July 24, 2015
Personal assistants have come a long way. No longer limited to performing simple office chores or helping with personal tasks, today a virtual assistant (VA) can be located anywhere in the U.S. or off-shore in remote locations. A virtual service can consist of specialists in a certain area and increasingly comes in the form of artificial intelligence (AI).
In fact, a VA’s range of proficiencies can be diverse, from the most basic appointment scheduling and office support to professional teams, including project managers and graphic designers. Frequently, these online, remote assistants are employed by individual consultants, small startups, or large corporations. Moreover, the flexibility and freedom made possible by technology and an ever-increasing freelance base offer benefits both for those who work as Virtual Assistants and others who need them.
According to figures by independent research firm Edelman Berland, 53 million Americans are currently freelancing. This represents 34 percent of the total workforce that is independently employed. There are complex economic reasons why this change is taking place. But similar to how the cloud provides scalable computing, storage, or task-specific apps when you want them, VAs are increasingly accessible and affordable to almost anyone.
Getting Productive with a Virtual Assistant
In the recent past, working remotely or off-site was difficult at best due to technology constraints. By contrast, current innovations, including chat, online video, cloud storage, and document sharing make collaborations in real time with anyone in the world fast and easy. A simple Internet connection can provide the access, all that’s required is the skill and know-how.
Today, hiring a VA can be done by contracting individuals through employment platforms or using a full-service, U.S.-based or off-shore agency which offers different price points and simplified payment models. These services also accommodate a range of budgets. Some provide pay-as-you-go, retainer, or per-project pricing. Others offer weekly/monthly plans, salaried full-time, or hourly part-time alternatives.
Agencies assure legitimacy and security to prospective employers by performing extensive background checks and vetting of VA candidates. For example, Zirtual and eaHELP are two companies that provide advanced VAs to start-ups as well as C-level executives and other managers in all types of industries. Individual VAs must demonstrate communication skills, tech smarts, creativity, and resourcefulness.
While Virtual Assist USA is an on-shore company providing hundreds of skill sets and a streamlined payment process, Virtual Staff Finder and Tasks Everyday represent two off-shore providers. These services meet the needs of budget-conscious businesses which require both flexibility and a high level of skill. Capabilities include book-keeping, Internet research, graphic design, search engine optimization, and more.
Filling a completely different niche, OOHLALA represents another type of VA geared to an educational setting. It helps students organize their academic, campus, and social lives through its mobile app.
This VA tool wakes students for classes, provides exam and add/drop alerts, relays study session information, and inserts class schedules and events into its calendar. School administrators can also collect and analyze data to help gauge students’ well-being and offer outreach, or to provide better support.
AI Expands Possibilities For the VA World
Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers a huge potential for diversifying the use of VAs. Recent ventures such as Julie Desk and x.ai are eliminating the need to search for the right, best-qualified VA. Training is no longer an issue because these tools intuitively learn as they go along.
Moreover, the need to keep an artificially intelligent VA on task disappears. Since the VA is not an individual, businesses can be sure that their intelligent assistant won’t simply quit one day. Nor will it get sick or become unreachable. These are key reasons why AI will likely become a driving force in the growth and evolution of the VA industry.
Julie Desk eliminates the need to learn how to use a new tool because it’s accessed via the CC: field in an email client. All the typical back-and-forth involved with meetings and appointments are avoided by CC:ing Julie at the beginning of a message thread and by providing the tool with available meeting times.
By utilizing machine learning and Natural Language Processing (NLP), the VA gets smarter each time it’s summoned by emails. Today it might be basic appointment scheduling, tomorrow it could be expense reports, invoicing, travel plans, and a list of other tightly scripted tasks.
For VAs such as x.ai and Julie Desk, a human component is responsible for overseeing interactions to avoid mistakes and to ensure a seamless level of accuracy. As the sophistication of VAs based on AI grows, they will take on many more high-level skills and roles, such as lead generation, marketing, project management and even time optimization.
The potential exists for VAs that incorporate AI to become one more useful interface, like Siri, that gains mass appeal. If that happens, look for anyone with access to a smart device to also have a VA helping to navigate through the seemingly never-ending set of tasks we wrestle with daily.
Kerry Doyle has covered business and technology issues for over a decade, first as a technician at the fabled PCWeek Labs and a reporter for PCWeek magazine, then as senior editor at ZDNet.com. He has contributed content to organizations as diverse as IDG/ComputerWorld, Monitor Group, Harvard Business School, and Global Knowledge. As a freelance journalist, he provides cogent analyses of the newest trends in technology, from nanotech to the cloud, with a focus on issues relevant to both enterprise leaders and SMB owners. Used with the permission of http://thenetwork.cisco.com/.