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History of virtual employment

The Internet has changed the way we live and work tremendously. Online jobs and remote working practices are experiencing a boom nowadays as Internet coverage and smartphone usage keeps increasing globally, by the second. 

Technology has become so powerful that even our concept of work has changed. More and more professionals are opting for a flexible, work from home job that allows them to seamlessly connect their work and personal lives, a feat difficult to attain with an eight to five office job. 

Globalisation’s impact in the business landscape has paved the way for business outsourcing as a strategy to streamline operations and cut costs. Office processes that usually demanded face-to-face interaction can now simply be outsourced remotely to a professional on a computer. 

Business outsourcing has become a norm and this has reshaped not only jobs but also whole industries. For instance, the virtual assistant industry has now replaced what has been described by The Financial Times as the dying secretarial services industry. Increasing automation and the drive to cut costs have led to the decline of the need for secretarial services. Now, companies can hire a virtual assistant from anywhere in the world by the hour doing beyond the tasks of the traditional secretary or executive assistant.

Beginnings: The secretary and the typewriter Today, the virtual assistant industry stands as one of the most sought after and lucrative jobs that promises companies returns on investment and VA’s high pay and a work-life balance. How did this exactly happen? The ascent of virtual assistants, or Vs, did not happen overnight, but during a long and complex transition beginning in the 1940s. The secretarial services industry birthed what we now know as the virtual assistant industry. Sir Isaac Pitman’s invention of the shorthand method led to the creation of secretarial services as a viable profession. Pitman founded the first school for secretarial services, admitting only men, at a time when religious conservatism still forbade women in the workplaces. It was technology that eventually paved the path for women’s entry in the secretarial services – with the invention of the typewriter. An unprecedented number of women went on to occupy office jobs in the late 1880s and performed secretarial work for companies and professionals on a “one boss, one secretary” arrangement. By the 1930s, men practically vanished from the industry, which was now predominated by women. From then on, a secretary job became associated with a female.

During the 1970s, the typewriter soon evolved into the earliest word-processing systems that made secretarial work vastly efficient. With features such as dictation and typing, technology helped streamline secretarial services, allowing secretaries to work for more than one boss and perform various tasks. As industries expanded, secretaries started to build their own guilds to promote their shared interests. In 1942, the National Secretaries Association (NSA) was founded as an organization seeking to professionalize the field in the US. 

Later on, professionalization happened with the development of the Certified Professional Secretaries (CPS) Examination. This exam tests knowledge, skills, and aptitude in three areas – office technology, office systems administration, and office management. Until now, people looking to advance in their career as administrative professionals can benefit from rating high in the CPS. The move towards professionalizing the secretarial field was cemented in 1952 when “Secretaries Day” was created, later to be renamed “Administrative Professionals Week” in 2000. 

This special day recognises all variants and job titles of people doing administrative tasks for a living. Thirty years after, the NSA was renamed Professional Secretaries International and six years after that, to International Association of Administrative Professionals to avoid the sexist stereotyping that became associated with word “secretary.” Secretarial going “virtual” Technology refashioned traditional work to break time and distance barriers. When exactly the secretarial services industry give rise to “virtual” assistance is not definitive. But what’s certain is that technology made it possible. The telephone and fax machine helped bridge people and workplaces thousands of miles apart. During the 1980s, administrative assistance began being delivered remotely. 

Then, in 1994, the Internet became a popular medium for businesses to make transactions from long distances. At least two stories surface on the birth of virtual assistance. The less popular version is attributed to Anastasia “Stacy” Brice and life coach Thomas Leonard who, in a casual phone conversation, blurted the phrase “virtual assistance” in 1996. 

This phrase soon came to define what Stacy did for a living then, as a full time work-at-home secretary for an international client. She provided several services over the Internet – administrative support, personal assistance, and travel planning. She called herself a “virtual assistant” and the term caught on and eventually gave reference to an exciting and emerging profession. 

In February 1997, the virtual assistant industry was professionalized under the organisation AssistU. The more popular version recognises Christine Durst, who wrote the book “The 2 Second Commute” as the founder of the virtual assistant industry in 1995. Durst called the thriving profession as a “revolutionary way of working from home” and encouraged professionals to maximize the Internet to pursue their life passions and authentic sense of independence while earning. To Durst, virtual assistants, “home-based administrative workers”, “work-at-home secretaries,” or whatever titles they are called with, were people drawn to the job for various reasons. 

First, the global economic crisis hit traditional employment and erased several jobs. As companies closed their offices, small businesses grew and found the Holy Grail of staffing on the Internet. Businesses can hire by the hour with the same or better efficiency than hiring in house without the added costs of hiring an employee. 

Second, hardworking people who because of circumstances (ill relatives, family, illness, lack of promising jobs) find it difficult to get traditional jobs find space on the online job market as virtual assistants. 

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is freedom that goes with being in a flexible job and this attracts those who seek to be liberated from the control of the “eight to five” life. Durst was herself a work from home administrative manager for several global businesses. In 1999, she collaborated with Michael Haaren to establish Staffcentrix and the International Virtual Assistants Association (IVSA). 

The IVSA is a professional organization of virtual assistants and all work from home professionals in 16 countries at present. The International Virtual Assistants Association was founded to professionalize and create standards and codes of responsibility for those who provide work from home administrative services. Virtual assistants in demand It cannot be denied that professional virtual assistants are in high demand these days.

As small businesses and startups look towards scaling, they are realising the huge amount of returns that hiring virtual assistants pose. Among the many benefits that businesses can gain from hiring virtual assistants include: 

  • Taking stock of valuable time to grow your business and do what you love; 
  • Getting rid of long-term contracts;
  • Having access to a steady stream of competent professionals; 
  • Being able to choose the option of scaling up or down;
  • Trimming costs from insurance and others. 
  • Cost-effective. 

Virtual assistance has long matured from when it was first birthed by the secretarial profession. It has grown and continues to professionalize its ranks. As globalisation continues to tear down flat organizational structures, the lookout for business outsourcing prospects will remain high. This explains why online jobs and virtual assistance as a profession will continue to boom.

Let us have a look at Virtual Employment evolution in the UK

Collaboration, Not Competition

1999

International Association of Virtual Assistants – Set up by Jacky Workman, this paid-for membership site provided advice and training for VAs based in the UK and around the world.

2000

Alliance of UK Virtual Assistants – formed by Di Chapman as a searchable free directory of VAs in the UK.

2003

Virtual Assistant Coaching and Training Company sets up first UK specific VA training with Carmen Macdougall.

2004

Business quality VOIP hits the UK with the launch of VOIPfone. Answering phonecalls for clients remotely is now a reality.

2005 

Scottish Virtual Assistants formed with 7 original members to promote the concept of virtual assistants in the UK by working together – Caroline Wylie, Lyndsey Gilchrist, Sally Blewett, Jackie Grant, Maria Birkmyre-McDermott, Marj Beattie, and Denise Wilson.

The UK Association of Virtual Assistants – a paid for directory site run by Justine Curtis launches.

2006

Namechange to Society of Virtual Assistants, as we now had more UK members than Scottish ones. We also revamped the website to expand from just a forum to include a wordpress blog, free directory and various training events.

2007 

First ever UK VA Conference in Milton Keynes, run by Carmen Macdougall of CMA Coaching (now VA Coaching and Training Company).

2008 

First ever UK Virtual Assistant Survey – this was initially run by Alex Stone of Just Too Busy and is now collated by SVA each year. Over the years is has provided vital information about the industry which can be used for business plans, marketing activities and to bust myths. For example, the popular myth of a VA being a mum without childcare got shattered in 2011 when we revealed that less than 4% of VAs work like this!

2009 

Formation of VA Support Group Skype chat – three new VAs (Emily Robe, Dee Uzoka and Anne-Marie Mittleman) got together to share their resources and coined the phrase “collaboration not competition” in their quest to build their businesses helping many others along the way including a chat room, a business room and a jobs available room.


Global VA Week – SVA got involved with this annual event run by www.oivac.com in the USA to promote VAs worldwide, headed up by legendary VA Sharon Williams of The 24 Hour Secretary. This included a Tweet campaign which members could use in their own businesses, informal coffee house meet ups, and UK only sessions in the Online International Assistants Convention. Nadine Hill publishes “The Virtual Assistant Handbook”, the first comprehensive UK virtual assistant guide. Nadine no longer works in the VA industry.

2011

BeMyVA – Launch of a paid-for VA directory. VA Pro Mag – Online magazine aimed at UK VAs, written and edited by Jo Sparkes of Expedio Virtual Assistance.

2012 

The VA Magazine – Published by Lucy Brazier of Executive Secretary fame, this subscription only magazine got delivered 6 issues per year and built into a library of training resources for your business. It featured articles from the world’s best trainers and luminaries from the virtual assistant world. Sadly the magazine got shelved back in 2013 when it was sold to BeMyVA and they may well resurrect the brand in future. The Big Meet – Online virtual meeting for VAs run by SVA.

2013

Northern VA Collaboration – Newcastle based VAs join together to do their own mini conference which turned into an annual event for VAs across the UK, drawing VAs from as far away as Cornwall! BeMyVA take over running The VA Conference and Awards and The VA Magazine in a landmark deal for the VA industry. VACT sold to Amanda Johnson as “The Fairy Godmother of the UK VA Industry”, Carmen Macdougall, leaves the industry.

2015 

NW VA Conference – Warrington based regional conference set up by Joanne Hawkins of Executive VPA.

2016 

VA Handbookers – International Digital Nomad VA community set up by Joanne Munro. Not to be confused with the book of the same name! VIP VA – Set up by Charlotte Wibberley and Amanda Slack to support VAs. Amanda stepped down shortly after setting up this networking group.

2018 

Virtual Assistant Training Standards – SVA introduce Virtual Assistant Training standards in response to huge complaints about training courses. How To Become a VA bestseller – VA book written by Catherine Gladwyn hits Amazon’s bestseller list.

2019 

HMRC MLR Concession for VAs – VAProMag campaign to make Money Laundering Regulations advice much clearer for virtual assistants and gain a small concession for those on low incomes doing small amounts of bookkeeping work.