The reality of virtual work

The Guardian


There can be few commuters who have not sometimes dreamt of abandoning their office-bound careers for a life of virtual working. That’s virtual in the sense of “via the miracle of modern technology’’ rather than “almost’’, tempting though the latter may also be. The fax machine and the PC made virtual working feasible, but it was not until use of the Internet and e-mail became widespread that the idea really took off. Now a business can employ a virtual worker based theoretically anywhere in the world and expect the same speed and efficiency of service as they would from an office-based worker. It is perfectly possible to employ someone on a regular basis without ever meeting face-to-face or even speaking on the phone.

In the world of virtual working, secretarial skills are among those most in demand because few businesses, whether large or small, can operate without some degree of secretarial help. Moreover, the nature of the work means that it can usually be done with little supervision. The advantages to businesses of using virtual secretaries are clear. For a start, they are more cost-efficient because they are only paid for the work they actually do. In addition, virtual secretaries are self-employed. They charge clients by the hour or on a project basis, so a business does not have to cover the costs associated with employing permanent staff, such as holiday pay and social security contributions.

Not that this works to the financial disadvantage of the secretaries. They can expect to earn a very respectable hourly rate; often more, for example, than an office temp with comparable skills might earn, as there is no agency commission to be taken into account. Nor does the virtual secretary have to pay commuting costs, which often take a considerable chunk out of an office worker’s salary. An important practical consideration is that the virtual secretary does not take up any office space, which can suit small business owners in particular, especially if they work from home themselves. The virtual secretary is also unaffected by strikes or bad weather. Barring power cuts or illness, they will always be productive. “Virtual working is not affected when half of the office doesn’t turn up, as for example during this winter’s snow,’’ says Irene Boston, who has been working virtually for 10 years. During this time she has seen a growing dependence on a virtual workforce by employers. “It does seem that more and more businesses are realising that outsourcing individual tasks is the way to go,’’ she says.

Irene started her virtual business and has never regretted her decision to give up commuting. She was confident that the skills that she had developed during her years in conventional employment would prove attractive to businesses looking for virtual help. She was right. Irene now has a good number of regular clients and is never short of work. She found that, whereas in the past anyone offering home-based secretarial services would have been dependent on local business, this is far from the case now - particularly as she took the trouble to set up a website advertising herself. “A good 80 per cent of my work comes through the website. This reduces the need to pay for advertising in other media. Location is no longer relevant – 90 per cent of my clients are national,’’ says Irene.

Her workload has also been boosted through her involvement with the Alliance of UK Virtual Assistants, a free, non-profit-making matching service. She set up the Alliance with two other virtual workers — Jo Johnston and Diane Chapman — in October 2000 and they invited others with relevant skills and experience to join them. They define a virtual assistant as “neither an employee or temp, but a new breed of professional who has all the skills of a corporate PA and offers cost-effective support from an independent office’’. Virtual working does not suit everyone. Unless you share office space with others, you will be spending your working life on your own. Even people who generally enjoy their own company can find this difficult. And, while it is certainly very pleasant not to have a boss constantly checking up on you, you do need plenty of self-motivation. If you can’t complete work accurately to a set deadline, you won’t be a success in the virtual workplace.

As for all of that extra time in bed and the opportunity to control your own schedule, your dreams might come true, but only up to a point. As anyone who works for themselves will tell you, the pattern of your working life is dictated to a large extent by the demands of your clients. There will be times when you can stay in bed all day if you want to, but there will also be other times when a client contacts you late on Friday afternoon and asks if you could possibly do some urgent work by Monday morning. It’s very difficult to turn work down, so the chances are you will have to say yes - and then end up working all weekend. At times like these, the nine-to-five routine has its attractions.