Firms using “virtual” office assistants worldwide to get the job done

When Darlene Lee found herself overburdened with menial tasks — with an unhelpful admin assistant in her employ — she sought out her saviour in Jerusalem, Israel.

But it’s not what you think.

A vice-president at a New York-based consultancy, Experian Research Services, at the time, Lee didn’t pray for her work to get done by divine intervention – she used the services of a virtual outsourcing company based in Jerusalem. GlobeTask took on many of the chores that the expert in strategic initiatives just didn’t have the time or resources to complete.

“I had an admin assistant that wasn’t doing a very good job and wasn’t working fast enough,” Lee recalls. “To take on other projects, I needed to find other resources.”

So she started e-mailing out work for the GlobeTask team to do – PowerPoint presentations, online research requests, weekly reports on Web traffic, and a laundry list of various tasks she used to rely on her in-office administrative assistant to perform. She was soon able to offer her employee to someone else in the department and rely on GlobeTask for her daily workflow.

“Pretty much anything that could be done online or via e-mail, I farmed out to them,” Lee recalls. “There’s an efficiency that’s not possible in most physical offices.”

Lee isn’t the only professional to make use of virtual outsourcing services, and GlobeTask isn’t the only company to off it.

As the global economic downturn sparks staff cuts at many organizations, sites that allow you to instantly outsource work cheaply are booming.

They are numerous – Brickwork India, DoMyStuff.com, RentACoder, Elancer, and Guru.com. All these are reporting a rise in both the number of companies using their services, and freelancers signing up for work.

GlobeTask uses a team of about 45 staffers based in Jerusalem to deal with the deluge of piecemeal work sent in by clients, who pay between $7 to $12 an hour to have any number of tasks completed for them.

There are eight “communicators” at the officem who serve as the face of GlobeTask. These staff are American and British expatriates that speak English as a first language – it’s their job to understand the needs of each client, and divvy up work between staffers based on skills and expertise.

The benefits of outsourcing start with the fact many small businesses don’t have adequate or reliable internal staff, suggests Richard Weinberg, co-founder of GlobeTask. “Headcount [can be] a headache in your office – your employee might or might not show up to work.”

Services offered by firms “virtual office assistant” firms worldwide are wide and varied.

At GlobeTask, for instance, the main tasks typically completed include online research, image gathering, and constructing presentations..

But Weinberg says the office is ready to handle just about any task that comes in, and also offers “Globe Pro”– the services of degree-holding staff who can perform higher-level jobs. For example, a GlobeTask staffer could be hired to conduct cold calls, asking customers about their product experience and seeking out up-sell opportunities.

The company has also seen sharp growth since the economic downturn began. About a year ago, the site experienced an average monthly increase in business of three to five per cent. But over the past six months, it’s seen increases of 10 to 12 per cent – with more companies asking for higher level tasks to be completed.

“It’s because there’s no manpower in the office,” Weinberg says. “Times are tough and people are more open to saving themselves even $100 a week.”

Pittsburgh-based Guru.com presents a different way for companies to outsource. It serves as an intermediary between the client who needs to get the work done and the freelancer who wants to work. It’s a different strategy with similar results – and it’s business is booming too.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of folks registering,” says Kristen Sabol, a communications specialist at Guru.com. “There’s a lot more registrations on the freelancer side at the moment. With recent job losses, people are looking for other ways to make money.”

The decade-old company saw its membership jump 25 per cent in 2008 for a total of 45,000 new freelancers offering up their services. The work-seekers had a total of 101,606 projects to choose to take on from employers.

Much of the business conducted on the Web site is IT related. There are more than 23,000 freelancers offering programming and database development skills, and more than 16,600 offering Web site design and marketing. In all, there are 17 main categories that are broken down into 160 different skill sets for employers to choose from.

“We have everyone from that large business looking for a skilled specialist, all the way down to mom and pop shops looking for help with designing a wedding,” Sabol says.

The main focus of Guru.com is on connecting the right freelancer with the employer. The site requires that projects be paid for through its SafePay system that allows employers to protect financial information, while guaranteeing freelancers will be paid on time. The site offers communication dashboards and the ability to leave feedback and make recommendations.

It’s a different approach than GlobeTask, which keeps a staff on site to do work that comes in. No surprise, Weinberg says his way of doing things is better.

“Quality is the key,” he says. “If you send off your work to some college kid in Omaha, what happens if he has a test and no time to work? Here, you’re working with a whole team.”

GlobeTask offers the cheap rates of outsourcing without the risk of work being lost in translation, he adds. The company assigns its English-speaking staff to be the main points of communications with its different clients.

It’s a benefit that Lee appreciated.

“All of the people I talked to were native English speakers,” she says. “I really liked that.”

At Guru.com, the site provides rankings of freelancers and profiles that display feedback received on previous jobs. The site also has a dedicated team to review projects posted by employers to ensure they’re legitimate, Sabol says. Freelancers shouldn’t be taken advantage of either.

The site also has a “satisfaction guarantee” when contracts are arranged for payment through the SafePay system.

As for Lee, she is now working as a consultant for pharmaceutical companies at Critical Business Solutions in New York. The job might be new, but she’s brought one team member along with her – GlobeTask.

There’s usually a portion of your workload that doesn’t really offer the opportunity to learn or do something different, she says. By outsourcing that, ” you actually get to work on what you want to work on.”

To many executives, that might sound like heaven.

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