When the new Chief of Staff for one of the world's largest asset management firms joined the company, she was immediately overwhelmed.
She reported having dozens of open recs for on-site executive assistants but faced difficulty finding candidates. When she did hire people, turnover was a problem. Few lasted more than a few months, using the company’s marquis brand to get a better job. In a competitive job market, salaries were high, making turnover even more expensive.
A Scalable, Reliable Solution
The Chief of Staff wanted a cost-effective, scalable, reliable solution for executive assistant staffing—one that minimized management overhead, training, and turnover. She investigated virtual assistant services—companies that provided access to executive assistants working offshore on a fractional basis. The use of remote assistants by larger firms is a trend we reported on in our 2021 report, The Virtual Assistant Landscape.
In this case, the Chief of Staff decided to test two support models simultaneously: a managed virtual assistant service provider and a virtual assistant staffing agency.
In our 2021 report, we distinguished between managed service virtual assistant providers and self-serve models of service delivery. Under the managed service model, remote assistants are hired, trained, and supervised locally with the quality of work checked and with regular training and development offered, and backup assistants are trained to step in when a primary assistant is absent or leaves the company.
This contrasts with a self-serve model which is more akin to a platform that simply facilitates the introduction of a client to an independent contractor and does not provide ongoing support throughout the engagement. We identified the following comparisons.
|Service Aspect||Managed Service||Self-Serve|
|Performance management||Internal management and quality assurance processes.||None|
|Back-up support||Fully-trained primary and secondary back-up assistants||Variable|
|Scalability||Increase or decrease support without disruptions||Time-consuming/disruptive|
|Information security||Comprehensive information security protocols||Variable|
Managed service providers maintain a bench of trained assistants that work in teams in secure facilities and secure networks, along with managers and U.S.-based customer success teams that deliver a turnkey service for mid-market and enterprise executive teams.
The Chief of Staff developed a pilot program in which she documented the tasks and processes to be offloaded to remote assistants.
- Calendar management--booking meetings and serving as the primary point of contact for others requesting executives' time.
- Task management--keeping an up-to-date task list and tracking tasks to completion.
- Support for meetings—updating agenda topics, taking meeting notes, and distributing action items.
- Team support--documenting processes, including tracking events for the community and direct reports’ milestones, collecting survey responses, and running reports.
- On-call support--provides administrative support to people who don't have a dedicated administrative assistant on tasks like coordinating meetings.
- General admin support--time for other tasks done and report with daily updates.
- Onboarding support -- assist in onboarding new employees and contractors onto the firm’s systems.
Prior to service delivery, remote assistants needed IT to access to tools and systems needed to complete tasks. These include:
- Travel/Expense management
Getting third-party access to internal systems proved daunting due to internal security policies and industry/government compliance and reporting requirements. A solution was to provide company-owned hardware so that they could access systems like a full-time employee.
The Chief of Staff found the managed virtual assistant service provider to be the ideal partner to build a sustainable service center. The primary drivers for the decision were:
- The ability to standardize training and build cohorts of assistants.
- No management overhead was needed from the Chief of Staff and her team.
- The ability to scale with pre-trained assistants on-demand.
- Backup assistants and management that ensure quality control, continuity and enhance scalability.
The asset management firm now has a team of 16 assistants, backup assistants, and managers, and is adding assistants at a rate of two per month.
Virtual Assistants are a Maturing Staffing Solution
When you think of virtual administrative assistants, your mind might take you to people like Tim Ferris, a solopreneur who championed the concept in "The 4-Hour Work Week." Ferris argued that you could run a business from anywhere, outsource administrative tasks to low-cost freelancers in Asia or Latin America, and live a good life.
In the early days of the gig economy, that was (and still is) a popular model.
But as the virtual assistant marketplace matures, enterprise organizations are turning to subscription-based virtual assistant service providers for turnkey executive support staffing to build outsourced service centers that provide the ideal blend of flexibility and cost-efficiency.
"The Virtual Assistant market is more typically characterized as the supply of individual workers to SME clients," we wrote in "The Virtual Assistant Landscape," our first-ever report on the sector. "However, some VA firms have not failed to recognize the potential of providing more enterprise-strength services to larger organizations. One client that requires 100 workers is much better than 100 clients requiring one worker each."
The equation is also true for HR and talent leaders struggling to find and retain executive assistants for enterprise teams. It is far easier to hire one vendor to support 100 executives than to hire, onboard, train, and manage 100 assistants one at a time.
The Vanishing Executive Assistant
The shift to larger companies tapping virtual assistants is taking place against the backdrop of a shrinking executive assistant labor pool in the United States. The Washington Post reported that the United States has shed 2.1 million executive assistant jobs since 2000—second in losses only to manufacturing in the same period. And the job is set to continue to decline by 18 percent a year, the steepest decline of any profession. Lensa’s 2021 Index reported that administrative assistant is the third most in-demand position.
It’s no wonder, then, that the virtual assistant market grew 41 percent in 2021 as larger firms turned to managed service providers that can provide standardized support for executive teams. The advantages of the managed service model to larger firms are easy to identify. All assistants receive the same training on the client’s tools and processes. Hiring those assistants one at a time with independent contractors with varying levels of experience and diverse skill sets is difficult to scale.
That said, the managed service solution is not right for everyone. Firms need to be able to create standardized processes that enable standardized training. Businesses with a great deal of ad hoc projects, or that need specialized skills that require creative judgment like graphic design or website development will need to assess the skills and capabilities of individual assistants.
Want to learn more? Check out “How Enterprises Outsource Executive Assistants in 2022.”
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.