What Is A Virtual Assistant Job Really Like? Arianne Young Explains.

“People think of the secretaries, that it’s all filing, but it’s so much more than that," the Not Your Average Girl Friday founder told HuffPost.
"You have to be passionate about it to do it," Young said about being a virtual assistant.
"You have to be passionate about it to do it," Young said about being a virtual assistant.

Her clients may never see her in person, but Arianne Young is always an email away. As a Toronto-based virtual assistant, Young is the voice that represents her clients, the administrative gatekeeper that sorts their emails, and a counselor that listens to their problems and translates them into solutions.

“People think of secretaries, that it’s all filing, but it’s so much more than that,” Young said of her job. For example, one of her clients might tell her they missed lunch. “I will get on whatever app I can, figure out where their location is, and UberEats them lunch from Toronto,” she said. “You are whatever it is that they need you to be.”

Until recently, Young, who is 38, held down a corporate job by day and performed her remote assistant job when she got home. But this week, she resigned from her day position as an executive assistant at a finance company to go all-in on her dream of running her own virtual assistant business, Not Your Average Girl Friday.

Young said her goal is to “live and support myself doing something that I built from the ground up, doing something that I absolutely love to do for people that I love to work for.” Her six clients currently include a Canadian beverage startup, a professor, an actor, and the writer Ashley C. Ford.

About 1 in 4 workers worldwide are “actively disengaged” — unhappy or uninvested — when it comes to their work, according to a Gallup poll, but Young is not one of them. “It sounds weird to say ‘my passion for administration,’ because it’s like, how boring is that? But to have inbox zero is like, ‘Hook it to my veins,’” Young said. “Seeing a calendar perfectly color-coded, or everything in folders, or coming up with a template, a Google form ― all of that stuff, I love.”

“It sounds weird to say ‘my passion for administration,’ because it’s like, how boring is that? But to have inbox zero is like, ‘Hook it to my veins.'”

- Arianne Young

There are an estimated 3.8 million people working as admin assistants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The term “virtual assistant” wasn’t born until the mid-1990s, but the profession grew quickly: The International Virtual Assistants Association says it has more than 11,000 subscribers for its newsletter. Below, Young gives HuffPost the inside scoop on what her job is like.

Above is Young's workspace in Toronto, where she helps assist people and companies based in Canada and the United States.
Above is Young's workspace in Toronto, where she helps assist people and companies based in Canada and the United States.

This interview was condensed for clarity and length.

What does being a virtual assistant involve?

It’s definitely different things for different people. It’s calendar management, email correspondence, the ordering of supplies. It’s travel arrangements, it’s invoices and reconciliations, filling out forms, inviting people to meetings, getting accounts set up, creating templates. It’s check-ins and agendas.

Someone might be really good with their calendar management. They might not need my help there. There are some people that want to be completely hands-off like, “Here are the keys. Go.” And there are other people [who say], “I like to handle this, this is something I do want to keep in my arsenal, but I’m just going to forward you some of these emails that I can’t deal with right now.” It’s doing whatever it is that takes away from what that person’s job actually is.

People might not know they need an assistant. I’ll do consultation calls, and they’ll say, “This is everything that I’m having trouble with.” I’ll note it all down. I’ll take whatever their brain dump is into a spreadsheet that’s actionable ... and just give it to them and have a data validations column, like put your priorities here, this is high, this is medium, this is low. ... They’re like “Oh my gosh, yes this is all I need.” They use that as their plan.

Some people just need someone to put their thoughts in order in a way that makes sense, and that might be as much as they need out of an admin.

You resigned from your corporate executive assistant job on Wednesday. What led you to quit your day job?

I had some opportunities with some of my freelance clients coming up to travel. I was like, “I’m going to have book vacation time. Will I be able to go?” Finally, I was like, “I’m going to do it. I’m just going to resign and going to hope for the best that new clients will be there to compensate what I’ll be losing from the day job.” I know I didn’t want to stay here anymore. I was prolonging the inevitable.

For the last couple of years, I’ve had these two streams of income. Within the last year, they’ve both been completely full-time. I work ridiculous hours after I get home. I was like, I don’t know personally how much longer I can do both and still actually be functional and supportive to both jobs without one of them slipping.

What are the differences between being an in-person assistant and a virtual one?

I have had to battle with depression and social anxiety for the majority of my life. Being in an office environment can sometimes just be so overwhelming because I want to keep my headphones on and listen to my podcast, and do my work. But there’s also that other expectation that you are the face of the manager you are supporting. You have to have that smile on your face.

And then also being a Black woman in the corporate world, you have all of the other microaggressions, like you might not want to talk and then people are like, “Oh, what’s wrong with her? She has an attitude.” And it’s like, no, I just want to do my work and go home.

There are a ton of things that I can do [as an assistant] that I don’t have to be present for. I don’t need to be in an office sitting across from you to manage your calendar. I can do that from wherever it is that I am. And I can do that in the comfort of my own home.

My personality definitely shines a lot brighter through writing. I grew up with a speech impediment. I used to stutter, I didn’t talk for a long time. When I’m put on the spot, it takes me a long time to gather my thoughts. But you put a keyboard in front of me, and you’ll get Shakespeare.

Young keeps a paper notebook at her desk for each client.
Young keeps a paper notebook at her desk for each client.

How do you take on each client’s tone?

I always write as me or on behalf of them, but being able to correspond with the people that obviously are important to them in the same way, in the same tone, in the same voice that they would is really important.

Over time, I’m corresponding with whoever it is. You get to know a little bit about their personality. You’re copied on emails, so you can see the way they speak to other people. You tend to see the type of people that you can be a little more jovial with. I don’t want to say you become friends with those people, but you do build up a little relationship.

You want them to be able to rely on you and trust in you in the way they received from the person they used to deal with directly.

What does everyone get wrong about admins?

A lot of people pooh-pooh admins. We are considered the lowest rung on a ladder. We are the easiest to step on. We are the easiest to step over because if anything goes wrong, you can just blame the [executive assistant].

But we are the people that set the framework; we are the people who make the engine go. If we didn’t do the things that we did, then the people who are the face, and the people who do get paid the big dollars, and the people who are out there making their art or creating their apps or doing whatever it is that they want to do passionately ― if we didn’t do what we did, then they wouldn’t be able to get further.

What are admin tips for those of us who don’t have a virtual assistant like yourself?

People do not utilize their calendars. It boggles my mind. It is such a good tool. Don’t try to remember things on your own. Put it in your calendar, and put a notification like, “I need to know about this at 9 o’clock tonight.” I live and die by my calendar.

Young’s Top Google Calendar Tips:

1. A meeting should not be in the calendar unless the following things are indicated:

  • Meeting title (should include attendee(s) names + meeting topic)

  • Method of communication (phone call, video chat, coffee, lunch)

  • Location (who’s calling whom, name/address/phone number of venue, and attendees’ numbers as a back-up)

  • Meeting agenda/summary

  • If any attendees are in different time zones, indicate the time zones of the call in the body of the booking

2. Whenever you update a booking, add the date (month/day), indicate what’s changed and highlight it.

  • For example: “02/07 Update: Meeting room location added + conference call # added.”

  • I’ve found people don’t often pay attention when something has been revised. It’s good practice to call it out so everyone’s on the same page.

3. NEVER wait to block/hold time in a calendar you’re managing. If you don’t have all the details, still add a hold. This helps for a few reasons: Your client or manager is aware that plans are being made and won’t book over the time you’re coordinating for them, or at the very least, will ask you if that hold is “real.”