How to Manage Virtual Assistants

By Corbin Links

how-to-manage-virtual-assistants-and-virtual-assistant-projects-image

Today, is Part 3 of the Virtual Assistant Series entitled: How to Manage Virtual Assistants. We’ll address the question of “Ok, I’ve hired this magical virtual assistant that all the online gurus recommended. But how do I manage them?” I’ll answer this question in-depth, with tips, tricks and strategies to keep your virtual assistant happy, busy and productive, and supporting your business goals.

Understanding the Virtual Assistant (VA) Lifecycle

Effective management begins with what I call the “Virtual Assistant Lifecycle.” Your lifecycle may have more or fewer steps, but the idea is the same.

  1. Let business needs determine if an assistant is needed.
  2. If so, evaluate the costs and benefits.
  3. If the answer is “yes”, define requirements.
    3b. If no, end.
  4. Begin the search.
  5. Find and filter candidates as discussed in Part 2.
  6. Interview and finalize your virtual assistant selection.
  7. Agree to terms and begin the project.
  8. Work the project.
  9. Measure your results throughout the project.
  10. Adjust project priorities, deliverables, and expectations as needed.
  11. Deliver.
  12. End or continue the work stream (depending on your experience or project requirements.)

An Important Note About Measurement and Metrics

Don’t overlook measurements and metrics. One of the main purposes of a virtual assistant is to save you time and help grow your business. But how can you know if this is happening? Measure often. For time-saving and tracking against my own workflows, I use Toggl.com. When using virtual assistants to grow the business, I take snapshots of where things are before the Virtual assistant (website analytics, product sales, etc. – whatever is appropriate for that particular project) and measure throughout. For other tasks, you can measure the assistant’s time to complete against how long it would take you to do it.

Measurement examples might include:

  • For content publishing, is new content readership staying at least the same as previous levels? (Preferably increasing…)
  • For website optimization, are visitor engagements improved? Time on site increasing? Overall number of visits increasing? Etc.
  • For research and reporting, how much time did it take the assistant? Did you spend more time guiding the assistant than she spent doing the work?

Working the Project

  1. Define where the project will be worked, stored, tracked and communicated. Repositories, file shares, etc.
  2. Agree on common tools. For more information on suggested tools, be sure to read Part 1: The Consultant’s Guide to Finding Virtual Assistants.
  3. Agree on a communications schedule. (See next section.)
  4. Manage tasks and baselines from a project management system (Pelowork, Basecamp, teamwork PM, etc.)
  5. If any source code is involved (not likely with a traditional virtual assistant), agree and monitor the code repository.
  6. Post deliverables (virtual assistant.)
  7. Review, approve, or request additional work on the deliverables (client.)
  8. Adjust, track, adjust, complete the tasks or projects.

Communicating With Your VA

I like to keep things simple. Years ago, when I first started out working with assistants, I tended to micromanage quite a bit. Now, may schedule is way too hectic and busy for micromanagement. My advice is to keep things simple and maintain good, but efficient communications. Assuming you hired a virtual assistant based on the guidelines in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, she or he should be working right along without much oversight.

Recommended communication schedule:

  • Weekly chat (minimum)
  • Daily email summaries
  • Forum comments (if appropriate)
  • Task comments

For meetings and interactive sessions, I prefer Skype. It’s almost universal among virtual assistants and freelancers worldwide. With voice, chat, file sharing capabilities and reasonable quality and low or no cost, it’s tough to beat. In the past, I’ve tried to use other chat tools, but this is the only one I’ve found that all VA’s use without question.

Managing Tasks

If you hire a virtual assistant through an outsourcing portal such as Elance, Guru.com or oDesk, each provides basic tools such as:

  • Basic user-to-user messaging
  • A basic “files” area for exchanging and attaching project file (but beware, file-size limitations of these services make the file portion of the service almost useless)
  • A basic mailing system
  • A task calendar
  • Some offer integrated time tracking and reporting

My recommendation is to not use any outsourcing portal’s tools. Generally, we only hire, pay, and end/review virtual assistant projects on these services. Once we hire virtual assistants, they are managed exclusively within our project management system. Today, that system is Basecamp. There are MANY competitors in the online project management tool arena. They vary from the more simple and basic such as Basecamp, to highly sophisticated such as Microsoft’s SharePoint. You should use whatever you are the most comfortable with at a reasonable price point. Excellent project management services can be used for $30 USD or less per month and are well worth it.

Here is what we do:

  1. Complete the hire and project start.
  2. Set the virtual assistant up in the project management system.
  3. Restrict the assistant’s access to only the specific project(s) he will be working on.
  4. Add or remove access to other projects as needed.
  5. For basic file exchange, we use shared Dropbox folders. For shared notes, we use shared Evernote notebooks. If your project management system does not support basic document versioning, then Dropbox can provide a nice lightweight means of tracking file versions.

What about source code? Most (though not all of the time), virtual assistants will not be working with source code. For our projects, we work with specialty freelance programmers, and they have access to source code. If you need source control and bug / feature tracking, I recommend Codespaces. But that’s a topic for another post…

After that, the rest of up to you. My advice is to keep it as simple as possible. If you need fancier tools that do more sophisticated stuff like Gantt Charting, that’s great. But those features are overkill for most virtual assistant projects. Keep in mind also that your assistant needs to quickly learn and get up to speed with your system.

Providing Task Training

I always allocate up-front time for virtual assistants to get familiar with our business, our way of working and our systems. In general, 8 – 12 hours is enough time to learn the ropes of our project systems, basic workflows, and read up on our business. As discussed in other parts of this series, don’t hesitate to spend a reasonable amount of time and money bringing your assistant up to speed. In most cases, you’ll be glad you did and the productivity gains and trust built up by a small training investment will greatly enhance your working relationship.

Time Tracking

Going back for a moment to the “hourly vs. fixed” model, you will want a general accounting of the assistant’s time. I recommend a basic table format, something like this:

Virtual Assistant - Sample Combined Timecard Graphic

This was an actual timecard from one of our assistants at the time. Note that the timecard included time that week, general tasks, and a running total for the month. Also, it mixed business and non-business tasks.

I know of some companies that really take their assistants to task by requiring extremely detailed time tracking. You can of course do this, but I’ve found that I’d rather have my assistant doing productive work, then filling out detailed timecards. In fact, if I have to worry too much about whether the assistant is correctly using his time, he probably isn’t the right assistant.

Calendaring and Milestones

Your project management tool will have a group or shared calendar feature. You can also use a shared Google Calendar (see the Analog Productivity Article.) NOTE: When setting up accounts in your project system, be sure all your profiles contain the correct time zones. A common cause of frustration between clients and assistants alike is missed meetings or deliverables due to time zone understandings. Most all major systems now support multiple time zone calendars, so plan carefully and you should be fine. Web-based tools such as TimeAndDate.com and NeedToMeet.com can help slice through multi-national scheduling challenges.

Recurring or Repeating Tasks

Some project management systems do a better job than others at repeating tasks. Unfortunately, this is not a strength in our current tool. But you can use templates or good old “copy and paste” to maintain lists of recurring tasks. These include things such as weekly blog postings, or collecting and reporting on various website statistics. Your assistant should have at least a handful of recurring tasks every week. If not, you should spend a bit more time analyzing your business and figuring out which areas can be outsourced.

Posting Deliverables

Make it easy for your assistant to deliver what you ask of her. For small documents and zip files, Dropbox is just fine. Many virtual assistants only have the 2GB “free” Dropbox and Evernote accounts, so my advice is to buy them premium accounts. (Assuming of course that you plan to work with them for a while.)

For larger files, you can set up a shared bucket on Amazon’s S3 service, or use your project management’s file system. Be aware that most project management systems have relatively small file systems (1GB to 5BG) and charge a LOT of money for accounts with anything more than that. You have to carefully weigh cost vs. ease for file distribution, storing and tracking systems. Often, we’ll use good old FTP for less sensitive larger files. Otherwise, we use Dropbox and our project management system. For really, really big files, we use S3.

Giving Additional Instructions or Task Feedback

Frequent, honest, but constructive feedback is CRUCIAL to maintaining a healthy and productive working relationship. One of my favorite (and easy) instructional tools is Jing. Jing is a handy little screenshot and video recording (videos are limited to 5 minutes) tool that allows you to record actions on the screen and from within apps and add audio comments. When you’re done, you can choose MP4 or SWF (Flash) format to output a video and upload it for your assistant. (Use MP4 only.) Jing screenshots also let you take a static “snap” of anything on your screen and annotate it. Yes, there a LOT of tools out there that do both of these things with way more features. The point about Jing is that it’s small, fast, and dead simple to use. Taking a moment to record a quick 3 – 5 minute video to explain your tasks can make a world of difference! Trust me, get it. And get their pro version.

For more strategic of abstract “I’m thinking about doing something like maybe this…. or this….” types of instruction, you can create diagrams or mind maps. (More on mind maps in a future post.) For basic diagramming, check out Gliffy.com. Try Mindmeister.com for mind mapping. Both can be interactively shared and collaboratively edited.

NOTE: I highly recommend against endless back and forth email threads with your assistant. If a task requires more than a couple of mails to “get it,” then set up a meeting or record and post a short video. Email is great for status reporting or setting the groundwork, but not so good for communicating complex or abstract ideas.

Updating and Completing Tasks

Your project management system will have some type of checkbox next to each task, plus a comment or thread option. Use both to manage, extend, explain, or complete tasks.

I recommend that you the client be responsible for checking off tasks when completed and not the assistant. Also, you can go back and look through previously completed tasks when planning new work for your assistant.

How Much Work?

Good virtual assistants can plow through large task lists like a knife through butter. As a general rule, you want to keep at least two days worth of tasks posted in your project system. That way, if you need to be offline for a day or two, your assistant(s) can continue working without worry. Do stay away from the model of trying to figure out new tasks each and every day. This can keep you from enjoying the true potential that virtual assistants can bring to your life and business. From personal experience, I’ve had times where the assistant was done with everything before I was even done assigning all the tasks! Unfortunately, once you’re in a race with your assistant to assign, approve, and complete work the relationship is tough to manage.

Assigning New Tasks and Projects

My business partners and I are constantly coming up with new tasks. To keep track, I list them out in my mobile task tracking system (Wunderlist as of this writing), and also in my note-taking system. (Based on Simplenote.) Generally, the tasks start out assigned to me. Then, I filter through them and figure out what can be outsourced to an assistant and move those to a separate list. I can then export them to the project management system for assignment. Don’t be afraid to challenge your assistant with some bigger tasks. Conversely, no task is “too small” if it can be done remotely and on a computer. Think creatively and remember that virtual assistants are not just for business tasks. They can also do things like:

  • Find restaurants
  • Compile custom recipe books or other eBooks on topics of interest
  • Find and book travel itineraries
  • Shop for presents
  • Send holiday or birthday cards
  • Research subjects of interest
  • Help you learn new languages
  • Get tickets to A-list hard-to-get-in-to events

and that is just the tip of the iceberg!

But What if the Project Doesn’t Work Out?

No fear, we’ll cover that in Part 4 of this series! Stay tuned…

Summary

Today, we looked at the virtual assistant “lifecycle” and how to work with assistants on a daily basis. The important “take-aways” are:

  1. Communicate honestly, frequently, and often
  2. Track and measure
  3. Provide clear instructions and video/audio where necessary
  4. Use the right tools
  5. Keep things simple
  6. Don’t be afraid to challenge your assistant with really large, or really small tasks and projects

Next Steps

Missed the first two parts of the series?

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About the Author

Corbin Links -- Health Nut, Nutritionist, Tech Warrior, Business IT Strategist and Consultant, Author, Podcaster, Blogger, and Other Duties as Required.

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