BBC RADIO 4

Caroline Whittle of The Alternative Office was asked to speak about ‘Virtual Assistants’ on Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ – take a read of this fascinating interview transcribed below:

General Introduction by Radio 4 [Interviewer 1]:

High-powered people need personal assistants, super secretaries who manage the diary, screen phone calls, make the travel arrangements and ensure that the office runs smoothly.

In the old world of work, the personal relationship between the PA and the boss was crucial. The PA would learn to read moods, understand what’s going on away from the office and even choose birthday gifts and cards for the family.

Well, forget all that… the computer has created a whole new breed of office assistant who doesn’t even have to live in the same country as the boss, let alone meet that person face to face. Welcome to the world of the ‘Virtual Assistant’ or ‘VA’. Rebecca Davis reports:

Rebecca Davis [Interviewer 2]:

Going on-line, the Internet, the globe at your fingertips and home to a new emerging workforce, the Virtual Assistant. Today, a secretary need not be sitting in your office in order to manage it, from taking all your calls to ordering the stationery. Everyday administrative work is at the heart of the Virtual Assistant industry, but the average VA can handle anything from anywhere; transferring stocks and shares, handling website updates, even taking virtual bookings for hairdressers without the customers realising she isn’t the receptionist. Location is irrelevant. Computer literacy is the key.

CAROLINE WHITTLE [The Alternative Office]

‘You can now hear my modem ringing in, so I can call my messages for the day…’

[Interviewer 2]

Caroline Whittle is a Virtual PA with an office overlooking her garden at her home in the picturesque rural Sussex village of Wivelsfield Green, from where she can work for clients all over the world.

[Caroline]

I have clients in Europe, in particular in Switzerland and France. I have never actually met them, but I do their work, send it back via the email. Or it could be posting documentation around the world. Recently, I sent out documentation to Hong Kong and with the beauty of the Internet, once the courier has taken it, you can track it, find out when it has arrived and inform the client.

Being ‘virtual’ you can actually take on a client’s jobs yourself. You can take their telephone calls, which can be diverted to you. You can look after their diary. Diaries are now not necessarily the old traditional diaries, you can now have a web intranet, where not only you can input and edit the diary but your client can as well and invite others to see that diary.

[Interviewer 2]

What sort of equipment do you have? What do you need to set yourself up?

[Caroline]

I think it is only possible to be a Virtual Assistant because of the revolution in technology. You need the latest technology; an up to date PC, a colour printer, a scanner, and email linked to the Internet of course.

Also one of the latest inventions is the Digital Voice Recorder, very similar to the digital camera. You can speak into a Digital Voice Recorder, and then download the ‘voice file’ on to the PC. The client can then send that ‘voice file’ to the Virtual Assistant, who will transcribe it using special software into a Word document, send it back as an email attachment to the client and you’ve not even had to speak to them.

[Interviewer 2]

Right, so someone in Hong Kong could send you their dictation basically and you could get it back to them overnight because of the time difference and [Caroline] they’d have it ready when they wake up the next business morning at work, yes.

[Interviewer 1]

This new breed of virtual workers is symptomatic of the changes in our working environment. It is now relatively easy to work from home and yet be totally in touch with the working world. At the same time, businesses are increasingly keen to employ people on a freelance basis buying their skills when and where needed, while more and more of us prefer to work in a flexible environment. The old 9 to 5 job with the same employer for 30 years is long gone.

TERRI LEE ROMINE (IVAA – International Virtual Assistants Assoc)

About 5 years ago, there were some people who started with the concept and it grew from there.

[Interviewer 1]

Speaking from Los Angeles, California, Terri Romine is Vice President of the International Virtual Assistants Association. The United States has been credited with starting the industry and there are half a dozen US based web sites dedicated to virtual assistant organisations, with members worldwide. Of course, the main purpose of the web sites is for these virtual workers to advertise their virtual services.

[Terri]

You can go to some VA organisations that have directories. The directories are very helpful and they give detailed information on location and experience.

[Interviewer 1]

It’s not just large business now keen to use virtual staff. The virtual assistant is also finding a niche with those just starting out.

[Interviewer 2]

So here I am on my computer at home in my spare bedroom. Now imagine I am a budding entrepreneur, I’ve just had a fabulous idea that’s going to make me my first million, but I have to start small working here from the back bedroom, so by going on-line, I am finding myself a VA like this, here we go, two or three web sites up, I can find a VA near me, it will list his or her skills and they can then help me give my new business a veneer of professionalism and I’ll only pay for that person’s time so that I get top level staff without the overheads.

[Caroline]

As we walk out here through the French doors you can come into the beautiful garden. We are surrounded by lovely countryside, the South Downs over to my right.

[Interviewer 2]

Back in her East Sussex garden, Caroline Whittle tells me how much she enjoys working from home.

[Caroline]

Being a VA actually allows me to get out and about, do a little bit of the pleasurable things in life as well as working.

[Interviewer 2]

So, in your coffee break, you can just come out and sit in the garden seat here.

[Caroline]

That’s right, and also I sit out here and have my lunch, which is lovely on a sunny day like today.

[Interviewer 2]

Oh yes, none of that commuting.

[Caroline]

That’s right, none of those smelly dusty trains, not for me!

[Interviewer 2]

So you don’t miss it?

[Caroline]

Not at all!

[Interviewer 1]

That was Rebecca Davis Reporting. So is the Virtual Assistant a growing trend, or just an interesting new development that’s unlikely really to catch on? Well I asked John Knell, an economist who has written a book about the new web practices called ‘Most Wanted – the Quiet Birth of the Free Worker’.

JOHN KNELL - Economist

I think there is a quiet revolution going on in the way we work. Your example has been about Virtual Assistants, but this form of working with technology freeing us to work at home, in different places, across different time zones is spreading, is spreading across managerial and professional workers and it’s also spreading across other types of works. So no, it is not a fad or a fashion; it’s going to grow in importance.

[Interviewer 1]

Can you really run somebody’s office from a remote location in the way that a personal assistant used to run it, being there, face to face?

[John]

Well, I think the way that I’d answer that is my guess is that the person who is happy to be served this way probably doesn’t want a face to face assistant and clearly in all kinds of work and including in different teams face to face contact remains crucial, but what a lot of individuals and companies are realising is that the margins of jobs or for the majority of jobs, you don’t have to be in front of the person you work with, you don’t have to be seeing them face to face every day and to all intents and purposes, the job can get done very effectively down an ISDN line and across a phone, so I don’t think we are seeing the death of the PA, we’re not seeing the death of the personal relationship between people who work together, but we are seeing changes in the way that working relationship works.

[Interviewer 1]

What about job satisfaction though? This woman [Caroline Whittle] talks about looking into her back garden and how lovely it is, but surely she has lost all the social benefits of work? I mean no wonder we are a generation that are increasingly depressed and increasingly single if we are going to do our work in this way.

[John]

Well, I think that is a very bleak vision of working from home or working remotely. I think there is a trick that has to be pulled here for individuals and companies that you know, clearly working at home gives you great freedoms, but as you say it can be isolating. I think in practice, what a lot of either self-employed people do or companies who have people working remotely is make sure that are brought in on a monthly basis or a regular basis to meet other members of their team or to meet their boss, so I think yes, you’re right in saying that there is a potential danger that it could be isolating, but I think that all of us are naturally social people and that most companies and organisations realise that and provide opportunities for people to still come together and meet each other.

[Interviewer 1]

Don’t you think also that this idea of a VA is a bit of a con, because as our reporter explained it is a way for the back bedroom entrepreneur to appear rather better established than he or she really is?

[John]

Well, again that’s a strong word to say that it’s a con. I mean, I think the reality of what technology has done, is you know, one individual can work for five different clients simultaneously one morning, email work off to five different time zones and it looks as if they are a bigger outfit, but actually the reality of self-employment, or the reality of virtual working is that your performance is highly transparent, it is very clear what you are doing, when you are delivering a service, if you are not doing the job people aren’t going to be very happy, and you are also always on contact. One of the other dimensions, I think, of this type of working is, you can’t disappear. A lot of people when they are at work are harder to find. When they are on the end of a line you know where they are and so I think, yes, it might allow some people to create an image of not what they are, but I think in practice, it actually creates a more transparent environment for their performance to be assessed.

[Interviewer 1]

Which I suppose takes us back to what can possibly be in it for the worker. Is there any evidence that people actually want this kind of working life where you as you say they can never really take a day off; the computer screen is always beckoning?

[John]

Yes, well I think this is the real tension in some of these developments; so technology sets us free to work at home and work at different times that suits us, but it also can if you like be like the hand-maiden of the surveillance society, you know, that our boss always know where you are and what we are doing. I think the key thing here, is cultural attitudes about how you manage people. What we would argue at the Industrial Society in terms of work-life balance is that companies have to focus on outputs and not time. In other words, it’s how people get the job done and what they produce that matters and then there should be a degree of trust and space for that individual to not feel that they are watched and monitored

© Copyright BBC Radio 4 2005