One weekend in 2021, I decided to hire a virtual assistant. I was trying to book flights to Northern Canada, which was a bigger task than usual. I needed multiple options, and we would be staying in a hotel overnight on our way. At the time, my daughter was just over 6 months old, and I was struggling to find the time to truly dig into this task by making spreadsheets the way I wanted to. (Thank goodness she naps for longer now!)
So I pulled out my phone, looked up a few virtual assistant companies, and did a free first task with one of them. I had already heard from a friend about her experience working with a VA, so I had a rough idea of what I was looking for.
It’s been a year and a half, and I still work with a virtual assistant — even more now as I’ve brought them on to assist at work in addition to personal tasks. Though there is a lot of early onboarding needed (I’ll get into that), ultimately, having a virtual assistant (VA) has saved me many hours of repetitive tasks, is helping me keep on top of my inbox while replying more quickly, and has made any research I need to do much easier.
Recently I’ve had several connections and friends ask me about my experience, and while I’m still always learning, I’ve been sharing more about how I chose a VA service, how I’m assigning tasks, and the kinds of tasks I assign. So here’s more on how I work with a virtual assistant in case you’re looking to do the same or pass this along to a busy parent you know who is keen for extra help.
How anyone can get started working with a virtual assistant
There are broadly two ways you can get started with a virtual assistant:
- Use a service that acts as an intermediary — I’d recommend doing that if you’ve never worked with a VA before; or
- Go directly to someone who works as a virtual assistant and hire them — this requires a bit more work on your end to find someone you want to work with, and it’ll be time-consuming if you need to hire someone else because the first person doesn’t work out.
I know people who have gone and found VAs themselves and have had a great experience; that’s usually if you want a long-term relationship and if you can guarantee that person a certain number of hours.
I’ve gone the first route and have been very happy. I use a service called Time Etc. Another service I have heard rave reviews about is Squared Away. I haven’t used them, but another friend has, and I trust her judgment. There are loads of others, but these are the only two I can recommend personally.
The thing about working with a service is they generally have great customer support, and Time Etc. has a dedicated customer success rep you can chat with anytime. I’ve had three assistants through them, and it’s nice to have the option to switch if it’s not working out with one person. Each new assistant ended up working better for me than the last, and you can have more than one assistant without additional charges.
I chose Time Etc. because their list of specialties lined up with what I was looking for, which included email management, research, and database management. Make sure ahead of time that you know the areas where you are looking for support so you can adequately vet any virtual assistant or VA service.
What to know about working with a virtual assistant
Initially, I hired a VA and thought, “Oh good, I don’t need to do these things ever again.” Which isn’t quite true.
But instead, it’s more, “Okay, now I have to do this really slowly and record myself doing it and make a long list of all my preferences I didn’t realize I had so someone else can do this.”
It takes some adjusting to send tasks to other people and make sure they know how to do it to your standard, but once you’re in a good rhythm, it’s a lot easier, especially with the right VA.
I create templates for my VAs to make things easier. For example, I’m really specific about the info I want for flight research and how I want it in a spreadsheet, so I created a template they can copy when I ask them to do flight research. I also keep a detailed document in Notion that goes over tasks to do weekly, monthly, and one-offs, and in each section, I have videos giving overviews of every task.
Recording videos seems to be the best way to assign tasks for immediate understanding; I use either Loom or CloudApp to record myself doing a task the first time I do it. And then, this was a pro tip from a friend of mine; you record the video and assign the VA that task plus ask them to document that task in your main shared document and write out the task as a process. This way, all of your tasks have nice checklists associated with them in addition to videos.
In terms of security but then also ease, a friend of mine recommended setting up a dedicated email address for your VA and then associating all accounts you give access to with that email — that way, if ever you stop working together, you don’t need to remove their personal email from a bunch of your work tools, you can just remove their access to that work email. I would also recommend going with your gut — I don’t have my virtual assistant in my personal email, despite it getting a truly ridiculous amount of newsletters. Still, I have them in my work email because I’m comfortable with that.
10 tasks I assign my VA
I’ve had a lot of people ask me about exactly what kinds of tasks I can outsource to a VA. I’m sure there are more, but here are 10 examples of real tasks that I either currently work with my VA on or have worked on. There are a lot of one-off tasks, but broadly my work with a virtual assistant falls into email management, database management, research, and content work.
➡️ Managing my work email
I waited until the third VA I worked with to do work email; I was really nervous about having someone in my email. But I’m in a position where I get a lot of cold emails, I get a lot of pitches, and there’s also just tons of spam in my email. It’s pretty straightforward to clean it out, it’s just time-consuming.
Currently, my VA only manages the “not marked as important” emails — so not the ones that Gmail flags as coming to me directly and as important. In that group, my VA scans for important emails that should be in the other section deletes everything we’ve agreed can be deleted, and then adds any that they’re not 100% sure of to a spreadsheet that I review every day.
This process keeps evolving, but I like it for now.
➡️ Drafting recurring email replies
As I mentioned, I get a lot of cold emails. And most of it is a no, but for any that are well-written and pass the email reply equation, I want to send a response. Generally, my responses are pretty similar, so I finally write up several drafts for different scenarios, and when I’m going through my email, I label any that need a response with the appropriate tag, and then my VA goes in and drafts emails to those folks. The other week, I think I had 10 in there, and then I can review quickly and hit send, and it’s really sped up my reply time.
Technically, I could do this with TextExpander, but I’ll be totally honest and share that I never got into the flow with keyboard shortcuts because I want to use too many. Maybe someday I’ll use it properly.
➡️ Updating a Notion database with quotes
I keep a huge database with quotes from books I’ve read and newsletters I enjoy reading. I bring one quote per day into my Daily Notion Journal, so it’s important to have a lot of options there. My favorite version of this task is that when I finish a book, I’ll export the Kindle highlights and then have my assistant add them to the Quotes database.
➡️ Updating spreadsheets with information
Any spreadsheet that needs regular manual updating might be able to be outsourced. The one I have outsourced is a list of press mentions, where I go into a tool and tag all of Buffer’s press mentions for the week, and then my VA goes into the tool and adds those press mentions to the spreadsheet with all of their information.
➡️ Moving items from a spreadsheet to Notion
Over the last year, I’ve moved a lot of information from spreadsheets into Notion as Notion has become my tool of choice. Notion does allow importing, but there are often formatting issues, so I’ve been able to have a VA help make sure all of the information gets added or updated correctly.
➡️ Travel research
This was the original. Anytime I’m traveling, I have my assistant look up flights immediately. If needed, I also add the option to look up accommodation, transportation, and anything else needed.
Get my spreadsheet template for travel research by subscribing to my newsletter.
➡️ Misc research
I’ve found that a ton of research can be outsourced. When going on a work meetup we needed a list of restaurants with specific properties, or I needed names for a few print shops in the town we were going to. I’ve also had my VA look for email addresses when I’m trying to get in touch with specific companies.
➡️ Writing meta descriptions
This is specific, but it gives you an idea of how competent VAs are. I had a spreadsheet with 900 blog posts that were missing meta descriptions, and by working with my VA, we got all of those meta descriptions written, and after being reviewed, they were all uploaded to their respective blog posts. It was a massive project and so fulfilling to have it completed.
➡️ Add a new guest author to the blog
We work with a lot of guest authors at Buffer, and it’s an easy but repetitive process to add a new guest author to the blog. Everything from putting their profile photo onto brand colors to creating their account and uploading their bio can be done by a virtual assistant.
➡️ Upload a blog post into the CMS
It’s the same for our content management system, it’s easy to upload a blog post (you’re really just copying and pasting and then formatting) but it’s also easy to teach someone else to do it and have it be a part of their workflow instead of yours.
For more on working with a virtual assistant, check out this comprehensive guide to getting the most from a virtual assistant from Jaqueline Jensen, who has given me a lot of advice while I was in the process of starting to work with a VA.
Working with a VA might not be for everyone. You need to do more work upfront and be crystal clear about what you want to have a task completed correctly, but hiring a virtual assistant has worked out really well for me. I’ve found that with the right systems in place, having a VA has helped me level up and do several tasks more quickly, feel more organized overall, and look for improvements to my systems.
I’d love to hear from you if you work with a VA or if you’re looking to hire one! Leave a comment below. 👇🏻