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  • Writer's pictureJemma Kaczmarska

Interview: LEGO PA Conference 2021

I was delighted to be invited to talk at the LEGO PA Conference 2021.

At that time, most people were fairly new to remote working and the group asked me some questions drawing from my experience of working as a virtual assistant.

It was a real pleasure to join the event and take part in the ongoing conversation on how to work best remotely, both for the business you are engaged with and also for your own wellbeing.

Q) I would love to hear from Jemma on how she manages to connect with the person she supports if they only meet online? For a PA having a good personal connection with the people you support can be everything, so how do you build and maintain that online?

A) I have actually only had 1 client that I never met with face-to-face. Most of my clients are from my network - either people that I have worked with in the past, or that I have been recommended to, so the relationship already has some foundation. Depending on the client’s needs & current restrictions, I do like to go to client's offices regularly - some once a fortnight/monthly or as & when necessary for face-to-face meetings.

Building a connection virtually, I have found that although it is not exactly the same as face-to-face, you can still build a good relationship by being open and having dialogue that is not just work-based, picking up on how they are & what their challenges might be - just as you would in the office to help make things easier for them.

I am a strong believer in balance and I find that although most work can be done virtually, some face-to-face time is invaluable and really does help cement a good relationship, but you don't need to be present together all of the time.

Q) To me (personally and in supporting my boss) I take pride in “knowing the organisation” keeping my finger on the pulse of the organisation and having a feeling on what is going on in the different departments (even down to individual level). How is that possible being a virtual assistant?

A) That is an important part of the role for a full-time assistant and in my opinion, you can't really dedicate as much to that side of things as a third-party.

I have found there is a shift in what you are expected to do when you are being paid by the hour or project - there is more of an emphasis on the tasks rather than to be that 'glue' for the department, or to be the social secretary, which I know is a task that many PA's are given.

Having said that, over time you do build up a knowledge & feeling as to what is going on with clients.

Q) What tips do you have for building networking relationships to make sure you always have ideas or nice venues to book etc. for potential clients.

A) I speak to my PA contacts & wider network. I could use a third-party event organiser for a large event, where the charge does not come to you, but the event organiser takes a margin from the venue’s profit.

I would ask for recommendations via Linked In or the VA Handbook Facebook group.

The great thing about having several clients & working with different companies is that your network grows and wherever I have worked, the PA community has always been really supportive in sharing info & recommendations.

Q) What is your favourite thing about working from home?

A) No commute, no politics. More freedom - you can choose your hours, go for a run, wear what you like etc. And I get to hang out with my cat!

Q) I am very keen on knowing which type of tasks Jemma performs, also how she allocates her time, is that per task or fixed allocated time slot per client?

A) The type of tasks vary – there are the more traditional e.g. diary & travel, expenses, taking minutes etc. As well as project based tasks e.g. creating docs, PowerPoint, responding to enquiries, recruitment assistance, event management etc. And some marketing tasks e.g. creating e-newsletters and website creation.

I allocate my time for retainer clients and charge by the hour for ad-hoc clients. I block my day into chunks per client & sometimes per task.

Q) Do you have any tips on how you keep structured – tips on how you keep your working days separate from ‘your time’?

A) That is sometimes a challenge! I now have a team of brilliant, experienced PA’s who help me manage new/additional work that comes in.

I like to go for a run or take a bath at the end of the day to break the day from work to 'me time', or put some music on & cook.

I try to have a cut off by 7pm latest. I prioritise what is really urgent and what can actually wait.

Q) What were some of your biggest challenges going remote working, besides IT?

A) Becoming self-employed, so not having the safety net of holiday pay, sick pay, pension etc.

But for me the sense of freedom & having a choice of how I work is worth it.

Q) As an assistant, we jump from task to task – sometimes with little time to focus on one thing at any given time – how do you manage this with numerous clients?

A) Blocking time & learning to say no! A difficult one for me, but I have learnt to set boundaries from the beginning and try not to operate too much out of those boundaries or an expectation gets set.

The 'always on' culture that we seem to live in can be the fastest way to burn out.

Q) What’s the one thing you miss about traditional ‘office’ assisting?

A) Having close friendships right there - but luckily I have maintained strong relationships with prior colleagues so I still have a good PA support network. And free coffee!

Q) How do you build fun into a meeting without seeming to diminish the meeting’s importance?

A) To be honest, I have never really been a fan of 'forced fun' - I think if you can get a sense of how people are feeling then you can try to respond in the right way. I also think that people don't always want fun! Sometimes it's ok to just have a meeting & then for everyone do their own thing. People are getting tired of having full days of online meetings, so it is difficult to try and add more just for the sake of trying to bring in fun. I know assistants can face a lot of pressure here, but I think sometimes we should have the courage to push back a little and say we have read the room & actually people might just prefer 30 mins back in their day rather than spending 30 mins more on an online meeting!

You can also ask different team members or departments to host each 'social' event so that there is a variety of ideas and it doesn't solely fall on you!

Q) Any tips for onboarding a new employee during these times where we are all virtual?

A) Create a varied schedule - reading, intros etc. and avoid having too much of the same activity in 1 day.

Check in with the new joiner regularly and appreciate that it might take people a bit longer to pick up on the culture then they would in person. If possible send them some company products so that they can feel engaged with the brand in a physical sense.

Q) How does Jemma become a better/great virtual assistant (without face to face interaction) e.g. since there’s hardly interaction with colleagues face-to-face and being visible, besides scheduling regular meetings with her manager/stakeholders.

A) I always try to remember that as an assistant you are here to make your manager's life easier, so try to pre-empt & be a step ahead where possible. Have an open communication e.g. share notes in One Note so as to try to keep email volume down.

It's not that different as to how you work for a frequent traveller, or someone that worked in a different office to you.

I remember when the idea of hot-desking for a PA seemed ridiculous, not being able to sit next to your boss & discuss things as they came in, but when I moved to a new job/office with activity-based working, I soon realised that technology makes working away from each other pretty easy & smooth. The old school image of a PA sitting outside the executive's office is no more & what's more important now is making sure the job gets done efficiently.

Q) What are the attributes to be successful as a virtual assistant?

Be flexible but know your boundaries - I have found that difficult, but it’s important to learn to say no when needed.

Be open to taking on new clients & new tasks - I have developed lots of different skills & experience within different industries.

Be interested in the people you work for - I have learnt to appreciate the different nuances of my clients & especially if they are a small business, they really appreciate your interest.

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