Working Virtually: A Definition
In recent years, ‘working virtually’ has come to describe the home-based worker. But not everyone understands the concept. For example when I tell people them I’m a Virtual Assistant, the typical response is ‘what’s that?’
I explain that it means being like a personal assistant, only virtual, briefly their face shows their unspoken question: how do we (VAs) receive the work or get it back to the client if we don’t see them face-to-face?
This is the same for any home-based worker who works virtually. Many in the corporate world or other regular jobs find it hard to understand the concept of working virtually. It seems like an ‘out there’ concept.
When I started out working at home in pre-Internet days, I found the concept difficult to perceive. I couldn’t see how I could connect with a client in another state, let alone another country, in order to provide them a service.
‘Almost before I knew what happened I became the founding leader of a brand new industry in Australia: a team of virtual workers providing support to clients all over the world.’
However, my curiosity was piqued and I spent a Sunday afternoon in 1995 exploring this new thing called the Internet to find out what it was about. Within three months I had my very first meagre one-page website up. I already had a fairly full client base but I was curious how it would work.
What amazed me was that I didn’t initially get client enquiries but I did get phone calls and emails from women who wanted to do what I was doing – working at home and caring for my family. Almost before I knew what happened I became the founding leader of a brand new industry in Australia: a team of virtual workers providing support to clients all over the world.
How does working virtually work on a practical level?
You know how in a typical job you can be emailing your boss or other colleagues from one office to another? Well, we pretty much work the same way. Instead of files being shared by an intranet, or network drive, they’re shared via email, download and upload on the web, or files are delivered on CD by mail or courier. Often work can be faxed through or mailed, picked up or delivered; it really depends on what it is that needs doing.
I have many clients I’ve never met. Some actually picture me in a corporate office and are somewhat surprised when they find out I’m home-based.
I like being able to receive instructions by email, rather than by phone, and so encourage it. This is because I can print it off and re-read, and tick off items as I work through them. If I don’t clearly understand something I can reply to the email highlighting the thing I don’t understand. But having it written means I don’t misinterpret what may have been said on the phone.
When I’m handling registrations for events on behalf of a client, again, I encourage email or fax registrations and not by phone. Why? So I don’t misspell their names – having it there in print before me helps me to ensure that the names are correct.
Meetings can occur virtually too, either by teleconference, or the webinar which is now getting quite popular. These are online seminar or conference rooms where people can view the presentation on screen and hear the presenter speaking. Generally the audience can either text their questions or participate by voice if they have a headset connected to their computer.
I’ve presented at several international conferences via this method without having to leave my home. The costs saved for running these events are enormous, no more airfare, putting up with traffic, finding parking, suitable accommodation and so on. It means more can be packed into people’s busy lives and attending a meeting in the middle of the day means only the meeting time and not the time taken to get there and getting back.
But, I do give a word of warning. Not everyone is cut out for working virtually and it does need to be carefully considered.
It is true that you won’t have to pay for costs in getting to work, or for extended childcare, and that you might get much more done because you are on your own. But there are some who just cannot handle being in an office alone.
If you’re not naturally self-motivated it will be easy to get distracted by the other things around the home, i.e. the ironing, the washing, cleaning up and the multitude of other things that need to be done. Family members and friends need to be trained into understanding that you are working and that it’s not just a hobby or a fad; it’s serious business.
In my industry I get a number joining the team for a six month period and then drop out again. They can’t handle the isolation and need the face-to-face interaction, some just need to be able to separate work from home.
Personally, I love being on my own and 13 years in business has not changed that fact.
Kathie M. Thomas is the founder of A Clayton’s Secretary, a Virtual Assistant Network with members in many countries. Dedicated to teaching others about business on the web, she is a multiple award winner, with 30 years’ experience in her field.
This article first appeared in Australia’s online magazine for solo business owners, www.flyingsolo.com.au.