Jane Braithwaite, who set up Designated PA in 2013 to provide virtual PA services to people running their own businesses, says the thriving entrepreneurial spirit in the UK raised the question of how small businesses resource themselves. “They want the expertise but they don’t want to employ people,” explains Braithwaite, “so we match them with skilled freelance virtual assistants but at a fraction of the cost.”
The majority of people on the agency’s books are women. Braithwaite explains: “They are looking to balance work and family. But we also have people who want the flexibility: they don’t want to commute anymore, or they want to fit in their hobbies alongside work. Each individual has their own objective and work needs to fit into that.”
The benefits for the PA
Being a virtual assistant gives 39-year-old Christina Reilly the flexibility she needs to look after her children while carrying on her career.
Going back to a permanent job in the banking sector after having her second son proved difficult. She explains: “I knew I wanted to go back to work — I enjoy being a PA and I wanted that sense of self – but fitting in a job and a long commute to London around my family wasn’t feasible. I started looking for local part-time jobs and came across an ad looking for virtual assistants.”
After being interviewed by Designated PA, Reilly was matched with a vacancy at Women on Boards, a cause she felt strongly about having previously co-chaired a management committee at her sons’ preschool nursery. “The role felt relevant as I understood the organisation’s mission and why board appointments can support women’s careers and skills development,” says Reilly.
She adds that she is pleased with her decision to become a virtual PA. “I can continue to build on my experience. It’s a career rather than something I had to take because I couldn’t carry on with what I was doing.”
Proving that remote working doesn’t mean you can’t build long-standing relationships with clients or learn new skills, Reilly’s role has expanded to include video editing, events management and coordinating social media (she does around 15 hours a week).
She explains: “It’s about developing trust between you and the client: it’s about knowing their values, what they stand for and the services they offer. I had to have a deep understanding of what all the events are about before I could tweet about them and start speaking to Women on Boards’ clients.”
The flexibility of remote working gives Reilly the chance to go to her children’s Christmas plays and sports days. She works a few hours every day, often logging on in the evenings. “I’m lucky to have a long-standing client but with the flexibility. This allows me to be present in my children’s lives and means I don’t have to choose between work and family.”
There’s also a financial benefit to becoming a virtual PA, adds Christina. “I’m not paying a train fare to London, getting suits dry cleaned or buying lunches. If you find work locally, you won’t be paid the same; I’m paid a fair hourly rate for what I do.”
The benefits for the manager
A virtual assistant role doesn’t just benefit the PA, it helps female executives to manage their lives too.
Women in senior roles are under pressure and it can be tricky to find the time needed to do their jobs effectively, says Fiona Hathorn, joint founder and managing director of Women on Boards and Reilly’s manager.
Before she took on Reilly, Hathorn was struggling to respond to all her emails, in between running workshops across the UK. She says: “The chair of our company said to me ‘you have to have a PA, if you don’t, you will go under with mental exhaustion’.”
Hathorn explains that Reilly is very experienced and has taken away the strain she was under. “She gets rid of the noise while at the same time having an impact on the success of our business, as she is releasing strategic headspace which allows me to better lead the organisation.”
The trend in most companies today is not to have PAs unless you are a c-suite executive, chief executive, or chief operating officer, adds Hathorn. This, she says, is unfortunate, because “women in senior roles could benefit enormously from the support”.
Hathorn believes that if companies invest in PAs for key female managers, they might see less top performers leaving corporate life after they have children. She says: “This will not only benefit the company by reducing staff turnover, it will also give women executives the headspace to think more strategically.”
She also points out that this will help more women to get to the boardroom as executives directors. She explains: “If you release 10% of your day, you will be able to give more to your company and increase the chances of promotion.”
So, if you don’t have a PA and your company won’t cover the cost of a virtual assistant, Hathorn advocates investing in one yourself. It can help to ease pressures in other areas of life too, not just at work.
"For those who can afford it, virtual assistants can help busy working mothers organise their personal lives,” explains Hathorn. “It will make them feel more confident, calmer, and give them more time to deliver.”