Growth of the Virtual Assistant

Angela McDonald • 21/07/2016

One of the most widespread forms of outsourcing is the virtual assistant (VA), or remote PA. A virtual assistant allows for all the functions of a standard PA or receptionist, without paying for overheads like office space.

This has made them particularly popular with small businesses and start-ups which may do without traditional business premises entirely.

Secretaries originally dealt entirely in correspondence and note-taking (and notably, in the early days of the profession only men could be secretaries). Now VAs can carry out a wide range of tasks including bookkeeping, calendar organisation, travel organisations and even answering calls without callers knowing they are not in the office.

Knowledge tasks like research, report summaries, presentations, and meeting preparation are ideal for outsourcing to a VA. Many Vas are also employed to keep an eye on industry trends and current events, delivering pertinent information to their employer. This allows the employer to be informed and up-to-date, without having to spend time reading and researching.

The VA first came into being in the medical and legal professions, where doctors and lawyers would dictate notes over the phone to be transcribed. When data transmission allowed for voice recordings to be easily sent from an office to a transcription centre these transcribers began to take over from the traditional in-house method of record keeping.

It is slightly ironic that while these industries were the first to use a virtual assistant, VAs are being forced out of those professions by the growing accuracy and versatility of text-to-speech software. Confusingly, while a virtual assistant is usually a person, an intelligent virtual assistant is usually a computer. (Whether that casts aspersions on the intelligence of humans is up for debate.)

Along with the growth in demand for human virtual assistants, there has been a corresponding boom in people, particularly women, working as virtual assistants. Because of the flexibility in the job it is ideal for mothers with young children, especially as many VAs work from home.

And while small businesses are the main users of VAs, as the cost of a traditional PA is rising, large companies are starting to use VAs to complement their existing office administration.

This has led to the creation of specialist VA companies, meaning one employer may not work with just one VA, but contract out tasks to a whole team of them. Between those companies and the home-based VA is one who works from a BPO centre. While a business will work with just one VA, any particular VA may have two or three clients, depending on the hours required.

As the number of administration tasks which can be performed remotely continues to grow, so will the scope and work of the virtual assistant. Meanwhile they grow ever more valuable to small and larger businesses alike; working as traditional correspondence managers, modern knowledge gatherers – or both.