There is still a widespread perception of virtual assistants as providing only basic services like booking (flights, accommodation, venue for events, etc), dealing with standard, repetitive tasks (e.g. posting, updating information on websites) or processing data in a semi-automated manner based on predefined scenarios. Such tasks seem rather discouraging in terms of planning a career, especially when combined with the necessity for a VA to set up his/her own ‘business’ and the resulting full responsibility for its operations (accounting, taxes, social security payments, etc).
In view of the above common perception it is worth asking: should VET organisations promote this mode of online work and provide learning opportunities for prospective virtual assistants? Let us first answer a number of simpler questions before we clearly say YES or NO.
Is Virtual Assistant a profession?
A number of job descriptions available on the Internet suggest that VA is a well-defined and recognised profession. However, when we look closer at these definitions they describe a virtual assistant as “a self-employed worker who specialises in offering administrative services to clients from a remote location, usually a home office. Typical tasks a virtual assistant might perform include scheduling appointments, making phone calls, making travel arrangements, and managing email accounts.” (https://www.investopedia.com/terms/v/virtual-assistant.asp)
Such definitions are rather generic and the list of typical tasks of a VA that they provide makes it difficult to distinguish a VA from a secretary working online.
Indeed, ESCO (European Skills, Competences, Qualifications, and Occupations) which is the European multilingual classification of skills, competencies, qualifications, and occupations doesn’t recognise virtual assistant as a specific occupation. For an assistant to be a classified occupation, the job has to be qualified more concretely (e.g. sales assistant, promotion assistant, editorial assistant – all have an ESCO occupation code).
Other job classifications also focus on the content of what a worker does. For example, ISCO (The International Classification of Occupations) defines a job as “a set of tasks and duties performed, or meant to be performed, by one person, including for an employer or in self-employment”. Obviously, the list of possible tasks for a virtual assistant is too long to fit such classification categories.
So we should instead look at how virtual assistants work in order to see if they stand out as a distinct profession for which specific training can be offered.
How do Virtual Assistants work?
Let us briefly point out the characteristics of the specific mode of working which may help to distinguish virtual assistants from other occupations.
This is the most characteristic feature of the VA’s work as conveyed in its name: we mean here ‘virtual’ work, from a distance, not in the company’s physical office, f2f.
Virtual assistants are not employees, they’re self-employed. They work as freelancers and can choose their clients and negotiate the tasks that they want to perform themselves.
Being independent leads to the challenge of having to organise one’s own work and taking full responsibility for the operations of one’s own business.
This is unavoidable even in the case of VAs who provide very specialised services. Working on his/her own means they have to look after many aspects of their business which could be delegated to different employees in a bigger company.
Human interactions are (still) primarily face-to-face. To be able to maintain effective communication only with online tools puts a particular communicative challenge on every virtual assistant.
What qualifications should VAs get?
First, they should be skilled in the particular domain of their services. The list is very long as virtual assistance can be provided to companies in a vast range of fields. We should therefore consider here only an exemplary set of competencies relevant for all VAs resulting from the characteristic mode of their work described above.
- Digital skills
- Prerequisite skills: fundamentals of digitech use (confidence in using online tools in an efficient, secure way)
- Handling online content (e.g. search engines, using content across various devices)
- Software skills (e.g. proficiency in using word processors)
- Application skills (e.g. cloud storage, Google apps)
- Network skills (e.g. VPNs)
- Self-employment skills
- Legal issues (e.g. freelancer status, taxes and social security payments, accounting)
- Business planning (e.g. structuring a business plan, forecasting cash flow)
- Marketing (e.g. networking skills, social media campaigns)
- Organisational skills
- Time management (e.g. planning schedules, improving workflow)
- Physical organisation (how to set up a home office, a challenge for many VAs working in the same place where they live)
- Balancing work and free time (importance not to overwork and burn out)
- Multitasking skills
- Prioritising (particularly important amidst various tasks delegated to VAs by different clients)
- Reducing distractions (mentally and physically)
- Concentration skills (attention to detail, how to practice mindfulness at work)
- Communication skills
- Understanding your personal communication style and how it may fit online interactions
- Use of different online communication platforms (e.g. Slack, social media)
- Negotiating skills (e.g. active listening, how to say NO)
Obviously, the above backbone of a training programme is only a rather general draft. If concretised and delivered by a VET organisation, it will certainly address the most essential skills all VAs need to enter this growing market of online services.
Investopedia, Virtual Assistant https://www.investopedia.com/terms/v/virtual-assistant.asp
ESCO: The multilingual classification of European Skills, Competences, and Occupations https://ec.europa.eu/esco/
The International Classification of Occupations https://ilostat.ilo.org/resources/concepts-and-definitions/classification-occupation/