cameras to make sure he doesn’t rob you.”

I can’t put it better myself. This is a relationship. It requires time to develop, and should be nurtured. While remote, and perhaps even more so because of it, there is an intimacy that grows when you find The One.

But the article also highlighted some flaws in task deployment that are worth mentioning.

Case 1:

“I gave him his first task. I needed a flight from San Francisco to Minneapolis. I gave him my dates. I wanted times and prices. …But after sending him my request, I heard nothing. After 40 minutes, I sent him a follow-up to make sure he’d received the task. About 40 minutes after that, he responded: “Yes I have received your email and I have started working on it.”

Huh. This task should have taken him about 10 minutes; why was he just getting started after a nearly an hour and a half? Around noon – about three hours (and $30) after I’d assigned the task – Mr F finally sent me an email to say he was done. Now I saw why he’d taken so long: Instead of looking for the best two or three flights that conformed to my calendar, he’d created a spreadsheet listing all the details of 10 flights.”

Can you spot the series of flaws here?

First, the task was insufficient in delegation detail for a new client-VA relationship. It would have been better to say, “Please find flight options for Point A to Point B, on XXX dates. This is a top-level inquiry for times and prices only. Please use no more than 30 minutes on this task.” While that may sound excessive, in a new relationship, your VA is trying desperately to impress you and deliver excellent work. Not communicating an expectation of detail and time usage is simply a misunderstanding that stems from two parties having different goals from the task.

Second, a virtual assistant, unless you have pre-agreed working hours or are hiring them full time, are also managing other clients. Sending through a request and waiting for immediate action is unrealistic. Mark tasks with realistic urgency, due dates and/or times, and gain a commitment of completion from your VA. Following the request above should have been, “The flight is in X weeks, so I would like to select a flight as soon as possible. Can you please come back to me with options no later than tomorrow at 3pm.”

Case 2:

“The weekend was coming up, and I didn’t need Mr F on Monday morning. I told him to be ready to work on Tuesday. But on Tuesday I heard nothing. Not on Wednesday either. The whole week passed.”

Unless you set the expectation (make an appointment) for your VA to contact you at a certain time, they are waiting for you to delegate tasks to them. Again, a VA will be working with a number of clients and is very rarely just sitting around chasing people for work. The best VAs are in high demand and are usually scheduling tasks days in advance. Remember, your VA is virtual and part-time. It is the client’s job to let the VA know when, what, and how. It all comes back to communication and expectations.

Finally, hiring a VA is not only an oddly intimate relationship, you need to know what you really want out of it so that you find the right partner. Do you want someone to run mundane or routine tasks from your work week? If so, you need to be willing to set up formal SOPs and guidelines so that you can insure consistency throughout the work, particularly when it comes to tasks such as diary management and invoicing. Keep in mind, you are often also on the hook for the cost/time of education and training on your systems. Alternatively, are you looking for an expert VA that can take your business to the next level – do the things you can’t or don’t want to? This is a completely different type of service and requires a VA with a totally different (and existing) skillset.

At Bauhinia Solutions, for example, we offer straight admin packages as well as marketing and strategy packages. We have team members that specialize in different types of work, so we work hard to match clients with the right VA, and actually, some clients enjoy a mix – getting a broad range of services through a Client Manager who then manages task breakdown within the team. Our most comprehensive support is kind of like having an administrative assistant, a marketing manager, and on-call IT all rolled up into one.

So, is hiring a VA right for you? Hopefully this article has enlightened you, answered some questions, and will help you avoid common pitfalls going forward. Good luck!

Elizabeth Loennborn, Bauhinia Solutions

Elizabeth’s professional experience is well-rounded, with a deep understanding of digital marketing and advertising, digital publishing, new media, and sales. As a Business Specialist, she focuses on supporting the team and our clients in online advertising and analytics.