'Virtual' way to beat jobless blues

Chiara Cavaglieri reports on how the recession is causing a surge in freelance home office workers

Unemployment is casting a shadow over Britain with good jobs hard to come by. Working for yourself is becoming the only option for many former professionals, as a growing number choosing to work as a virtual assistant to an individual or business. Put simply, virtual assistants offer administrative support from the comfort of their own home and earn from £15 to £30 per hour for their trouble.

"We have seen demand for virtual assistants (VAs) take off this year, and likewise we are seeing a boom in people from all sorts of backgrounds approach us about starting up their own virtual assistant business," says Justine Curtis, founder of the UK Association of Virtual Assistants (UKAVA).

Jacqueline Long, 39 (right), began working as a VA from her home in Chelmsford last June. She took redundancy in 2007 after working in the City for 17 years. Now she has her own VA business, WhateverWhenever, charging a standard rate of £25 per hour for secretarial and event management support. "When I left the City I decided I was going to set myself up as a freelance event planner, but people started pulling budgets and doing everything in-house so the work just wasn't coming in," she says.

Then came a chance encounter with a VA at a networking group. She realised that she could successfully combine her administrative skills with her passion for event management. She took a two-day course run by the Virtual Assistant Coaching and Training Company for £547 and by the end of that week she had her first client.

Although Ms Long now works full time running the business, she enjoys the flexibility that the work can offer and sees no sign of business slowing down, particularly as more companies want to cut costs by employing staff as and when they need it.

"Things have just gone upwards from there. I now have eight regular clients as well as plenty of ad hoc work coming in. The clients are paying purely for my time, not sick leave or toilet breaks, so it's very cost efficient and flexible for them," she says.

When it comes to finding work, VAs can sign up to an agency such as the Society of Virtual Assistants as well as list themselves on VA directories. This costs between £24.95 and £49.95 per year for an enhanced listing.

"You do have to work hard to get the clients. Get yourself out there both online and in person at networking events." says Jasmine Birtles, a financial expert at consumer website Moneymagpie.com. "There's no excuse for sitting at home waiting for the work to come to you."

The more services a VA can offer, the more likely they are to find and retain clients. Secretarial/PA experience is a good starting point, as is knowledge of bookkeeping, invoicing, diary management and spreadsheets. In addition, a VA will need a home office and all that that entails.

As a self-employed professional, VAs must look after their own tax. The initial costs when starting out as a VA are reasonably small. However, working from home may invalidate your home insurance policy so it may need to be upgraded. Insurantz, for example, offers insurance specifically for VAs and includes liability cover of up to £10m and professional indemnity cover of up to £2m.