A virtual assistant can be a small businesses best friend when it comes to getting established quickly. Dr. Bryan West, owner of Fortress Learning, found this to be the case when he launched his vocational training company. Read on to see how Bryan and his team relied on their virtual assistants to get their company's administrative procedures up and running:
What inspired you to start working with a virtual assistant?
As a beginning enterprise, we didn’t really know what our future would be. We also did not have the funds to recruit people locally. And, being based at the time in a somewhat remote centre made the pool of talent somewhat limited.
That combination made it untenable to employ someone locally. Recruiting a virtual assistant allowed us to adapt to changes very quickly, and in a scalable way.
Tell us a little about what you have delegated and how you work together?
Since our first virtual assistant in 2009, our team now take care of almost our complete back end and reception duties. It includes everything from managing flow of documents, emails and other communications, parts of our bookkeeping, market research and all sorts of other stuff.
We have very clear channels of communication, and for anything but short-term projects, we clearly document the steps of every process that are to be followed. This sets everyone up for success, ensuring that everyone is aware of what needs to happen, and that includes how accountability will be managed.
We have weekly one on one meetings with all staff – local and virtual – to ensure that all is well, and to deal with any emergent issues. We also have one VA who oversees others, so she conducts those meetings and is responsible for a small team.
How has working with a virtual assistant supported your business, and you personally?
Our staff – local and virtual assistants – have been the foundation of our success. But, the virtual assistant team have been especially critical in allowing us to try new things without the hassle of short-term employment that exists locally. That has enabled us to start early and fail early with a number of ideas, which allows a rapid development of a quality product.
Personally, it is great to have such a highly qualified group of incredibly dedicated people who are committed to what we do. Indeed, the loyalty of the group is humbling, and can be perhaps best described through an early challenge.
As with many businesses, in our early days we faced what you could call a cash-flow crisis. We advised staff of it, and what happened after that was very informative: our local staff turned to online job sites to see what was available. Our virtual assistants reached out and offered to work for free until the challenge had passed.
Did you experience any challenges? How did you overcome them?
As an organization based on trust, one day the penny dropped that our virtual assistants did not have the same legal protections as our local staff, and I wondered what effect that had on them. From that, we made conscious efforts to make clear that we understood the tenuous position that they were in, and put in place measures to show our intention to treat them well, rather than exploit them.
This included setting up a staff bank, providing a couple of weeks paid time off each year, and providing a clear structure within which their rate of pay would grow. We also invested in their training, and arranged for them to get together from time to time for social reasons. We made clear guidelines for disciplinary and performance management, and use a similar system as we do for our local staff.
Once our virtual assistants had been with us for a while, we came to realise that in their country there were certain expectations that differed from our own….such as annual pay rises, bonuses, etc. We needed to get those things aired so that they could be dealt with in a transparent way.
We did have one virtual assistant who had 3 jobs going at once; it was her way of rorting the system, but that was readily identifiable through having clear accountabilities.
What advice would you give to aspiring virtual assistants looking for new clients?
Be honest about what you can do, and what you are wanting to do. Be mindful that the standard in your own country may be different. If you are being interviewed, don’t be afraid to ask your potential employer some hard questions to ensure you end up somewhere where you feel you will fit and will be safe.