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Friday, 17 August, 2001, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Overworked? Try a virtual assistant
Working from home is becoming more popular.
The internet and other new technologies have changed the way many of us work and the titles of our jobs.

So, instead of the secretary, meet the VA, or virtual assistant.

VAs work from home, offering services for businesses which might not have enough work to justify employing their own full-time administrative staff.

It is an attractive way of working for many people as jobs can be done at any time of day.

Jill Spencer is a former conference organiser who lives just outside Looe in Cornwall. She had retired, but when she decided to earn some extra money, becoming a VA meant she did not have to leave her home in its idyllic country setting.

Own timetable

She had made a number of contacts during her career, and was soon providing everything from book-keeping and proof-reading to event booking and research for clients around the UK.

"You can work to your own timetable," Jill explains.

"You don't have to be in at nine o'clock and leave at five. If it's a lovely day you can sit in the garden and do the work in the evening."

Rates can range between 15 and 30, but for many people, the biggest advantage is the flexibility.

"I wasn't looking to earn a fantastic amount of money," says Jill. "You do as much or as little work as you want to do."

Jill works from her Cornwall home
The basic tools are a computer, fax machine and a mobile phone, although a specialised printer might be needed for some types of presentation work.

Anyone with office skills could set up as a VA, and there is a trade body which gives advice on getting started and what equipment to buy and also offers training programmes.

Ideal career

The International Association of Virtual Assistants (IAVA) was founded to alert businesses to the potential of using VAs, and also to give home workers a forum to share acheivements and problems.

The IAVA's Bridget Postlethwaite, who has run a VA business from her home in the Channel Islands since 1997, believes it is an ideal career for many people.

While office skills provide a basis, she says clients can often be looking for different attributes in their VAs.

"Companies get a huge amount out of it because they only use a VA when they need one," she says.

"You get perhaps an assistant of a more professional level than you would get if you were hiring someone on a full-time basis.

"If a businessman can be out of the office doing something he actually wants during the day, knowing his VA will be there to talk to him in the evening if he wants, it will make a great deal of difference to everyone's lifestyle."

While deman is growing for virtual assistants, it also seems an increasing number of people are keen to get out of the office and work from home.

New research by recruitment agency Kelly Services predicts that by 2020 one-quarter of all UK workers will be based at home, with half doing some form of teleworking at one time or another.

Cultural differences

The UK is more progressive when it comes to new working methods than many other European countries.

In France, for instance, there is a resistance to teleworking because executives worry what the neighbours would think if they did not put on their suits and head off to work.

The number of teleworkers in southern Europe is below the European average.

The reasons for this cultural divide were discussed at the Telework 2000 conference in London last September.

Bettina von Stamm of the London Business School said self-confidence, devolved authority and autonomy were keys to successful teleworking and the British style of management fostered those qualities.

"There are deeper cultural differences in attitudes to what constitutes job status," said Alan Denbigh of the UK Telework Association.

"The self-employed in Finland are generally classified as entrepreneurs. It's probably no coincidence that this country has the highest percentage of teleworkers in Europe."

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