How to Choose: Remote Virtual Assistant vs In-House Employee

Updated: 02 May, 2022 | Bill Peatman

Hiring remote virtual assistants through U.S.-based agencies increased by 41 percent in 2020, as companies turned to experienced distributed workers to fill vacancies and augment executive teams. As businesses eye returning to offices, will the trend shift to hiring in-house administrative assistants?

Not likely, according to analysts at Gartner. “We know through all the data that employees don’t want to go back to the way things were before,” said the research director Alexia Cambon. “We know that they are happier, healthier, more productive, have a greater chance for high performance and, probably, more importantly, there’s great inclusiveness if we adopt hybrid work.”

Pros and Cons of In-House and a Managed Virtual Assistant Service

There are well-known pros and cons to hiring remote virtual assistants instead of traditional office-based executive admins. The main reasons companies choose in-house staff are:

  • You have always done it this way.
  • Executives feel they have more control over someone on-site, employed directly by the company.
  • There is a bias against outsourcing anything offshore and the perception that U.S.-based native English speakers will perform better.
  • You need in-person services like brick-and-mortar shopping and deliveries or in-office filing of paper documents.
  • You have more than enough work for a full-time employee.
  • You want total control of an assistant’s work.
  • You have IT constraints that prevent remote workers from accessing your network.

The Managed Virtual Assistant Difference

Managed virtual assistant services differ from traditional virtual assistant hiring methods. Most virtual assistant agencies are matchmakers that provide you with resumes of onshore or offshore assistants. You shortlist a few that look promising for your business, interview, hire, train and manage the remote assistants. Managed virtual assistant services recruit, hire, train, and manage assistants so that executives and HR do not have any additional management responsibilities.

Reasons for turning to traditional offshore virtual assistants are usually all about cost savings:

  • You do not want to take the time to recruit, interview, or hire an assistant.
  • Executive Assistant salaries are lower in offshore markets.
  • You save on office space.
  • Reduced payroll and HR expenses.
  • Lack of available local candidates.

Managed Virtual Assistant Services: It is Not Just About the Money 

But to view remote virtual assistants as simply a cost-cutting move does not do justice to the business benefits a managed service can deliver. You still save the time and cost of interviewing, training, and onboarding your assistant. Few businesses have in–house managers that have experience supervising executive admins and evaluating their work. The managerial load grows as you add more assistants to support executive teams.

Managed Virtual Assistant Service Case Study

At healthcare navigation business Castlight Health, the company’s executive ranks grew faster than the company could hire and onboard support staff.

Plus, Castlight’s leaders realized they lacked the time, expertise, and resources needed to build a scalable administrative layer for their executive team—especially their top-producing Regional Vice Presidents. Castlight looked to a managed virtual assistant service not just to save money but to provide professional-grade support without extending its HR and management infrastructure to create a new department. Work that the virtual assistants handle for Castlight executives includes:

  • Email organization.
  • Scheduling and calendar management.
  • Travel planning and expense accounts.
  • Top of funnel CRM data entry and cleanup.

The savings of time and hassle were just as valuable to Castlight as saving costs on wages. “I initially expected the service to take substantial upfront time from me to get it working,” Regional Vice President Seth Cohen said. “But the managed service culture processes made it impressively turnkey.”

In a managed virtual assistant service, the assistants are employees of the service provider, and the service provider handles salary, benefits, performance management, and quality control. All assistants have a backup and two managers to ensure quality control and continuity should a primary assistant be unavailable.

The Case for In-House Executive Admins

That is not to say that there is no case for hiring an internal executive assistant. As mentioned above, there are scenarios when a virtual assistant would be a poor fit:

  • You want your assistant to make decisions for you as a “right-hand” person and represent you.
  • You need creative work like graphic design and content writing that requires a nuanced understanding of your business.
  • You want to be responsible for all outputs and perform quality control and performance management.
  • You have a lot of ad hoc tasks—short-term and long-term—that require specialized knowledge or experience.
  • You have the time to recruit, hire, train, and manage an additional employee.
  • You have worked with an executive assistant in the past, and you are comfortable taking on the management responsibilities and the HR overhead.

Risk vs Reward 

If you look at the risk/reward profile of hiring an assistant, the scales tilt in favor of a managed virtual assistant service. That is because hiring a full-time employee is inherently risky for the employer. Not only are you taking on the salary, benefits, management, and quality control—if the employee does not work out for whatever reason, that investment is lost, and you must start over.

On the other hand, most of the risk of a managed virtual assistant service is born by the service provider. The service provider does the recruiting, hiring, vetting, training, and management. A trained backup is ready to take over if the assistant does not work out. And if you want to stop the service, you can do so at any time.

Questions to Ask About an In-House Executive Assistant  

Just because traditional executive assistants are hard to find, it is not impossible. Yes, technology has replaced functions like scheduling meetings, answering phone calls, writing letters, planning travel, etc. However, businesses realize that paying executives to do these tasks for themselves is not an intelligent investment and executives need support to focus on more strategic work.  

For a full-time in-office employee, the questions to ask are:  

  • Do you have enough work to utilize someone 40 hours a week? Most executives spend 16 hours a week on administrative work, and an assistant can take over many of those tasks. An in-house assistant might make sense if you have an executive team that can share that resource. But few executives can utilize an assistant for 40 hours.  
  • Do you have the time and experience to recruit, qualify, hire, train and manage the assistant? Assistants add more value over time as they gain institutional knowledge of your organization. However:  
  • It takes 120 days to hire and train an assistant.  
  • Less than half of executive assistants stay at a job for more than two years.  
  • It costs 50 to 200 percent of an employee’s salary to find a replacement.  

Turnover can leave you in a constant state of starting over. To retain an assistant, they need coaching and mentoring, and they need to see a career path in your firm.  

  • Do your tasks require someone to be in the office? If you want someone to make coffee, greet visitors, and run errands, a virtual assistant cannot do those tasks online.   
  • Do you have the budget for an in-house assistant? The average salary of an executive assistant is $62,000. But that is only the beginning. You also need to consider:  
  • Benefits add about 30 percent to the cost of an employee.  
  • It costs about $10,000 per year in office space, utilities, and equipment per employee.  
  • A managed virtual assistant service is less costly, as you only pay for the time you use.  
  • Do you need someone to represent you at meetings and on calls and make judgments and decisions on your behalf? A virtual assistant is unlikely to be able to make those judgment calls for you.  

Question to Ask About Using a Managed Virtual Assistant Service  

The early days of the virtual assistant market consisted of freelancers and independent contractors. As the industry matured, the managed service model emerged to make it easier for executives to engage virtual assistants without any additional management or HR overhead—executives identify the tasks they want to offload and how they want those tasks done.  

For a managed virtual assistant service, the questions to ask are:  

  • Are the tasks you want to delegate repetitive, and can you document your procedures and preferences? A virtual assistant performs best with clear standard operating procedures for repetitive tasks. Occasional one-off projects are OK occasionally, but if all the work is different every time, a virtual assistant may not be the best choice. Examples of repeatable tasks include:  
  • Scheduling meetings—you have clear preferences for meeting times, locations, breaks between sessions, invitations, calendar formatting, etc.  
  • Travel planning—you can document your preferred vendors for airports, flights, seating, hotels, and cars.  
  • Expense reports—you have a defined process for filing expenses.  
  • Contact data entry—you have a consistent methodology for the contact information you record and store.  

These tasks eat up most of those 16 hours per week executives spend on administrative tasks.   

  • Do you want a long-term assistant? The turnover rate for freelance virtual assistants is about the same as that of in-house admins. You are hiring a company, not an individual with a managed service.  
  • Behind your virtual assistant is a team of managers that train backup assistants that can step in when your primary assistant is absent or moves on.  
  • The managers document all your processes, which means you never start over, and the service improves over time as the team gains institutional knowledge.  
  • The team spends the first 60-days learning and documenting everything and continually adds more tasks and efficiencies.  

But if you are looking for short-term help while someone is on leave, a managed virtual assistant service may not be the right choice. The team invests a good deal of time and effort upfront.  

  • Do you need help defining and documenting workflows? Managed service provider teams have thousands of hours of experience helping executives and teams delegate tasks. They can help get your processes out of your head and into a repeatable workflow.  
  • Do you want more people to manage? The service provider does the hiring, onboarding, training, and performance management with a managed virtual assistant service. Your assistant works with you side by side, albeit virtually. You identify the tasks you want to complete, and the assistant gets to work. If they run into blockers, they ask their managers for help, not you. If you have constructive feedback, you give it to the managers, so it does not strain your relationship with your assistant.  
  • Do you expect your needs to grow? The only thing harder than hiring your first executive assistant is hiring your second one. If you plan to scale your support to more executives, the managed service makes it super straightforward:  
  • You have fully documented processes.  
  • Backup assistants are already trained and ready to work.  
  • Managers are in place to train new backups.  
  • Do you need an assistant now? Recruiting is time-consuming and risky, especially in a tight job market. With a managed service, you can hire a trained, professional virtual assistant in a few days. The service providers take care of the onboarding, training, supervision, quality control, and continuous improvement of your service.  

Virtual Assistant vs. Employee: Which is Right for You?  

Managed virtual assistant services and full-time employees are apples and oranges. There are risks and advantages to both. Answering these questions can help you decide which might be better for you.  

Let’s summarize   

When considering hiring an employee as your assistant:  

  • If you want a lieutenant who can read your mind, facial expressions, and moods and become a mini-you, a managed virtual assistant may not be the right choice. The assistant will not see you every day.  
  • If you want to hire, onboard, and train and do not mind the risk of turnover, an in-house employee can do the trick.  
  • If the work you have requires constant change and judgment calls, you will need someone that can operate at that level of independence.  

On the other hand:  

  • A managed service will work if your tasks are repetitive to the point that workflows can be documented.  
  • If you want to hire fast and leave the onboarding, training, supervision, and quality control to a team, a managed service is the right choice.  
  • If you want assured continuity, a managed service is the answer.  

Long-Term Productivity  

The answer to whether you should hire an in-house executive assistant, or a managed virtual assistant depends on which model will help you and your team be most productive for the long haul. A managed virtual assistant service is a long-term investment on both sides of the relationship with a company. In contrast, an in-house assistant is an investment in a relationship with an individual. Use these questions to figure out which approach is best for you. 

How to Get the Right Assistant 

Review site Clutch lists more than 4,000 virtual assistant service providers offering remote admins, including freelance platforms, contract agencies, and managed service providers. Meanwhile, the traditional in-person executive admin role has shrunk by 40 percent since 2000, and administrative assistant is the third hardest-to-fill role, according to job site Lensa.

Finding the right assistant for yourself and/or your executive team is daunting. In-person assistants are hard to find, and thousands of vendors make choosing a virtual assistant a significant challenge.

To learn more about hiring and working with a virtual assistant, download The Ultimate Guide to Hiring a Virtual Assistant.

The Ultimate Guide to Hiring a Virtual Assistant

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.

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