For the latest in our series of working from home focused interviews, we had the chance to speak with Virtual Assistant business owner Jennifer Williams. During our conversation, Jennifer gave us insights into the life of a full-time VA and provided expert advice for the PAs and EAs currently working remotely for the first time.
Hi, Jennifer! Could you tell us a bit about your career history and your virtual assistant business?
“My first ever PA job was working for two business partners in a web design and online marketing business – I knew instantly it was what I wanted to do and from there I worked in the public services sector, hospitality, accountancy and, most notably, Formula 1. My last employed role was with the brilliant Williams F1 before being sadly made redundant. I was 7 months pregnant at the time so it became my ‘now or never’ moment and with some redundancy money behind me, I spent much of my maternity leave planning my new Virtual PA business. Exec Support Solutions was launched on the 1st August 2018, the same day my I left my daughter with a childminder for the first time – it was emotional to say the least!”
We know that a big part of being an Assistant is adapting to changing priorities, but could you tell us what a day in the life of a Virtual Assistant might entail?
“Any PA or EA knows what it’s like to be reactive and adaptive, because no two days are the same. But that’s never a truer statement than when you’re virtual. You don’t get to nip next door to the boss’ office or confer with a colleague so I’d say you have to be even more on the ball.”
“It’s a cliché to say that every day is different but it really is, especially because on top of the traditional VA tasks I undertake for my clients - the stuff I get to charge people for - I also have to combine that with running a business. For each day I work there’s always social media posts to create, LinkedIn messages to reply to, updates to my website to be made or a bit of bank reconciliation in QuickBooks, my online accountancy software.”
“Then there’s the other fun stuff I get to do away from the office like attending networking events or meeting with prospects and associates, usually over a peppermint tea and maybe a slice of cake from my favourite independent coffee shop.”
How do you ensure that you stay motivated while working from home?
“There are definitely days when I’m not feeling ‘it’ as much as the previous day, but it all comes down to mindset. I ALWAYS get showered, dressed and put my makeup on, whether I’m seeing anyone or not. I’m not one for working in my pyjamas as I don’t think it gives me the right working attitude.”
“I always plan out my day using my diary, and that includes client work. So if deadlines change or something has to give, I move things around and ensure I’m never over promising and underdelivering.”
“If I were to have a quieter day and I could afford a long lunch sat in the garden, I do it! The absolute best bit of being a business owner is being your own boss. Sometimes I’ll even make my calls whilst hanging some washing out or walking laps of the garden for a change of scenery.”
A major anxiety for PAs and EAs working from home for the first time surrounds the idea of their role becoming defunct. How do you keep the role an essential one while working remotely full-time?
“I don’t think there’s any need to feel anxious that your job won’t always be there, but I do get it. Regular and proactive communication is key. When I still worked in an office, I would start and end each day with a short sit-down with my Exec. There’s no need for that to be any different just because you don’t have the office next door anymore. Choose a platform they prefer - some will like Zoom or Skype, others might be happier with a call - and stick to it. Even if the call only lasts ten minutes and then you don’t speak again until the end of the day.”
“Similarly, if you’ve been tasked with things to achieve that day, drop your boss an email and let them know when they’re done or what your progress is. They might not ask for it but they’ll appreciate the updates, and it’s just the same as them coming to you in person when something pops into their head.”
Good, healthy relationships with bosses and colleagues can influence the happiness and success of an Assistant. How do you cultivate good working relationships with your clients while working from home?
“Again, communication is key here. I’ve got a couple of clients at the moment who don’t have any work to give me because their own businesses are quiet during the Coronavirus pandemic but that doesn’t mean I don’t talk to them. I drop them a message every week and just check in to see how they’re doing. It’s not me fishing for work but I have built relationships with my clients which means I genuinely care, so if they were go get sick, I’d want to help!”
“Choose the right platform that works for your boss. I’ve had bosses in the past who hated WhatsApp but loved texting and calling. Others will never answer their phone so appreciate a text message which they can reply to in their own time.”
What was the toughest challenge you faced when transitioning from an office-based PA to a virtual assistant business owner?
“To start with it was the isolation and missing the big network of friends that I had at work. They were still my friends even though I wasn’t seeing them every day but all of a sudden I didn’t have anyone to talk to about what we watched on Netflix last night whilst making a morning cuppa in the shared kitchen.”
“Once I got over that and got out networking, my biggest challenge was not always knowing what the right thing to do was. Again, I missed my peers and my colleagues who I could confer with or seek their advice on. Pretty soon I realised those people were still there for me and in time I grew an even bigger network of friends within my local business community. Now they’re my go-to guys for problems I might have, because they’re in the same boat as me, running a business from home.”
What would you say are the main advantages of being a Virtual Assistant?
“Quite simply, being your own boss and being in control of your own destiny. It’s not that I wasn’t someone for rules and procedure, to the contrary, but not having to consult anyone on what I put on my Instagram page and not having to get a second opinion on the graphics I’ve created is brilliant. I love choosing who I work with and in turn getting to feel a part of some amazing small businesses.”
“Part of the reason I launched my own business was also because I knew I wanted to get as much time as possible to still be a Mummy and, although I work hard and often work in the evenings and weekends, I know I will never miss a sports day or school play because I don’t have to request the time off or wait for it be approved.”
What do you like most about working from home?
“Getting to put some washing on in the morning and being here to hang it out to dry! I also really enjoy the quiet sometimes, especially if I’m working on something that means I don’t want interruptions. Now my husband also works from home it’s also quite nice to share lunch together every now and then.”
Do you have any final tips or advice for the EAs and PAs in our audience currently working from home for the first time amid the Coronavirus pandemic?
“Don’t be too hard on yourself in sticking to your ‘normal’ working hours. EVERYONE is in the same boat and if you have children at home, it’s understood that things just aren’t what they were right now. If you don’t have the luxury of a home office, find the most suitable and comfortable place to work but then pack it all away at the end of each day so that you have a clear end to your working day. Working from home does not mean suddenly being on call 24/7.”
“Sit in a good chair, use a cushion to support your back if you need one and always use a hands free kit to take calls. It leaves your hands free to write notes and avoids a crick in the neck!”
“If you need to take a break from your screen, take one, and don’t feel like you have to answer every phone call just in case someone thinks you aren’t working. Any good boss will know you’re just as valuable wherever you are and I hope that out of all of this, more organisations are understanding and encouraging of the need for flexible working and working from home.”