We recently had the opportunity to speak with Sheena Russell, a highly experienced and successful Executive PA who has run her own virtual assistant business for the past 14 years. Sheena shared insights and advice gained from her experience of assisting her clients remotely, in the hope that it helps some of the PAs and EAs currently working from home for the first time due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Hi, Sheena. Could you tell us a bit about your career history and your virtual assistant business?
“I established my business in 2006 after a 25 year career in administration and secretarial roles. My earliest post was as an Assistant Production Manager in an advertising agency which gave me an overview of marketing strategies. I then went on to numerous roles including Director's secretary for a manufacturing company, an Area Administrator for a building society and Secretary to the Directors of a fashion house. My clients now include various business types from property sales to membership associations and medical practitioners.”
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?
“Days are always varied and invariably busy! I use a method to block out time in the day for each of my clients so that there is no hopping and jumping from one thing to another – multitasking is definitely not the way to go!”
“I start each day by prioritising work and making sure I have enough time allocated for everyone, including breaks for myself – you can't be productive if you don't take care of yourself. The day then progresses as I've planned but there is always flexibility to move things about in the case of an emergency or urgent call from a client.”
“Tasks range from taking calls and making appointments using an online diary shared with the client to credit control, invoicing, reminding clients/their employees of tasks outstanding, writing and creating newsletters and replying to numerous emails for a membership association. I also have weekly telephone, Slack or Zoom meetings.”
How do you ensure that you stay motivated while working from home?
“I'm a very organised person and extremely focused. There is a time for everything and everything has its time. By building in regular start, stop and break times, I'm able to enjoy the flexibility of working from home and this is what keeps me motivated. I really don't think I'd like to go back to a traditional office environment because I love the variety of work I am able to do now.”
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?
“This is a tricky one as I don't have an employer, I have clients so the service part is a bit different – I'm entirely responsible for my own income, work output, and ethics - the buck stops with me. If I don't do the work, I won't get paid therefore I have to make sure I'm giving value for money and adding real value to my clients’ businesses.”
“I would suggest that if you're working from home, you make sure you are as organised as if you were in the office and as accessible to your team or manager as you always are at work – be that via phone, email or video conferencing. Make sure that work is carried out in the most professional way possible and, as many of your team may also be working from home for the first time, if you find something is working for you don't keep it a secret, share it with the team and/or your manager so that they can consider rolling it out and using it to the benefit of everyone – that's the type of thing that will be remembered – you need to be engaged, proactive and come up with some good ideas as well as getting everything done.”
“Basically, don't have the mind-set of 'working from home', think of it as working in your own office but in a different location to everyone else – keep work and home separate – this is where the time blocking works extremely well.”
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?
“We are in constant contact, usually by email but they know I always welcome a call or instant message. Both they and I are very much aware of the tasks I need to do for them and over the years (yes, some have been with me for 10+ years, and two from the very beginning!), we have come to develop a mutual trust.”
“Trust is absolutely essential for a virtual working relationship. They need to trust me to carry out their work in a timely and correct manner and I need to trust that they will give me all the information I need in order to carry out those tasks. They also need to trust that I will represent their businesses in a professional manner. I'm also in constant contact with the management teams of my clients and we help each other to make sure everything runs smoothly.”
“One of my clients once said to me "Sheena, I don't expect you to do everything, but I do expect you to make sure that everything is done". I think that was a wonderful affirmation of his trust.”
What was the toughest challenge you faced when transitioning from an office-based Executive PA to a virtual assistant business owner?
“The toughest was (and still is sometimes) becoming my own IT department! It was a bit of a learning curve but now my clients will often come to me before going to a professional IT company as I've had quite a lot of experience over the years in fixing or sourcing a solution.”
“Another was one of confidence – I came into this thinking that after 25 years of experience I'd be fine. What I hadn't taken into account was that in an office, working for one company, everything is set out and regulated and everything is done the same way, or mostly it is. Once I began taking on more clients I realised I had to be much more creative in my ways of working and far more flexible in order to accommodate everyone's different ways of working.”
What do you like most about working from home?
“People usually say the flexibility to choose their own working hours, which is true for most. However, I choose to have fixed working hours (see 'blocking' above) as I don't want to work late into the evening – I treasure my time with my family. It is nice to be able to take an afternoon off sometimes – this is where flexibility comes in – if I diarise the week correctly then I can 'block' out an afternoon.”
“But, not having a daily commute, not having to deal with office politics and being able to work in an office that I have decorated and organised, with software that I like and is the best for the job, is definitely the greatest part of working from home and running my own business.”
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?
“Make sure everyone in the household knows when and where you are working and make sure they respect the fact that you are working and not there at their beck and call. Avoid popping to the kitchen to put the washing on unless it's a designated break time. Focus on one task at a time and do that task as if you were sat at your desk in the 'office'.”
“Keep in constant contact with your team using all the IT that is available to you – even if you only have Skype to start with, this can be used for all sorts of things. Make use of collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, Slack or one of the many others available. Carry out meetings as you would before but use Zoom, Google Hangouts or one of those mentioned beforehand.”
“Get out of the house once a day – we are allowed! I've been telling everyone that I've been self-isolating for 14 years so am used to it... but I'm not very good at getting out of the house so I'm going to use this new rule of going out once a day to start a new habit.”
“Avoid watching the news all the time, once a day is plenty at the moment. And avoid too much social media as it will draw you in and sap your time without you even noticing!”
“Lastly, take a lunch break and two 20 minute breaks – you probably don't do this in the actual office but you'll be surprised how nice it is to break the day up when you work from home.”
For more information about her VA business, check out Sheena’s website: http://www.sheenarussell.co.uk/