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Will Virtual Assistants Spell the End for the Secretary?

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This is the information and technology age, where face to face contact in the world of business is rapidly becoming outdated. With services like Skype readily available and offering services that would have been unimaginable fifteen years, contacts and employees from around the country – or around the globe – are now the norm, rather than the exception.

But what does this state of affairs mean for the humble stalwarts of the office environment, the secretary and the personal assistant? They are those who know all, who provide the outside face of the company, who arrange the matters of the day. But is their physical presence even required anymore, as more and more corporations use the internet as a means of furthering their potential? If you are talking to contacts and partners on Skype, do you need someone to be there in the office?

Virtual assistants are not a new phenomenon. Before the internet was as commonplace as it is now they kept in touch with their employers using fax machines and telephones. They were rare though; why hire someone who lives and works miles away from the office to do a job someone you already employ could do? Online tools however have made outsourcing of workers more common and more cost effective, especially for small businesses.

As VAs are contractors, they are paid only for the hours that they actually work, instead of a guaranteed salary for a forty hour week. This allows for business to save money, as they don’t have to fund equipment costs or provide furniture for their assistants, and for increased flexibility. A business owner can adjust the hours of the virtual assistant per week according to the amount of work needed. A virtual assistant’s hourly cost tends to be slightly higher than that of a full-time employee, but these costs will be made up with their added flexibility and decreased overheads.

Here’s a run-down of the general tasks a virtual assistant would perform.

- Email screening. The assistant will check email accounts and redirect messages that require personal attention to private accounts.

- Book your travel and business trips. They will organise airline reservations, hotels, and car rental.

- They will make phone calls on your behalf. They will make appointments, both personal and professional, check and reply to voicemail and follow up with clients as needed.

- Manage your calendar.

- Post screening. The assistant will vet all post received and redirect items which require personal attention.

- Organise other projects as required.

These are duties that are expected of any professional assistant, whether they are in the workplace or not. The problem lies in whether you are comfortable with having a stranger, with whom you have no interaction save email and video calls, handle such potentially confidential matters. Is it better to trust the cheaper option, who you do not know, than to have someone in the office who you know but is going to cost more?

It is likely that personal assistants and secretaries will always have a place in the office environment. Virtual assistants are not suited to everyone. They require you to surrender control to an outside source, and there are many who are unwilling to do that. For larger companies, it is simply not practical to contract out such tasks as screening emails and post. It would take far too long for the simplest of jobs to be completed. There is also the fact that larger companies need to deal and negotiate with clients in person, and a secretary is a valuable spokesperson and front of house employee. Virtual assistants, while they are useful and cost effective, are unable to welcome people into a building via a computer screen. That has yet to be accomplished.

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