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Claire Grace is a Virtual Assistant (VA), Social Media Manager and Founder of The Assistant Quarters. She’s from Croydon, which is in Surrey, England. Here’s a look at her world.
A Toddler-Shaped Alarm Clock
Typically, my day starts any time between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m., when I’m woken up by my toddler-shaped alarm clock! My husband leaves for work early and so, when my daughter wakes up, it is down to me to get us both up and dressed and to nursery on time before I can start my working day!
If I’m working from home, I have a very short commute to my desk – which is currently set up in my dining room whilst our spare room is being converted in to an office. I also base myself out of a local Tech Hub and co-working space a couple of times a week and, when I’m heading there, I jump on a bus and can be there in 20 minutes! This is much improved on 15 years of commuting to London up until December of last year – I really don’t miss Southern Rail!
At the Office
Primary Responsibilities: I officially set up my business in February of this year after being made redundant in December. I offer Virtual Assistant and Social Media Management services to entrepreneurs and women in business. I already have some great clients on board, and there is no such things as a typical day. I support my clients with anything from invoicing and managing business accounts, business management support, preparing presentations, conference and event planning to creating marketing material and social media support. The role is so much more varied than my previous EA role, though, and I’m learning about new systems and tools every day!
I try and juggle client work and developing my own business, which is still very much in its early days as we launched just this February. That could be anything from attending networking events with other local business owners to working on my website or completing some of my Digital Mums training.
Working with a new executive: Find out how they like to communicate and work
Morning Routines: My day needs to start with caffeine! If I’m working from home I have a quick whiz round the house to tidy up any mess that may otherwise distract me whilst I work, and then I’ll make breakfast (usually avocado or scrambled eggs on toast). Whilst I’m eating at my desk, I will have a quick check of my emails and social media accounts before I review my to do list and priorities for the day ahead.
How long is your work day? Since leaving the corporate life behind, my day has become much more flexible. Mornings aren’t such a rush and I’m thankful that I can spend more time with my daughter and not miss as many bedtimes as I used to. Typically, I aim to be online and working from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but I work only Monday to Thursday, as Fridays are for precious time with my daughter until she starts school in September.
Given health risks associated with views that sitting is the new smoking, have you or your employer adopted any steps to support good health? I was terrible, in my last role, at taking a proper break for lunch or stretching my legs away from my desk. Now that I’m working for myself, though, I am trying to improve and get out for some fresh air at least once a day, but I guess you could say it is still a work in progress!
What might be a typical lunch? If I’m at home I will have soup; if I’m at the Tech Hub, they have an amazing café which has lovely fresh salads, sandwiches and bagels. They have some nice areas to lunch and relax, so I try to eat away from my desk when I’m at the Tech Hub.
I guess that, as a business owner, you’re typically working in some shape or form during your “off” hours? As a business owner, there is no “off” time, as I’m always thinking of something to do with the business, whether that be online research or networking in some of my Facebook groups. At the moment I still feel like I have a good balance … I try to switch off for family time.
Dealing with Challenges
What is the most challenging aspect of your day or career? Being made redundant was very challenging. Whilst it ultimately led to a fantastic opportunity to set up a business which has been in my mind for a few years, being part of a large restructure and seeing other colleagues being made redundant around you at the same time isn’t a pleasant experience. I allowed myself the Christmas period to recover, as 2016 was a very tough year for me both professionally and – due to some ill health – personally. Now, looking back, I can honestly say it was the best thing that could have happened and I am really enjoying being a new business owner!
I love the flexibility that being a Virtual Assistant has brought
What do you most enjoy about your career? I love the flexibility that being a VA has brought – not just in terms of when/how I work, but also in terms of who I work with and the work that I do. I know who my ideal client is and I know that I can add a lot of value to their business and help restore the balance that is often lost when you are working for yourself. I’m passionate about supporting female entrepreneurs who are often juggling their business with family life.
I was born in St. Thomas’ Hospital, which is in London opposite the Houses of Parliament. I have, however, lived in Croydon in Surrey for pretty much my whole life and haven’t ever strayed far! Croydon is a very exciting place to live, with lots of areas going through redevelopment; I’m a big fan of Boxpark Croydon, which opened late last year.
How long have you been an admin. professional? I worked for my last company for 15 years after temping with them over the summer whilst I was at university and then being offered a permanent position at Christmas that same year. What was your first role as an admin. professional? I started in the basement of a branch of a UK bank, along Piccadilly in the West End. I was responsible for the data entry of customer information for ongoing mortgage applications and bond renewals on to an ancient PC by today’s standards.
A proud finalist in the 2015 London PA Awards
How do you like to spend your time away from the office? Family time is precious so, although it always seems to be a juggle to keep on top of things at home, we can often be found at one of our local parks or catching up with friends and family.
A dream holiday or travel adventure? I wish I had gone travelling when I was younger. One day I would love to visit the likes of Bali, but I’d also like to return to New York as my first trip many years ago was too short to cram everything in!
Peer and Professional Associations: I’m a Fellow of EPAA, the Executive & Personal Assistant Association and a member of VIP VA. How have these networks or associations helped you? Both EPAA and VIP VA have been a huge help to me and my career and are led by two ladies who are a great inspiration to me!
I’ve attended some great conferences and events thanks to my EPAA membership. Vic (Victoria) Darragh always delivers a great lineup of speakers and I’ve learnt lots from every event I’ve attended. Membership with VIP VA has opened my mind to the VA industry, and given me a access to a wonderfully supportive network of experienced VAs.
I’ve attended some great conferences and events thanks to my EPAA membership
What are the primary means of communication for members of your network(s)/professional association(s)? Both associations communicate mostly through Facebook groups. We do obviously get things like email newsletters but, if you want to network with other members of both associations, Facebook is really the place to be!
The Digital Age, and Evolution of the Assistant’s Role
What are your preferred forms of social media? Instagram appeals to my creative side and I love using it to express my personality and to share moments in my life. I use Facebook a lot now for networking, more so than Twitter at this point, but I do have profiles on most platforms. I have struggled in the past to find a healthy balance on social media, particularly when I was busy at work. I try not to be checking it all the time now, or worry too much about what I may or may not be missing!
What apps do you make use of in your professional life? Citymapper, Tube Map and Train Times are all great for travel. As a VA, I now use LastPass, Slack and Trello a lot. LastPass lets you store and share passwords securely, and Slack and Trello are great for communicating with colleagues/clients and working collaboratively on projects.
Do you have an employer-provided smartphone? My previous employer provided me with a smartphone and an iPad. I now use my personal mobile for business, and have invested in an iPad and MacBook. I’d be lost without them!
I have settings on my phone to stop notifications after a certain point in the evening
Tell us about both the positive and adverse impacts that 24:7 availability via smartphones, etc. may have had on your quality of life. I do have settings on my phone to stop notifications after a certain point in the evening, through to the morning. I do also try to stop looking at my phone before I go to bed, in order to give my brain time to relax and unwind. On the positive side when I was an EA, having my boss’ emails and calendar on my phone helped massively in terms of being able to preempt any issues or quickly manage things by replying during my commute in to the office.
Digital Innovation and Disruption
Let’s talk about the pace of change in the admin. world in general. Having previously worked for a bank, the extra controls and restrictions in place to make sure data and customer information were secure seemed to result in any innovation happening a few steps behind everyone else. As a VA, there are so many different online tools and innovative ways to streamline the way we work. I think we must keep up with it and embrace these changes. However, researching what is right for your clients or your own business can easily lead you down a rabbit hole.
There are so many different online tools and innovative ways to streamline the way we work
What about the impact of Digital Assistants/AI (Artificial Intelligence) resources such as Siri, OK Google and so on? I think AI has the potential to be great and to really help streamline some of the simpler but often time consuming tasks of an assistant. That said though, I do not believe they could ever fully replace us. There’s a lot to be said for intuition, emotional intelligence and things like trust and integrity … relationships that simply cannot be built between a digital assistant and a boss!
Travel or travel planning recommendations? I always provided travel itineraries in different formats to my previous Director. Papers can be lost and tech can fail, so details were always in his Outlook calendar and I would have a printed version to go with his papers … and information on his iPad, in a SharePoint folder to which we’d load papers. You can never fully rely on train companies, though, so I’d always be on standby with the travel apps in my phone to help with unexpected cancellations or diversions.
What apps or programs do you find useful for travelling and for tracking expenses? I was introduced to travel.cloud at the 2016 *Office Show. They offer an online travel and hotel booking portal that’s very similar to the provider I used at my previous employer’s. It works really well for Virtual Assistants, as you can securely add clients’ profiles and payment details, and send clear and simple travel itineraries. It also has some great reporting tools.
Clients will often have systems that their accountants recommend for expenses and invoicing, but I’m currently trialing both Wave and FreeAgent for use in my own business.
Style and Substance
Name a go-to piece or two from your wardrobe to ensure confidence on an important day in the workplace? I have been able to ditch much of my corporate wardrobe, but have kept a couple of classic shift dresses. My staples now are black skinny jeans with a shirt and blazer – with bold accessories if I want to feel confident and show some individuality! The joy of working from home, though, is I can pretty much wear what I like unless I have video calls with clients.
What might we find in your desk drawer? Lots of notebooks and pens – I’m a bit of a stationery magpie! Not so much now, but as an EA I always had plasters, headache tablets, a sewing kit and a pot of change for the vending machine in case of the need for emergency chocolate!
Role models or mentors? My last boss of eight years was a huge mentor to me, and he challenged me to have more confidence in myself and to push myself in my career. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to work together again soon, but we keep in touch regularly.
Role models: Vic Darragh, Charlotte Wibberly, and my last boss
In more recent years, Vic Darragh has been a great role model and unofficial mentor. She is someone I respect hugely; the way she has devoted herself to EPAA and to the PA/EA profession is inspiring!
I also have to thank Charlotte Wibberley as she has been my business coach and has helped me massively in thinking more like a business owner. As well, her vision for the VA industry exactly reflects how I want to position my business.
Have you received any awards or recognition as an admin. professional? I was a proud finalist in the 2015 London PA Awards after being nominated by my boss in the Above and Beyond category. Whilst I didn’t win, it was lovely for my boss to have taken the time to nominate me and it was a great experience. At my previous company, they had a great recognition scheme and I often received informal e-cards from team members and colleagues for my contributions at work. As a result, I was lucky to attend a recognition event at Wimbledon Tennis last year.
Previous company had great recognition scheme; I often received informal e-cards from colleagues
Tell us about a career accomplishment of which you’re particularly proud. I was very proud to be asked to take part in the PA panel at the EPAA Banking and Finance PA Conference in February of this year. It was my first PA speaking engagement at an external event, and something that I would love to do more of in the future! Signing my first VA client was a recent highlight, too, as it gave me the confidence boost I needed to show me that I could make the leap from EA to VA!
What skill(s) development or enhancement have you targeted for the next year? I’m currently studying part time alongside setting up my VA business. Last Christmas I won a free place on the Digital Mums Social Media Management Course, from which I am due to graduate from in September. The course is completely flexible but requires a commitment of roughly 15 hours a week through a mixture of online lessons, touch casts, assignments and practical application of our learning. Once I finish that course I would like to learn more about website creation.
Do you have any career goals or accomplishments on your radar for the next five years? I want to grow my business to a point where I have a team on board. Having previously managed a remote admin. team, it is on my vision board to do it again – as a business owner this time! I would also like to do some more public speaking next year.
Give us one or two of your best strategies for job interviews. I don’t think you can go wrong with the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) technique when answering competency based questions, as it keeps you on track without waffling!
Fail to prepare; prepare to fail
I think the quote, “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is also poignant here. Show that you know your stuff where relevant; research their website and social media profiles to get a better sense of their brand values. Have they won industry awards in a part of the business where you want to work? Have they shared any content or contributed to recent articles that resonated with you and your passions? Top of my list, though, are: make sure you listen, take a breath to work out your answer before you respond, and make sure you go armed with a couple of questions to ask them, too!
Your most effective time management strategy? Good old fashioned paper lists and time blocking in my calendar both keep me on track. I review my list regularly and check that I’m keeping on track by blocking out slots in my diary to complete important tasks.
Advice for a new parent working to the workplace? Keep the lines of communication with your line manager open. You may have certain plans in your mind about how you would like to return to work, but the reality of childcare, commuting and work pressures can be very different. I was very lucky that I could work flexibly when I returned to work after having my daughter. Whatever you agree on with your boss, I would recommend reviewing arrangements at least every six months as your baby gets older (sleep patterns change/priorities change, etc.).
Most of all, I would say don’t try to do it all! You will inevitably need to call on the support of family, your partner or work colleagues, and we shouldn’t feel like we need to be “wonder mum”. Try to find the balance that works for you as a family. If that means changing your hours, getting a cleaner or delegating some tasks to a colleague – do it! Don’t suffer in silence and try to do it all; ask for help or talk to someone if you are finding it harder than you thought! I know lots of people who have had difficult times with their employers, so I would also recommend that you familiarise yourself – before your baby arrives – with your company’s policies for maternity leave, flexible working and parental rights. Then find out what you are legally entitled to in case you come unstuck!
What are a couple of valuable early conversation topics you recommend an assistant initiate when beginning work with a new executive/principal? It is important to start to build a rapport quickly, so I always try to find out about a person’s passions and their background before discussing what they expect from an assistant. I then find out how they like to work and how they like to communicate.
From there, I find out a little about their current processes and experiences with an assistant; I then find it easier to suggest ways that I could support them and improve on their current situation. Check on quick things to help manage their schedule, such as leaving “keep free” slots in their diary so they catch up on work. Make sure that there are weekly catch ups in place for us to speak; discussing current priorities and projects are easy suggestions to start off with. If you are new to the executive and their team, it is also important to get their views on their other direct reports as it is likely you will need to build relationships with them, too.
… and now, a note from Shelagh. Readers not familiar with some of the people and resources Claire mentioned may be interested in checking the following links.
- Digital Mums – Social Media Management Course
- EPAA – Executive and Personal Assistants Association; Banking and Finance Sector PA Conference
- London PA Awards
- VIP PA