The virtual executive assistant market grew 41 percent in 2020 and continues to grow. Fueled by a shortage of traditional administrative assistants and a pandemic-generated openness to remote work, businesses are tapping into a global supply of college-educated, English-speaking teammates from areas of the world where talent is plentiful but meaningful career opportunities are scarce.
"Up to now, the Virtual Assistants market has been neglected and under-researched (by SIA and others) but is an interesting and emerging category of contingent labor supply, Staffing Industry Analysts said in the first-ever report on the sector. "While the market was quite a niche, it is now well-established with more than 170 vendors globally and is set to benefit from compelling secular business trends."
Being under-researched has enabled a set of myths to grow around the virtual assistant market. Businesses providing remote executive assistant services look and act very differently from those launched 20 years ago. You will be surprised to learn how the marketplace has matured from nomadic freelancers to sophisticated professional services.
Myth #1: Virtual Assistants are for Solopreneurs and Small Businesses
We forgive you for buying into this myth. Tim Ferriss first popularized virtual assistants in his book, "The 4-Hour Work Week." The book describes how Ferriss launched and ran a nutritional supplement business while traveling the globe and working the world's shortest work week. The use of virtual assistants took off with soloists hiring low-cost freelancers in Asia and Latin America.
"The Virtual Assistant market is more typically characterized as the supply of individual workers to SME clients," SIA said. "However, a number of VA firms have not failed to recognize the potential of providing more enterprise-strength services to larger organizations."
It is not just virtual assistant providers that have seen enterprise opportunities. Enterprises themselves are driving the adoption of managed virtual assistant services to provide support for executive teams. Managed service providers hire, train, and supervise teams of assistants for large companies, becoming the Defacto executive admin staffing solution. The assistants work in teams with managers and backup assistants to ensure ongoing training and continuity.
Publicly traded CytomX Therapeutics is one of many companies that found their executive teams growing faster than they can hire support staff. The company has brought in 14 virtual assistants using Prialto's managed service. "The managed service is seamless," Matt said. "The Prialto assistants, their managers, and backup assistants work together in the background to get things done," said Matt Paulson, Development Chief of Staff. "I don't have to worry about who is doing it; I just know they will handle it."
Myth #2: Virtual Assistants Are Uneducated and Don't Speak English Well
Many people's perception of offshore workers comes from experience with customer service call centers where they struggle to communicate with people with heavy accents and give scripted responses to questions. That experience is frustrating, but that's not what you get with a professional virtual assistant service.
Prialto, for example, hires virtual assistants in the Philippines and matches them with executive teams. The Philippines enjoys a 98 percent literacy rate, widespread English, a strong work ethic, and free college education which has made the country a destination for many Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) organizations. The Philippines is among the top 10 "Digital Nations" in the Tholons Services Globalization Index. The BPO industry in the Philippines has grown to $27 billion with 1.3 million jobs, representing 70 percent of the BPO sector.
That said, not every offshore worker will have the same English fluency, education, and business acumen. Another reason businesses, especially larger ones staffing dozens of executive assistants, use a managed virtual assistant service is that the service provider screens for education, English, professionalism, business skills, and growth potential.
Managed service providers like Prialto attract some of the most ambitious BPO employees who want out of the most common role in the industry: customer support call centers. These call centers have a 50 percent attrition rate. “Lack of job fulfillment" is the reason most call center workers quit. Virtual assistants are attractive jobs for BPO workers as the role offers long-term work with individual executives, building relationships and helping solve business challenges rather than answering anonymous calls all day.
Myth #3: You Need a Full-Time Virtual Assistant
For generations, the executive assistant was a fixture in the office in the reception area or near the executive's office. In most cases, the admin had to be a full-time job because someone had to be there during office hours. Typical responsibilities included greeting visitors, answering the phone, opening and distributing mail, scheduling appointments, and office management tasks.
Most of those duties disappeared as voicemail, text, and email replaced telephone calls and productivity tools like CRMs automated manual tasks. When work-from-home orders sent everyone out of offices, every administrative assistant became a virtual assistant. This shift has created opportunities for new roles and responsibilities. Even the traditional executive assistant's need to be in the office all day went away, and many executives found that assistants got more done in less time.
Multiple studies show that executives spend about 30-40 percent of their time on administrative tasks. That is about one-third of a full-time employee. Digital tools enable remote executive assistants to do some of the most time-consuming tasks that, while necessary, do not need to be done by an executive. The work most delegated to virtual assistants includes:
Calendar management—it takes about 25 minutes to schedule a business meeting. Multiply that across a week full of meetings, and the time adds up.
Travel planning—it takes 12 hours to plan a door-to-door business trip. An assistant can research the options and present them for a quick decision.
Expense reports take 30 minutes to pull receipts together and fill out an expense report. Executives have more important things to do.
Prialto has been honing our managed virtual assistant service for over a decade and found that 12-15 hours a week of support works for most executives and teams.
Myth #4: Virtual Assistants Can't Do Everything an In-Person Assistant Can Do
This myth is partially true. You can't do old-school admin tasks like making coffee, cleaning the break room, and distributing snail mail online. But with an executive assistant's average salary close to $60,000 (before benefits) per year, that is some expensive coffee!
The risk of hiring an in-person assistant outweighs the benefits considering what a dedicated part-time remote assistant can do. First, there is the time and cost.
- Hiring an executive assistant takes 33 days (LinkedIn).
- It takes another 90 days to onboard a new assistant (C-suite Assistants).
- Half of the executive assistants quit after a year (Zippia).
If you spend the time and money to recruit, hire, and onboard an assistant only to have them leave a few months later, you're in a constant state of disruption.
A remote assistant can do the primary tasks most executives delegate:
- Calendar management.
- Travel planning.
- Expense accounts.
- CRM data management.
- Email organization.
A virtual assistant can also do local tasks. An assistant can order office supplies, catering, deliveries, etc. Virtual assistants can even ensure an executive's coffee is waiting for them at Starbucks.
Myth #5: All Virtual Assistants are the Same
The best answer to the myth that all virtual assistants are the same is that the opposite is more likely true. No two virtual assistants are the same. Low-cost virtual assistant services promote this myth to win your business with cut-rate prices.
There are three kinds of virtual executive assistants:
- Freelancers you hire from a marketplace or job board.
- Independent contractors you hire through an agency.
- Managed service providers where you hire a company that hires, trains, and supervises your dedicated assistant.
Freelancers are the lowest cost, highest risk virtual assistants. You will need to take the time to create a job description, collect resumes, interview, hire, and onboard the assistant. Vetting credentials can be challenging, and quality control is up to you.
Independent contractors you hire through an agency add cost and reduce risk, as the agency vets the virtual assistants and validates their experience and credentials. The price is higher because the agency charges a fee. You are still responsible for training and performance management.
Managed virtual assistant services hire the virtual assistants themselves, training them on executive assistant best practices, and placing them in a team with trainers, managers, and backup assistants to ensure their development and growth. The service provider does training, performance management, and quality control.
Security and scalability are two of the most significant advantages of the managed service virtual assistant model. Virtual assistants are service provider employees who go through background checks and work in secure offices, computers, and networks. Because the service provider has hundreds of employees trained in the same best practices, it is easy to scale and build cohorts supporting entire executive teams.
Freelance and independent contractor virtual assistants work on home computers and networks. Staffing an executive team by hiring one assistant at a time is challenging with these models.
Maturing Staffing Model
If you learned everything you know about virtual assistants from “The 4-Hour Work Week,” hopefully your view is wider now. As SIA said, the virtual assistant marketplace is maturing, and larger firms are starting to standardize managed remote executive assistants to solve their hiring and turnover problems with their assistants. The virtual assistant is moving upmarket as professional service providers focus on service delivery and offer a consistent, reliable pool of trained assistants without added HR overhead.
About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.