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The rise of the virtual assistant

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 3.9 million secretaries and administrative assistants in the United States in 2016. However, this figure does not distinguish between assistants who work in an office and the growing number of those who work online. Indeed, virtual assistants are rapidly replacing traditional secretaries and personal or administrative assistants in the office.

A virtual assistant (VA) can be an employee, freelancer, or independent contractor who works online and performs various tasks to help individuals or businesses. Virtual assistants can offer many services that an in-house secretary traditionally handles: data entry, transcription, planning, writing, programming, design, and other services. They generally work from home and, in fact, may never meet their clients in person.

How many VA are there these days? While the International Virtual Assistants Association, Virtual Assistant Networking Forum, and other organizations claim that the number of virtual assistants is growing, it’s hard to find verified statistics for this industry. Many virtual assistants do not belong to any official organization or networking group. However, a large number of VAs have joined freelance platforms. There are over 5,000 virtual assistants listed on Upwork, 74,000 on Guru, 26,000 on Freelancer, and 5,000 on PeoplePerHour. And freelancing platforms don’t include VAs who have their own websites or offer their services through other methods.

As the number of virtual assistants continues to grow, there are major pros and cons for those who work as virtual assistants and the people who hire them. Here are several trends emerging from this rapidly changing industry:

1. The office is everywhere

One of the main advantages of working as a virtual assistant is that there is no dependence on a physical location. This flexibility allows a VA to work from home, coffee shops, libraries, or coworking spaces. The only requirement is an internet connection and a computer or phone.

The ability to work from any location also benefits businesses and individuals who hire virtual assistants. They can tap into a pool of virtual assistants around the world and find the perfect fit for their business. Another benefit is that employers do not have to provide VAs with office space, equipment or other essentials.

2. Increased productivity

Research shows that remote workers are more productive. A study analyzed by the harvard business review reveals that staff who worked from home completed 13.5% more calls at Ctrip’s call center than staff who worked in the office. A TINYpulse study found that 91% of remote workers feel more productive at home.

Virtual assistants also benefit from fewer distractions in the office and the ability to work longer from home. They may structure their schedules around other responsibilities to complete more tasks. Plus, they don’t have to worry about long trips that waste their time. Increased productivity is a benefit for both businesses and AVs.

3. Lower costs — and fewer benefits

Companies that hire virtual assistants benefit from reduced costs: they don’t have to provide benefits, equipment, paid training or bonuses. Businesses are also saving money on taxes by hiring freelance virtual assistants instead of full-time employees.

But the flip side is that AVs often suffer where businesses benefit. They do not have health insurance, paid holidays, sick leave or vacation days. And they must pay the full amount of their social security and health insurance contributions. If they were employed, their companies would pay half.

4. Communication breakdowns

Communication can be a problem for businesses and virtual assistants. A manager can’t just walk into a VA’s booth and ask for an update on a project. Likewise, a VA can’t stop the CEO in the hallway for a quick chat about scheduling important appointments.

Working virtually requires finding systems that streamline communication between companies and virtual assistants. Emails, phone calls, apps and task management programs are important tools to help VAs stay in touch with their clients or employers. However, the lack of personal interaction can sometimes be difficult.

5. Job Security Issues

A quick read of some of the best virtual assistant profiles on freelance profiles like Upwork or Guru shows that VAs often work on multiple projects at the same time and have many short-term assignments with different people. Indeed, job insecurity in the virtual assistant industry is a problem.

A VA job can end at any time. But it goes both ways: a VA can stop working with a company at any time. Although contracts offer some protection, most virtual assistants don’t receive severance pay, and golden parachutes don’t exist in this industry either. Additionally, the lack of personal interaction inherent in virtual work can make it easier to break a contract, since neither the company nor the worker has to see the other party’s face.

All of this is worth considering as the number of virtual assistants continues to grow and they replace traditional office workers. By 2020, Intuit predicts that 40% of the US workforce will be made up of freelancers. While a remote online workforce has many advantages, there are also a number of disadvantages to consider.

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