Chief executives the world over will be the first to tell you that a great personal assistant is priceless.

Priceless to the point where a good PA can earn as much as $125,000 per year in the US, £100,000 ($161,000) in London and HK$600,000 ($77,414) in Hong Kong, according to PA recruiting firm, The Angela Mortimer Group.

PAs, after all, have a big job. They manage executives’ day-to-day affairs, book travel and dinner reservations and even schedule much of their personal life. They also play a role in executives’ personal lives, from spreadsheeting the children’s term dates to fine-tuning the family’s annual trip.

Good PAs are in high demand, but full time positions are often unaffordable for smaller firms or ones with fluctuating workloads. That’s led to a rise in online PAs (or virtual assistants — VAs — as they are commonly known) offering their services across the globe at more reasonable hourly rates. Part-time VAs can be well worth their fees.

Mindy Gibbins-Klein, a leadership coach and publisher in St Albans, England, says she would be completely lost without her virtual personal assistant, Emma Herbert, who sits more than 4000 kilometres away in San Francisco. Herbert manages data and orders for the company’s Panoma Press division.

“Emma started out just doing some admin[istration] for me but soon showed me she could do so much more — and she has now developed into my operations manager,” Gibbins-Klein said.

There are benefits for Herbert, too, offered by the flexibility of working remotely. “I have worked on Mindy's tasks and other clients' tasks while on vacations around the world including Australia, the US, Barbados, Europe,” said Herbert. “As long as I have my MacBook Air and my iPhone I have my 'office' with me at all times. I’ve even answered emails while waiting in line to get on a roller coaster.”

The upper crust

There are a number of VA services available. At the higher end, there are executive PAs who have given up working in a physical office to set up a VA business and can charge around $60 per hour. Although most of the work is managed by email or phone, a certain amount of face time may be included. In many cases they will also keep abreast of the minutiae of their client’s lives and have full access to their diaries and credit card.

Events organiser Kirsten White, who runs Lime Events in London, says she couldn’t do without Sarah-Louise Douglas, her VA from DesignatedPA. While most of the marketing work can be done via email and text, Douglas will go over to White’s house for the bookkeeping.

“I didn't even consider a real PA,” said White. “They would need to be on the payroll and I don’t run one as I have a small business. [This is] is far more economical. I keep a time sheet and pay £50 ($63) per hour, and use her about five hours a week. If there were someone in the office I would need to manage them and there would be management costs.”

Hiring an outsourced VA

At the opposite end of the scale are the outsourced VAs, many of whom are in Indian cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore. They can do the same tasks as other VAs yet the relationship is less personal. Starting from as little as $7 an hour (with a 160 hour a month plan on GetFriday.com), this is an economical option for those on a tight budget and want jobs doing such as data crunching and research. 

New York-based Web consultant Jeremy Carman, who runs Jalopyhead Enterprises, said he began using an India-based assistant in July after reading Timothy Ferriss’s book, Cheat Sheet: The 4-hour Workweek. “I use them for necessary but redundant and tedious tasks, such as uploading pictures onto my blog,” says Carman. “I need someone who can take the task off of my hands so… that I can move on to the next idea.” Carman says it has allowed him to take his company to the next level. “With this freed up time, I am able to focus on creating better ideas for business.”

Twin-pronged attack

Some executives keep a full-time PA and still hires an India-based virtual assistant for other tasks. Janus Boye, who runs J Boye, a global digital network in Aarhus, Denmark, is one. “The VA [I hired] started out with information technology services, in particular, for website development. Today they also help with marketing services, for example to grow our reach on social media.”

Yet Boye keeps his PA working on tasks that require “face-to-face” interaction, such as meeting preparation, travel planning, scheduling, board meetings and liaising with the management team.

The downsides

Outsourcing internationally, however, comes with its own set of challenges. “I haven’t found any VA that speaks Danish yet, so if you deal with other languages than English, you still have to go local.” Boyes said.

Asset manager John Zeckendorf, uses an Indian-based VA to help run his company, Mandala, from Chatswood, Australia,. “There are translation issues — mindset, not language,” he wrote in an email. “Tasks need to be quite specific. There is some frustration with me having to manage tasks and having to check work done carefully. It is not as seamless as it should be. VAs are less useful when human interaction (e.g. calls) are required.”

Closer to home

When VAs are crucial, however, is when they can free up precious spare time. Marianne Rance, who is head of development of the Foundling Museum in London, has employed a VA from DesignatedPA for six months to do what she calls her “fadmin,” or family administration.

“My working life is quite busy, not only working hours but events,” she said. “I juggle three teenagers, a dog, a husband and running a household.” Rance felt there were jobs in her life that were constantly at the bottom of the pile, and that she was “losing control” on the home front. Her VA does small, time-consuming jobs, such as going onto the school website and entering all the term dates into her calendar, to larger jobs such as putting her videos onto CDs or researching a trip to Japan.

In the end, with time at such a premium, perhaps the VA will let you do what matters most, says London-based business consultant Dr Heidi Kharbhih, who uses UK company LinksVA for her company, Optimise Your Business.

“On a personal level, why not delegate to a VA, so that you can spend more time with your friends and family?,” Kharbhih said.

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