From booking a courier to unplugging hair straighteners, chasing up thousands of pounds’ worth of invoices and arranging spur-of-the-moment lunches in the South of France, the new breed of virtual assistants — PAs who work remotely from home — are paid handsomely to cater for the every whim of the women who employ them.
Most of the time they remain under the radar, allowing their wealthy employers to take sole credit for juggling their impossibly glamorous lives. But when, this summer, we featured women who admitted to outsourcing everything from cooking and cleaning to hot tub maintenance, a number of high-end virtual assistants (VAs) got in touch to tell their side of the story.
Social trends expert Juliet Landau-Pope says the concept of a VA has really taken off over the past decade.
Five ‘virtual assistants’ reveal the truth about working with very exacting clients, as social trends expert Juliet Landau-Pope reveals the concept has really taken off over the past decade. Pictured from left: Caroline, Namrita, Ally and Kerry
She adds: ‘Life seems much more complicated today. For a certain demographic, there are not only bills to pay and holidays to book, but also school applications to sort and second homes to run.
‘We are all time-poor and, in many cases, it is much more efficient to pay someone else to change the car insurance than spend all afternoon researching and doing it ourselves.’
But what’s it like to be tasked with a dizzying array of daily chores? Here, five virtual assistants reveal the truth about working with very exacting clients . . .
SHE PHONED FROM A SUN LOUNGER TO ORDER DRINKS
Kerry Robinson, 28, co-founder of The Online Assistants, lives in South London. She says:
Arranging a private jet at short notice on a Sunday is not the easiest job in the world — but that was the challenge one client set me. Thankfully, I have a bulging contacts book to help me in tricky situations like this.
Another female client called me at 9pm on a Thursday to book a trip to France so she would arrive for lunch the following day — this was at the height of Covid travel restrictions so it wasn’t just a case of train tickets and a hotel room. I organised it via Eurostar and there were last-minute Covid tests to sort. Needless to say, I made sure she made it to Nice by lunchtime.
I had one female client phone me from her holiday in Mauritius to get me to ask the hotel bar to bring her drinks by the pool. She was enjoying the sunshine and didn’t want to walk up some steps to order them herself.
I appreciate that my clients look to me for support with the minutiae of their lives, not because they’re lazy but because they’re in charge of organising the home and looking after their children alongside busy working lives.
I started working at a sports management agency. Four years ago, my colleague and I realised that most of our work was done out of hours, so we began our own virtual assistants business. These days, I typically work from 8am to 6pm, but I’m there whenever a client needs me. And, yes, I do work seven days a week because not all clients plan ahead.
Kerry Robinson, 28, (pictured) who is co-founder of The Online Assistant, said she once had to keep a diary of a puppy’s every movement for a family
It’s pointless having a formal mode of communication when I’m so intimately involved in their lives — we often chat on WhatsApp rather than sticking purely to email.
I’ve worked with some women for years. Their teenage children often message asking me to arrange everything from a hotel in Rome to an Airbnb in Edinburgh.
One of my families wanted a puppy and asked me to help choose the perfect one. When they went away, I had to keep a diary of its every movement. Each time it drank water, ate, pooped or slept I noted the time down. We look back and laugh at this — even she concedes it was crazy.
One high-net-worth client had winter tyres that needed collecting from Switzerland and delivering to a garage in Italy so she could have them changed as soon as she arrived to hit the ski slopes. I had less than a week. Women like this expect you to sort things yesterday.
I EARN £80k TO TELL WOMEN TO UNPLUG HAIR STRAIGHTENERS
Catherine Gladwyn, 44, author of How To Be A Virtual Assistant, has a 23-year-old daughter and lives with her partner in Swindon, Wiltshire. She says:
Catherine Gladwyn, 44, (pictured), who is author of How To Be A Virtual Assistant, once had to organise ‘home-baked’ cookies for the child of a client
Some female clients are difficult. One high-flying boss had me sending couriers to her house to unplug her hair straighteners on almost a weekly basis. I’d organised a reminder on her phone to prod her to switch them off but she still wouldn’t remember.
She was exhausting. I’d wake up to endless messages from her about what I needed to do for her that day. From organising sets of car keys (that she seemed to lose on regular occasions) to booking fancy hotels with hours’ notice and even interviewing dog-walkers. After six months, I refused to work for her. I couldn’t put up with her mercurial ways.
These days, I don’t work with women like this. You learn to put up boundaries. I’ve always worked in admin and loved it. But because of a recurring brain tumour I’ve had since 2011, a stressful nine to five in the office is no longer an option. As soon as the tumour grows, I have to have surgery to remove it. Stress makes the condition worse.
I became a virtual assistant six years ago so that I could better organise my work around my personal life. Sometimes I only work four hours a day, five days a week — yet earn much more than I could as a full-time office employee. I charge £35 an hour and earn £80,000 a year on average.
It’s a lot when you consider people are paying me to do the jobs they could very well do for themselves.
I don’t mind that mums often take the credit for the things I do — it’s part of the job to be in the background. There was the time a client had me organise ‘home-baked’ cookies for her child’s school fete. I bought them from an artisan bakery.
My clients pay me by the hour or on a retainer if they know how many hours they want per week.
I helped one woman who had a marketing consultancy to recover £250,000 in unpaid invoices. It took several weeks, on and off. She had assumed they’d eventually pay her but, until I started chasing them, they never did. She was so delighted.
I FIXED CEO’S RETURN TWO WEEKS AFTER SHE GAVE BIRTH
Caroline Marshall, 33, runs a virtual assistant service called Upsource and lives with her husband and their children in North London. She says:
Caroline Marshall, 33, (pictured), who runs virtual assistant service Upsource, said she once had to book a hotel room for a client and her lover
My day starts with triaging my clients’ needs at 9am, working out whose tasks are the most urgent. I tend to work on the 80:20 rule, meaning I leave 20 per cent of the day unplanned so I can fit in last‑minute requests.
The longest I’ve worked was a 16-hour day and, yes, they were all billable hours. Women are, on the whole, a joy to work with. The good ones know what they want and are comfortable with delegating.
That’s not to say there aren’t any surprises. One married client requested I book a hotel room in London — for her and her lover. I only found out she wasn’t with her husband when I called the hotel to confirm details regarding her stay. Awkward!
I also helped one woman through her pricey divorce. I was at her beck and call, managing childcare, holiday calendars and even oversaw the house move — until she found a new partner and her ex cut her off, which meant she could no longer afford me.
Pets are something mums like the sound of — but then reality kicks in. One woman asked me to find a self-cleaning cat litter tray because they didn’t want to deal with the cat poop. Amazingly, they do exist, but they are fairly expensive.
Caroline (pictured) recounts helping a CEO return to work two weeks after giving birth, which involved finding four nannies
I helped another woman who returned to her CEO position two weeks after having a baby. It was an interesting journey, not least because I had to find her four nannies working different times in order to facilitate this, including a night nanny. I even organised her and the baby’s first six-week check-ups, a mummy MoT and mummy massages.
Now I’m a mum myself, I enjoy supporting other mums. I don’t bat an eyelid when a woman asks me to book a bikini wax.
Some might think it’s beneath them, but I see it as helping her accomplish what she needs to achieve in her working, home and personal life — all of which are equally important.
I BUY, WRAP AND DELIVER ALL THEIR CHRISTMAS GIFTS
Namrita Sharma, 31, is a Pink Spaghetti virtual assistant franchisee and lives with her husband in Solihull, West Midlands. She says:
Namrita Sharma, 31, (pictured) who is a Pink Spaghetti virtual assistant franchisee, said one client asked her to do their Christmas shopping
My mum ran her own business yet still managed to be there for me growing up. I wanted to follow in her footsteps by being self-employed.
One day, I was joking with my husband that I could do with a PA to help me sort my life out. It was an ‘a-ha!’ moment that led me to virtual assistance company Pink Spaghetti. Their franchise package meant I could work for myself but with their support.
One client has just won a prize from the United Nations. It was a compliment to be mentioned in her acceptance speech. With others, I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement, so I can’t talk about them.
One client asks me to do her Christmas shopping. She travels frequently for work and, to ease her workload, each year I am assigned a budget for family and friends (from £25 to £500 each).
It is my task to research, purchase, wrap and hand-deliver them to her homes on the other side of the country; for relatives and friends abroad, I arrange delivery in time for Christmas.
This is not something I do for many clients though — it takes a lot of relationship-building to get to a stage where clients let you into their personal lives.
SHE NEEDED HELP GETTING THROUGH HER DIVORCE
Ally Phillips, 50, is also a franchisee of Pink Spaghetti and lives near Frodsham, Cheshire, with her husband Greg and their three children, who are aged 18, 17 and 11. She says:
Ally Phillips, 50, (pictured) who is a franchisee of Pink Spaghetti, said she had to purchase £600 of limited-edition Lush products to send to a client in Singapore
In this job you’re never ‘off’, even when you’re on holiday. I’ve done everything from holding a woman’s hand through her divorce — changing her name on official documents — to purchasing £600 of limited-edition Lush products to send to a client in Singapore. In the latter case, I asked for payment up front and funds duly arrived electronically overnight.
At the store, I was able to organise a live video link for the client. She was delighted. I purchased her products, took pictures of the shelves and got a book signed by the Lush founder.
Whether I’m working with business owners or private clients, it makes no difference to my team and me.
I once helped a lady whose son has severe disabilities. She had years of paperwork to sort through. Much of it concerned financial support for her son. It was important because it meant she could employ carers and legitimately claim back the money she was due.
I spent days working through a room full of papers which, in all honesty, changed her life. It is times like that when the job feels really worthwhile.
I became a VA in 2016 when I returned to work after having children. Previously, I had worked in marketing and project management but I wanted more flexibility so I could be around for my children.
I started out working on my own and now have a team of six. We pride ourselves on making our clients’ lives easier.