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Why Designers Use Virtual Employees

While the pandemic has caused much of the working world to recognize the extent of what is possible to accomplish virtually, for many people, working remotely has long been their preference. Sarah Durnez, a virtual design assistant who has been freelancing for more than a decade, says the crisis has just brought to light a category of workers that has always been there. “I think last year a lot of designers were like, ‘Oh, okay, the Internet!'” she says. “People thought they were making something up, but we’ve been doing it for years.”

Durnez recently began teaching a course for the interior design education market eDesign U in which she trains others to become VDAs. “There’s certainly been a surge since the pandemic began, both for designers wanting to hire virtual help and for people with the skills to become a VDA wanting to learn how to market themselves,” she says.

While based in Washington State, Durnez contracts with designers across the country, offering expertise in programs like AutoCAD and SketchUp in addition to putting together presentations and creating marketing materials. “It’s a hands-off experience in that I never work with landlords, but just do the parts of the job that I like and do them on my own schedule,” she says.

Daniella Hoffer, who hired a virtual assistant to handle project management and procurement for her New Jersey design firmCourtesy of Daniella Hoffer

As COVID has led to a business boom for designers and the widespread adoption of the work-from-home model, it’s easy to see how the concept of remote, project-based hires has become more appealing than ever, pushing designers who may have never considered this before. an arrangement to try. “I have a team of four and work from home, so I had to be very smart about adding employees, even before COVID, because I work with a fixed space,” says Daniella Hoffer, a designer in Springfield, New Jersey. She originally considered hiring a general virtual assistant through an agency, but ultimately wanted someone with knowledge of the design industry.

In early 2020, she saw the topic mentioned in an interior design Facebook group and received a recommendation from one of the other designers there. “We’ve been working with her now for a year and I can’t imagine how I lived without her,” Hoffer said of the hire. “She takes care of project management and purchasing for the firm. She’s always in front of a computer, so I can call her when I’m running from site to site and know she has all the information I need right at her fingertips. It was amazing.

Especially in the design world, made up of so many small businesses, using remote staff can be a game-changer – a way to scale your business without dramatically increasing your overhead. Houston-based designer Courtnay Tartt Elias, the owner and director of Creative Tonic, began tapping into remote resources two years ago to ease the strain on her small staff. “My company was going through a period of growth, but we were spending a lot of our time on AutoCAD,” says Elias. She mentioned the problem to another designer, who gave her the name of a virtual design assistant. Elias reached out and soon began outsourcing all of the company’s AutoCAD needs.

Since then, she has also started using a virtual marketing assistant, personal assistant, and business coach, and she is on a waiting list for a company that will manage all of her business sourcing needs remotely. “When you have a small team, you really have to ask yourself, ‘What is the best use of everyone’s time?’ says Elias. “By tapping into these outside sources, I’m able to keep my core staff happy and doing the things they love to do, while picking off those other tasks by heart.”

Through remote contractors, Elias found she was handing the work over to specialists instead of dropping something like sourcing onto, say, a junior designer. “I can work with professionals who are experts in that specific area, and they won’t be distracted by business matters,” she says. “It’s been important to dig in and see that these repetitive tasks don’t need to be done by my most valuable team members.”

Courtnay Tartt Elias

Courtnay Tartt Elias uses remote collaborators for marketing, AutoCAD and personal supportCourtesy of Courtnay Tartt Elias

Remote (and often part-time) employees are also a resource for companies that are unable to hire an additional employee but still need administrative help. “I don’t need or have the workload of a full-time assistant,” says Debbie Marden, a designer in Boulder, Colorado. “But I hired a recent design school graduate as a freelancer about six months ago, and it’s been amazing for my business.” Marden says she never learned AutoCAD or rendering programs, but her new assistant, fresh out of college, knows all the latest platforms. Therefore, she is now able to offer these services to her clients. “I’ve always done mood boards and presentations, and I never felt up to it until I saw what this woman could do. Now I have been able to elevate my work and give more value to clients,” she says.

Janet Caldwell Las Vegas-based Nest Interior Design outsourced its social media business to a freelancer in London last year. “So she’s very remotely,” jokes Caldwell. “It’s great because I can just focus on the design work, and still be on Instagram. It’s not where I want to focus my energy, but it’s something the company has It was great to have it on my plate, and I saw our subscribers start to increase as well.

The rather transactional nature of having a virtual independent staff member can also be an advantage. Other than a basic onboarding and learning a company’s systems, there is no training, mentoring, or support from the designer. “I think there’s less pressure to foster and grow a relationship with employees when it’s virtual and project-based,” says a Boston-based designer. Tiffany LeBlanc. “Most employees in today’s market want a lot of connectedness with their boss and want to feel like they’re going to grow in their job. There’s something nice about someone being able to fill that void, because at the end of the day, I don’t need an assistant who’s there in person, who adores me. I just need someone to produce for me.

Even with a return to the office on the horizon for some businesses post-pandemic, the financial convenience and increased productivity offered by virtual assistants isn’t expected to diminish any time soon. “With all these remote additions, I’m on my way to making my business the most efficient it’s ever been,” says Elias. “It’s a way to keep your full-time staff lean while making progress in areas where you really need help. And, really, who cares where someone is these days? It’s a brave new world.

Home page photo: Adobe Stock

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