A Helping Hand From Abroad: Virtual Assistants a Global Trend Picking Up Steam in the HeartlandMay 23, 2023 02:51PM ● By Dwain Hebda
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
The concept of virtual assistants has been a part of popular media for decades. The tycoon Charlie directed his crime-fighting femme fatales from afar on TV’s “Charlie’s Angels,” while Dick Tracy connected to his gumshoe underlings via a then-futuristic wrist phone. Even Major Tom of David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” relied on Ground Control for calendar reminders, such as “take your protein pills” and “put your helmet on” from half a galaxy away.
Today, the idea of a remote workforce has moved off the television screen and sci-fi comics into reality for a growing number of entrepreneurs and busy executives, including right here in Omaha. And for that, the industry has an unlikely ally to thank—the pandemic.
“COVID pushed a lot of people into this place of understanding there is a lot of talent in other areas, outside of directly having someone working next to you right here in your office,” said John Walker, business development manager at Omaha-based Anequim Remote Professional Services. The company is one of the largest remote professional employers in Mexico, providing talent to business clients in the US and Canada.
“For those companies that were afraid of it or skeptical, it kind of pushed them off the edge in order to conserve the business. That took away a lot of the stigma of remote work, [thought] only for remedial tasks or mundane, easy tasks. It was an eye-opener,” Walker said.
Virtual assistants are individuals who perform a variety of tasks from afar, and quite often from halfway around the world. According to timedoctor.com, the Philippines and India top the roster of preferred countries for providing such services, ranked by language, workforce education, and cost.
“With unemployment being so low in the United States and companies struggling to find the help they need, our services have really grown,” added Anequim CEO Gwenn Aspen. “Once people realize that they can expand their talent pool to Mexico where there is no time difference, and the culture is remarkably similar, they get really excited because they see what is possible with their business.
“For us as a business, we retooled last year and got even better at attracting and retaining top-tier talent in Mexico. We find amazing teammates who can not only help with administrative functions, but can work at an extremely high level, including leading big projects and even collaborating with strategic planning initiatives.”
Author and entrepreneur Angela Schroeder, founder of Unique Genius Virtual Assistant, is both a purveyor and a consumer of virtual assistant services.
“I think a lot gets lost when you’re sitting at a desk,” she said. “There’s lots of little distractions, and we’re a little less intentional about things that could be systemized. Very often with a live assistant you’re like, ‘Go get me some coffee,’ or off-boarding little tasks that aren’t necessarily as efficient, and it’s a lot of running things back and forth.
“When you have someone virtually, and you can’t see what they’re doing, you set up processes that the virtual assistant owns. You don’t micromanage them; they really own the results that they produce. Whether they’re using AI or whether documenting processes in Google Sheets, results are more than ‘How can you just make my life feel good today?’”
As a business trend, the numbers speak for themselves. Globally, the outsourced labor industry generated $92.5 billion in 2019. That year, 3.6 million people worked as virtual assistants in the US, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the industry is showing little sign of slowing down. Financial software titan Intuit reports 80% of large corporations say they plan to increase their usage of virtual help.
Schroeder said to make the virtual assistant relationship work, clients have to be trained how to leverage the resource like any other personnel.
“A business executive or professional needs coaching,” she said. “I work with the business owner on time evaluation, partnership onboarding, and training for their virtual assistant and how they have to continue to do that […] and not just give them petty tasks and not fully utilizing their time.
“The second piece is, no matter what they’re doing, assistants must stay part of the team; part of daily huddles, weekly huddles, professional development. Having them with a team of other people is important so that they don’t feel isolated.”
Not all virtual assistants are employed through companies; many take on such roles as independent contractors in the growing gig economy. The benefits of these arrangements include plentiful help—Statistica estimates the number of freelance workers in the US alone will hit 87 million by 2027, or 51% of overall employees—as well as allowing workers to configure their own schedules.
Kellee Mikuls, founder of Swishboom, which connects verified babysitters with parents seeking services, said the cost savings of using virtual help—up to 78% of labor expenses, reports Outsource Access—makes such options very attractive to employers, especially when utilizing international workers.
“If you compare the cost of domestic software engineers in the US and Canada versus engineers globally, it’s a huge cost [difference]…that’s really not ideal for startup companies,” Mikuls said.
But there are downsides too, including accountability issues when dealing with freelancers, and gig workers missing out on company health and retirement benefits. Mikuls said modern technology and communication tools make distance practically irrelevant; but that doesn’t mean companies looking to enter the virtual employee market don’t have to approach such relationships cautiously.
“We learned to build trust with [virtual help] by giving them incremental tasks to test out their skill set and make sure we could rely on their capabilities,” she said. “It’s a fine balance between caring about people but also making sure you’re making the right business decisions.”
Even with due diligence, some situations are hard to anticipate. Mikuls said one aspect companies frequently overlook when working with international virtual employees is the political stability of their home country.
“Some of our engineers are in Kharkiv, Ukraine, which is one of the big cities that was attacked,” she said, referencing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. “We had our meeting that morning at 6 am our time, and they said, ‘Don’t worry about it. The news is being dramatic. It’s not going to happen.’ I think the first bomb fell at 1 pm, and then we got a Slack message from them and they said, ‘We will not be online tomorrow.’
“You have these people who are part of your team who are experiencing something that you can’t even imagine. At times like that, it’s very hard to make decisions based on your head, not based on your heart; but it’s important to remember they are still providing a service. So, we had to have these really hard conversations with backup companies in case they didn’t come back online—to keep our business moving.”
Cultural alignment and proximity are other considerations when dealing with international virtual assistants. In Anequim’s case, Mexico has proven to be an ideal option for its clients seeking virtual assistant, call center, and after-hours support services.
“Mexico, being just south of the border from us, shares time zones and is very similar in customs and culture to the US,” Walker said. “Many workers there have visited the US or lived in the US, so they have very similar work patterns and ways of doing business.”
McGill Restoration in Omaha has used Anequim’s services since 2021. Dakota Schriner, the company’s vice president of finance, said country of origin was a leading factor for choosing the vendor for remote services.
“The time zone is only an hour or two different, so most of our [virtual] employees are on the same time zone as we are in Omaha, Nebraska,” Schriner said. “The time zone ended up being the biggest deal for us. Other companies we looked at outsourced from the Philippines, and it’s pretty much a 12- or 13-hour time difference.
“We were a little uncomfortable requiring [virtual] people to work 9 pm to 4 am. We’d rather partner with a company where they can work for us during normal working hours and also be with their families and other commitments outside of work.”
Schriner said the company turned to virtual employees after experiencing some turnover on the finance and accounting side.
“We were struggling finding candidates locally, and we had heard of the trend of outsourcing departments or going virtual,” he said. “We decided to give it a try, but in full transparency, we were skeptical and a little hesitant.”
After making some early adjustments, the relationship has worked “really well,” Shriner said, even if it still feels slightly odd not having all their employees under one roof like they used to.
“I am very high on it, based on where I started. We’ve been able to offload a bunch of tasks to them,” he said. “There is still part of it where it’s not as easy as walking down the hall and talking to your coworker; everything is via email, or we hop onto a laptop and meet virtually. There’s a little more of a barrier there, but overall, a very positive experience. They’ve helped our company, for sure.”