Personally Virtual Blog

The 17th Century poet John Donne famously wrote “No man is an island” and I have to agree.  Running my own business from home is fantastic – I work the hours I want, do the jobs I want, wear what I want, speak to who I want to – but in order to build my business I needed to embrace the skills and experience of other business professionals too.

As a self-employed freelancer with family commitments and hobbies, there are only a certain number of hours per day that you can dedicate to working without becoming a mad recluse.  There are also only so many skills that you can fit into your brain without falling into the worrying category of ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.  Realistically, if you want to increase the number of hours of work that you have available to assist clients, or want to broadly diversify the range of services that you offer, you need to find one or more experienced and talented professionals to help out.  I have worked with a number of freelancers over the past few years, but my core team has only really expanded within the past year and I couldn’t be happier with my current line-up of highly skilled and extensively experienced associates.

If you are considering growing your business and working closely with one or more new employees or freelancers, here are my top tips to help you build the perfect team:

1.)   Actively seek out people with a unique zone of genius that complements your own.  Unless you want to deliver exactly the same service to a much larger number of people, building a team with an exceptional and diverse skillset is a great way to develop a sustainable business.  If, for example, the call for your existing services suddenly drops off, the knowledge and experience of your fellow team members can help you to identify new opportunities for your business.

2.)   Make sure your team understand your values and ideals.  If you consider an eye for detail very important, you need to work with team members who are equally conscientious.  Anyone working outside of your business values runs the risk of upsetting loyal customers who have come to you specifically because they like the work that you do, so it’s important to have a chat about this before you start working together to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

3.)   Double check that they have a sense of humour. Admittedly, this isn’t a pre-requisite for every business owner, but it is important to me! Freelance work has its own unique challenges and may require the odd moment of humour to diffuse what could otherwise be a challenging situation.  Thankfully, my team can help keep each other positive and motivated with a back-catalogue of amusing memes and gifs to brighten even the darkest work moment.

4.)   Ask yourself, ‘Do I respect this person?’ – Unfortunately, it’s impossible to like everyone.  There are some people out there who might be extremely talented but who you just cannot bring yourself to like.  In a business relationship, it’s not necessary to be best friends with your team (though it does help if they are thoroughly lovely, like mine!), but you will find it incredibly hard to work successfully with people who you do not respect, whatever the reason for that.

5.) Make sure that you are actually ready to grow your business – taking on team members on a whim before your business is ready for growth is a definite no-no! Before you consider expansion, it’s really important to have a business plan in place that maps out the aims that you have for your business over the coming year(s).  This could be about the services that you want to provide, the customers that you want to target, etc.  If you want to maintain your existing clients but reduce the number of hours you work, or expand your services to a much larger range of customers, think about what you need in place in order to achieve this; successful growth is much more than just taking on new team members – your marketing, your networking, your sales processes and service delivery, they will all need to change! Taking on team members before you’ve addressed the actual logistics of business growth will just cause you additional stress, trust me.

Of course, there are a number of other factors that need to be considered when you are growing a team, but don’t be put off by what’s involved – when you find a great team of like-minded and talented individuals, teamwork really can help to make the dream work!

A virtual assistant can make a huge difference to your businesses productivity and effectiveness, but there is no ‘one size fits all’ VA out there! The term ‘Virtual Assistant’ covers a wide variety of remote working business support professionals offering services as diverse as diary management, bookkeeping support, marketing assistance and web development – to name but a few!

So how can you find the right VA for you? The first step is to make sure you know exactly what you want or need help with, as there’s no use taking on a bookkeeping specialist if you need technical edits made to your business website!  Many VAs offer very specific services, but if they can’t help you with the work you need it is likely that they will know (or work with) someone who can help, so don’t be afraid to ask!  Once you find someone who can help you, feel free to ask them about their experience in that particular task – they may have a portfolio of work that they can show you (particularly if they offer creative services) but even if they don’t, they should be able to give you an indication about their practical experiences of carrying out a specific type of task.

Another important idea to factor into your search for the perfect VA is to establish that they have a professional and responsible business; Ask about their professional indemnity insurance and insist on a contract that details your working relationship so that you know exactly what to expect from your VA (as well as what your responsibilities are).  If your VA is offering services such as bookkeeping, it may be that they need to be registered for HMRC’s Anti-Money Laundering Regulations, so do your research to ensure that they are appropriately qualified for the work you are asking them to carry out.

A very important and often overlooked part of the quest for the perfect freelancer is to actually talk to a potential candidate and make sure that they are the right personality fit for you.  Although it would be wonderful if we could be friends with everyone, it’s a fact of life that some people just don’t float your boat – and that’s fine! They could be the world’s most fabulous web developer, but if after 3 minutes of talking to them you want to shut your head in your laptop then it is likely that you aren’t going to have the most productive business relationship.  Even if they do seem like your cup of tea, make sure that you ask them about their working preferences before signing up to work with them; some freelancers may expect guidance and reassurance on a regular basis to ensure that they are carrying out your work appropriately for you, whereas others may be virtually uncontactable (which could work for you!), so make sure you find the right balance for your business needs.

Finally, I highly recommend taking a look at a freelancer’s testimonials to get an idea of how successfully they have worked with fellow business owners in the past.  Admittedly, some freelancers are hopeless at requesting feedback from their customers, but most should be able to obtain one or two relevant testimonials for you to review.  You could also ask your own network for their recommendations of great freelance business support professionals, as then you can ask more detailed questions about cost, quality of work and turnaround time.

If you’re looking for a remote business support professional to help your business work more efficiently and productively, get in touch! I’d be happy to talk through your requirements and point you in the direction of a fabulous freelancer if we don’t offer the services that you are looking for.

According to Scientific American, we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily[1], and with each person in the UK using the equivalent of 4.5 40-foot trees worth of paper per year[2] it’s clear that we need to reduce paper waste in our lives to protect our environmental resources. 

For many people, a paper-free office making use of digital note-taking and task management apps is a sustainable alternative to using reams and reams of paper. However, hand writing physical notes does have its benefits for some people (myself included), so if you’re prepared to recycle and invest in recycled paper products, it can be worth keeping a notepad to hand!

So what are the benefits of hand-written notes vs. digital notes?

1.) Reduced distractions – if you are logged on to your computer, laptop or mobile device and trying to make coherent notes, it’s all too easy to get distracted by emails and app notifications that come through as you are working.  If it is important that you maintain a single trail of thought throughout an activity (for example, if you are making notes about a complex subject or have a limited time available to make notes) it might be easier to write these down directly on paper rather than using a digital notepad or task management system.

2.) Better information retention – research suggests that when an individual writes something down on paper, they are processing that information in a physical, tangible form, making it easier for that information to ‘stick’ in the memory.  As a result, if you’ve got important tasks to remember, it could be worth creating a physical list or using an online task management system that has loud alarms and reminders!

3.) Enhanced creativity and improved wellbeing – when you’ve got a pen and paper on your desk, it’s easy to use the paper as a canvas for doodles and illustrations as well as important notes.  According to ‘The Lancet’, for some, doodling may be crucial for creativity or to aid in relaxation – things that are not necessarily associated with simply typing content into a digital tool.

Though it is highly recommended that we all try to live more sustainably, I still think that there is a place for hand-written notes in day to day life (particularly if you invest in environmentally friendly recycled paper products, and recycle after use).  Do you prefer physical notes or digital ones? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue!

Reaves, R., Flowers, J. and Jewell, L., 1993. Effects of writing-to-learn activities on the content knowledge, retention, and attitudes of secondary vocational agriculture students. Journal of Agricultural Education34(3), pp.34-40.

Schott, G.D., 2011. Doodling and the default network of the brain. The Lancet378(9797), pp.1133-1134.

‘Tidy desk, tidy mind’ – the old adage commonly cited in office environments that frowns upon the over-enthusiastic use of post-its, personal photographs sellotaped to every available surface and impressive hoards of paperclips, pens (including those without ink) and elastic bands… When you run your own business or work remotely, it’s easy to rebel against these constraints and let your desk take on a personality and life of its own beneath the piles of paperwork and stationery, but I have to admit that I really do feel better when my desk is clear and tidy, and there are a few reasons why: 

1.) Finding stuff – The main reason for having some kind of desk-based filing system is to help making finding stuff as quick and stress-free as possible. No-one wants to break a sweat looking for a functioning pen 5 minutes before an important customer call, so try to give everything you need a safe and memorable dedicated space!

2.) Being more environmentally minded – Paper, paper everywhere! It’s all too easy to have a desk covered in mountains of paper if you are a voracious note taker, but it’s not great for the environment.  Why not collect and re-use paper with non-sensitive handwritten or printed notes to create DIY notepads rather than using fresh paper, or try using digital ‘to-do lists’ or note-taking apps to reduce your paper waste and associated clutter? It could help save a few trees here and there.

3.) GDPR – piles of paper featuring handwritten or printed customer details that include personal information, particularly sensitive information, aren’t particularly compatible with the GDPR legislation.  If you do need to keep paper copies of customer information, make sure that they are safely and appropriately secured within your office and consider whether moving the information across to a digital database or CRM could be a better idea in the long term.

4.) The psychological boost of some new stationery – Rather than hoarding stationery, I try to keep a sensible amount in my office (i.e. a pack of 20 pens, a couple of notebooks, etc.) and don’t replenish my supply until I have exhausted my stock.  This helps to save me from having 20 notepads on the go at any one time, or from having hundreds of pens laying about but none that work!  Although I know I’m probably in the minority here, I do feel some joy at the prospect of being able to re-stock my stationery supplies every few months – 30 mins of stationery shopping evokes feelings of that new school year ‘fresh start’ and can help lift the spirits momentarily when you’ve got a lot of complicated and challenging customer work on the go.

5.) To create a professional backdrop for business calls – I’m not saying that your office needs to be ultra sleek and modern with no clutter and personality, indeed, I love a novelty inspirational print as much as the next person! I simply mean clearing a decent space on your desk prior to video calls so that empty food containers and hot drinks aren’t an obstacle for gesturing on a video call, as spilling hot tea over your keyboard mid-call is distracting for everyone involved!

Do you prefer a tidy and organised office or a chaotic creative haven? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

There are a number of benefits associated with working from home – most notably the fact that the commute time is INCREDIBLY short (no sweaty train, tube or bus journeys and expensive parking) and the dress code is pretty casual.  The lack of communal fridge is also a big positive, with no passive aggressive post-it notes stuck to mugs/milk bottles/odorous snacks.  However, there are a few challenges too; it’s far too easy to procrastinate and end up scrubbing the bathtub or hoovering the curtains when you’ve got a deadline for client work approaching, and the lack of in-house tech support can be a challenge when all of your computer equipment decides to have a day off when you’ve got back to back video calls booked in.  Remote working from home can also be incredibly isolating, meaning that you’ve got no-one but the cat/dog/pot plant to talk to when you need to rant about the HMRC hold music or a particularly challenging customer call.

As the number of remote working freelance professional grows, so too does the number of available ‘hot desks’ available in co-working spaces.  Most towns now an office space that can be rented per hour/day/month with WIFI, desk space and even meeting rooms (there are several that I know that also have bars on site as an added perk!).  Although this increases the monthly overheads for business owners, I know a number of individuals who have chosen to take up this option rather than work solely from home. If they have regular client meetings, the on-site meeting rooms are definitely preferable to business meetings at home, surrounded by pets, children’s toys or washing.  Working away from your home can also make it easier to ‘switch off’ at the end of the day, as the office isn’t permanently set up on the dining room table or in the spare room, a stone’s throw away from where you are trying to relax.  The main reason that my remote working colleagues opt for renting desk or office space in a co-working office is for the social benefits, as working alongside other people can help reduce the negative feelings of isolation that can be experienced by home-based workers, particularly when they are having a challenging day!

According to research carried out by the Harvard Business Review, co-working spaces not only help to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, but can help to build on the important psychological and social values of ‘community, collaboration, learning, and sustainability[1].  Co-working spaces are a dynamic hub for freelance professionals, and it’s not unusual for individuals working within these spaces to end up working with their co-workers on shared projects.  Unfortunately, as with all shared office environments, there’s always going to be someone with poor kitchen etiquette, so if you’re desperate to escape kitchen politics a co-working space might not work for you.

For me, working from my dedicated home office gives me the opportunity and flexibility to build my full time role conveniently around my personal commitments; I have two dogs and regularly foster rescue dogs looking for a full time home, so being able to break my day up to fit in dog walks and feeds is incredibly useful! Co-working spaces have a definite value, but if I am feeling a little isolated (as it is worryingly easy to go for several days without speaking to another human face to face), I have joined several online communities of remote working business support professionals – the perfect space if I need impartial advice or to share any minor issues that might be bothering me.

Do you work from home or from a co-working space? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the home working vs. co-working space debate!

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