How Do I Set Better Hours as a Virtual Assistant? (Podcast) | Ep. #062

Elizabeth Larkin, Michael Kelly, and Eric Dollinger

In episode 62, hosts Elizabeth Larkin and Gene Marks answer the question:

“I’m a virtual assistant, I love my job, but some of my clients expect me to be available all day. I admit, some of this is my fault. How do I turn things around and set up healthy work boundaries?”


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Elizabeth: Gene, do you ever expect your employees to work nights or weekends?

Gene: Do I expect it? The nature of the work that we do is we’re servicing clients mostly during the days. I hate it when my employees work nights and weekends. Sometimes clients ask to do something… Say you’re converting something over a system, and people like to do it over the weekend…

Elizabeth: Yeah, makes sense.

Gene: I hate that I always leave it up to the decision of my people. And then I charge for it. So, for example, some client says to me, we want to go live with the system and we want to convert over the weekend. I go to the employees that are working on the job and I say, do you want to work over the weekend? And if you do, let’s agree on how much more I’m gonna pay you. Right?

Elizabeth: Do you pay your employees hourly?

Gene: Yeah, they get hourly. And then two of them are salary.

Elizabeth: Oh, okay.

Gene: So what happens is when they do that work, we agree on a bump that they’ll get. And then I turn right around and tell the clients, no problem working on the weekends.

Elizabeth: This is even for the salaried people?

Gene: Yeah, even for salaried people.

Elizabeth: So it’s like bonus?

Gene: It’s like a bonus for working on the weekend. And then, what I do though, is I turn back to the client and say, fine, if you want us to do it on the weekend, but, instead of our hourly rate being $150 an hour, it’s gonna be $400 an hour or $250 an hour.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: Or whatever it is. And then I always go back and leave it to the choice of the client, do you want to do it? Otherwise, it’s regular rates if we do it during the week.

Elizabeth: You always hear about employees of companies who are expected to work, just be on call all the time. Yet they’re salaried.

Gene: Yeah.

Elizabeth: So they’re not getting paid for that.

Gene: And there’s issues with that, there’s regulatory issues.

Elizabeth: Yeah, legal issues.

Gene: Yeah.

Back in December, the Department of Labor had a ruling that was going to go into effect for overtime rules, which was trying to avoid people that were making up to a certain amount of money, salaried people, they can get overtime for whenever they have to do work outside of those normal work hours. That ruling, by the way, right now has kind of stayed in the courts. But, for most people, if you’re a salaried worker, a lot of people do have that sort of expectation. I guess it just depends on the work. And also, the culture of your company. The culture of my company is we like our weekends.

Having said that though, it is not uncommon for me to be exchanging emails with people in my company over the weekend. It’s not… And usually it’s them, like emailing me, or you know what I mean?

Elizabeth: Yeah, well, what do you do… So let’s say you sit there at 11 pm on a Saturday night and you’re like, oh my god! I forgot to tell someone something and you email them, do you expect them to email you back right away?

Gene: No, no I don’t. I like to just get it out there and I’m like, I would expect to hear back from them on Monday.

But if I’m going to be doing that at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night, and by the way, I’m such a social loser that that’s probably… This is not an unrealistic story. If I’m going to email them, like, oh hey, I forgot you need to make sure that we do whatever… I don’t expect to get an answer from them until Monday.

Elizabeth: Do they know that?

Gene: Yeah, and I usually don’t.

Elizabeth: Oh, okay.

Gene: Because they know. I mean, it happens pretty infrequently.

Elizabeth: I think small business owners, though, should set that expectation with people.

Like, I might just think of something in the middle of the night and email it to you because I don’t want to forget, but I don’t want you to drop what you’re doing…

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: And feel like that expectation of writing back to you right away.

Gene: Right. Yeah, I agree.

I definitely think you should have that expectation with the people that are working for you and I think that you… And every company has their different culture. And different people, in 2017, people like to work in much different ways.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: And it used to be a thing, do you remember, like, years ago when people really started embracing emails and you were getting emails from people at like, 9 o’clock at night, that was like oh my god, this person, whatever. Nowadays none of that stuff’s not uncommon because people travel, people… Different time zones, they’re working whatever. So, I’m not bothered when people work… It’s up to them.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: It’s up to them. But I do like to make it sort of clear to everybody that for all of us, weekends are time-off. You know what I mean? So, I don’t expect you to be doing anything on the weekends, unless you say you will.

Elizabeth: Now, what if someone has to come in and do one of those jobs on the weekends?

Gene: Mm-hmm.

Elizabeth: Or not come in, because I know you’re remote.

Gene: They go to clients.

Elizabeth: So, let’s say they have to go to a client on a weekend to do something…

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: Then do you ease up on the nine-to-five, you have to be working nine-to-five during the week?

Gene: No, I mean that’s usually, because again if they’re going to come in and do something over the weekend…

Elizabeth: They’re getting paid for it.

Gene: They’re getting paid a premium to do that.

Elizabeth: But if they were just a salaried employee and they were working on the weekend for a special project they weren’t getting paid extra, would you think they can leave a little early on…

Gene: We don’t have those hours. Man, you work for The Hartford, don’t you, right? I mean, like…

Elizabeth: No, this isn’t really about that. I was just…

Gene: But I’m saying big companies… You have to be at your desk and all this stuff. First of all remember, we are a virtual company, so everybody works, I don’t even know where everybody is and what they’re up to. They make their hours as long as they’re getting their work done.

Elizabeth: I’m asking you about this because this is something we see a lot with small business owners who are trying to decide should I go remote and then how do I manage people’s work hours? I think you’ve actually worked it out really well with, if you are working on a weekend, or night, or after hours, you’re paying those people for that stuff.

Gene: Correct, and I also think people get so obsessed with managing people’s work hours and maybe I’m just naïve about it, but we’re all adults here. So even when people are working remotely or working from home, as long as they have what those job responsibilities are…

You want to be doing your work at three in the morning, that’s fine. Now, if one of your responsibilities is to be available on the phone for clients between nine and five then, that’s what your responsibility is. So, it depends on the job. But I don’t change… It never comes up. Never gets raised.

Elizabeth: Okay, well get ready for our question because it’s about work hours.

Gene: Okay, I can’t wait.

Elizabeth: Coming up next.

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QUESTION: How Do I Set Better Hours as a Virtual Assistant?

Elizabeth: Okay, our question today is from Andre who lives in Cooperstown, New York. That’s another beautiful area.

Gene: Oh, I’ve been to Cooperstown a lot.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: We used to go to Cooperstown…

Elizabeth: You’re a big baseball fan.

Gene: Not only baseball, but my sons for a number of years have visited an amazing summer baseball tournament that goes on in Cooperstown called like the Field of Dreams Tournament, and it accepts little travel teams from all over the country, little twelve-year-olds. And we did that for like three or four years in a row. My kids played there.

Elizabeth: Fun.

Gene: We would go to Cooperstown. It’s so awesome out there.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: It’s really, really nice.

Elizabeth: It’s a beautiful area.

Gene: Yeah, love it there.

Elizabeth: So, Andre has a great setup, then, because he’s a virtual assistant. So he gets to live in Cooperstown and enjoy all of that…

Gene: Nice.

Elizabeth: But it sounds like he’s at the beck and call of all of his clients. So, here’s what he writes:

“I’m a virtual assistant, I love my job, but some of my clients expect me to be available all day. I admit, some of this is my fault. How do I turn things around and set up healthy work boundaries?”

Gene: What?

Elizabeth: If you’re starting out then you just outline, these are the hours I’m available and if you need me to do something outside these hours, maybe I’ll charge you more or whatever.

Gene: Yeah. You set that out in writing. He’s not an employee of anybody.

Elizabeth: No, he’s a contractor.

Gene: This is business.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: So, he’s got a contract, and if I hire him, he says in his contract: Gene, I’m not available between these hours and these hours. I have the option to say, well that’s not acceptable for me so I guess I’m not gonna hire you.

Elizabeth: Or saying, if you need me to do something, it’s going to be $300 or whatever.

Gene: Yeah, yeah.

Elizabeth: But, here’s the thing: I’m gonna guess, because we… I always like to make assumptions about people writing in because I want to grill you a little bit. So, let’s say Andre quit his job and was like, I want to start this business- Really needed clients in the beginning, as all small business do.

Gene: Sure.

Elizabeth: He was willing to just do whatever to get clients. Now, he’s established, he’s making money, and he’s like I don’t want to be available on Sunday nights at 9 pm.

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: So, he’s already… He already has this…

Gene: Can’t roll it back.

Elizabeth: Can’t roll it back.

Gene: You can’t roll it back. If you are already… We have some clients that we are charging at like hourly rates that we charged five, six, seven years ago, and we’ve increased the rates since. But we haven’t increased it on them because that’s… Sometimes people disagree with me, but they’re used to paying those hourly rates, and it’s still okay. So, we just charge it for the new clients.

Let’s say this is Andre’s situation. If he has existing clients here, and that’s what he committed to doing and they’re used to that, that’s the relationship and that’s why they hired him, he’s gotta keep doing it. It’s like offering an employee benefit. You can’t pull back employee benefits once you- You can, but it’s ugly. So, he’s really risking losing those clients.

It’s a free country. He can go back to his clients say I’ve decided… We’re changing my contract or my relationship with you and I can only work these hours or whatever.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: But he’s got to expect that some clients might find that unacceptable still.

Elizabeth: So then, starting with new clients, what he should do is draw up a contract saying…

These are the hours I work, these are the tasks. Anything else is on a project basis. What I would do if I were him, is I would add in a lot of opportunities to upsell people.

Gene: Yeah, yeah.

Elizabeth: Say I’ll book your plane tickets if you want me to also do an itinerary. That’s gonna cost this much money… But really lay out like these are the hours I’ll work, these are the projects I can work on…

Gene: As long as in the contract, as long as there’s no surprises is what people don’t want. So when they’re gonna hire him, they’re gonna have an expectation as to what they’re gonna get.

And listen, Elizabeth, some industries have crazy… If you are a lawyer, your expectation is that if your client calls you at three in the morning…

Elizabeth: You gotta respond.

Gene: And you’re working early… You gotta respond because that’s what it’s like being a lawyer. If you work in retail, well guess what, you’re working through the Christmas holidays.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: Like many hours of overtime because… And if you’re working in media, and some news story happens at 2 am on a Sunday morning, you’re expected…

Elizabeth: While you’re on vacation…

Gene: So, yeah. You’re kind of choosing your industry. If Andre wants to be in the personal service business, that’s what a virtual assistant is, there are certain things that are expected in that business.

Elizabeth: So, let’s think of a plan, then, to get him out of this situation. So, he keeps his current clients…

Gene: Yes.

Elizabeth: And he actively tries to get new clients and then maybe he can subcontract out to someone else.

Gene: He could do that, although, again, depending on the nature of the work, clients might… They expect to be working with him because that’s who they hired, right? There’s that relationship. But maybe there are some stuff that he could subcontract out to others or have somebody assisting him.

Elizabeth: Yeah, but you had that situation. You were servicing all of your clients and then you brought in someone else…

Gene: Other people.

Elizabeth: And said okay, I’m gonna have this person working with you now.

Gene: Yup, and that was a tough transition, but it got done. You lose clients…

Elizabeth: You had to do it.

Gene: Yeah, I had to do it. So, if he wants to grow the business, then that’s something that he will consider doing as well. It’s not easy to do, but he can do that. So, I guess it depends on what his long term goals are.

If he doesn’t want to bring on new people, if he just wants to be a virtual assistant and that’s what he wants, if he’s busy with existing clients but he wants to take on new clients, it just has to be straight out with the new clients. What he’s available to do and not. What hours he’s available and what… Like you said. Other stuff will be charged for.

Elizabeth: Do you think… Totally off topic, but just out of curiosity… Do you think a virtual assistant is actually a good business idea going forward? Is it gonna be a growing industry?

Gene: I do. I think there’s a lot of firms that are trying to formalize… There’s a few larger ones that are out there, but I think the virtual assistants are good. I think virtual assistants… If I was gonna open up a virtual assistant business, what I would be doing is I would be going to big companies like The Hartford, and saying why don’t you open up a contract for me, and then I will be the virtual assistant for your employees. So employees can say it’s an employee benefit of The Hartford that there’s this virtual assistant available with a list of things that the virtual assistant can do for you, Elizabeth, in certain times. And you’d be like wow, this is a great benefit of working for The Hartford is I get to call up Andre and have him… He’ll make all my travel arrangements for me…

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: This is awesome. So, I would be selling myself to big companies, not to just small individual people.

Elizabeth: Yeah, or like hedge funds. That fits perfect.

Gene: That could definitely be that. But different companies… It’s a tight labor market, so companies are really looking for new, innovative ways to provide benefits for their employees. Some of them have car washes on site, and catered meals and all that. So, everything is time, time, time, and saving time. I think a virtual assistant, that’s what they do. I’d be going out to larger companies, tech firms, and saying hire me for $50,000 a year and I’ll have a contract, and I’ll commit to x-amount of hours that I will spend with your employees on this list of tasks and it benefits everybody.

Elizabeth: Alright, so Andre, we’ve got some ideas for you there on solving your issue, which is going to be really difficult, but also how to expand your business.

We will be right back with Gene’s Word of Brilliance.


Elizabeth: Gene, what’s your Word of Brilliance?

Gene: Okay, I hope I pronounce this right. Sommelier? Like you know what a wine…

Elizabeth: Yes. Yeah.

Gene: Am I pronouncing it right?

Elizabeth: Yes.

Gene: Sommelier? S-O-M-M-E-L-I-E-R.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Gene: That’s my Word of Brilliance, sommelier. The reason why I bring that up is very interesting story that I wrote about recently about a man named Bas de Groot…

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: He is a Dutch man, and he is, Elizabeth, a milk sommelier.

Elizabeth: What?

Gene: He is an entrepreneur, and he goes around the world and he tastes and evaluates milk. As a milk sommelier, he believes… He grew up on milk… He is passionate, Elizabeth, about milk. And he believes that milk has different tastes, textures, colors…

Elizabeth: Like grass-fed…

Gene: Correct.

Elizabeth: Industrial farm…

Gene: Correct. Just like any wine maker, the wines come from the grapes, which come from the soil, the plants. Well, the milk comes from the same thing…

Elizabeth: The grass that the cows were grazing on…

Gene: It just happens to be the cow in the middle of it, right. So, he has fashioned out a business for himself in milk and he gets hired by organic farms that want him to go and taste the different kinds of milk, because they are producing this milk, they want to get a stamp or approval, they want to market different types of milk. Because everybody’s trying to…

It’s healthy, this has this texture, this has this benefit… He prefers fatty milks, believe it or not, you would think… Health-conscious…

Elizabeth: Milk is really not that great for you. I’m pretty sure I really think you’re only supposed to have it when you’re less than a year old.

Gene: I don’t know. The guy drinks like ten glasses a day. He’s like a big fan of milk.

Elizabeth: I think… And remember, I’m not a scientist or doctor…

Gene: He has the whitest teeth, by the way, and he’s huge.

Elizabeth: Oh, I’m sure. I don’t know, I shouldn’t say anything. I’ll look into some stories on this.

Gene: We should. I can send you a link to it, and also we should get him on the phone and interview on what it’s like to be a milk sommelier entrepreneur and what the prospects are.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: It just goes to show a couple of things.

Number one is, is that you can always find something… If you specialize in something. You can always find a niche market for it. And there was a niche market for him doing this.

And number two is, this could be another industry that goes look, we have so many different types of chocolate, craft beers, grilled cheese sandwiches, wines… Why not milk?

Elizabeth: Oh, I know someone who has a blog only about grilled cheese sandwiches.

Gene: About grilled cheese sandwiches, so why not milk? So, thinking of starting up a business. Could be a specialty for you.

Elizabeth: Interesting. The thought of drinking a glass of milk is so gross to me.

Gene: He loves it. Couple of Oreos? It’s delicious when it’s icy cold.

Elizabeth: Yeah, you have to have Oreos…

Gene: Yes.

Elizabeth: And cookies with it.

Gene: It’s delicious. I love it.

Elizabeth: I’m afraid I’m gonna get the dairy industry to come after me.

Gene: Oh, I know. Well, milk has been ruined because it’s a… Now it’s the non-fat and 1% and it’s like drinking watery… The full-fat regular milk is like yummy.

Elizabeth: Oh, yeah. If someone puts… If I’m getting coffee, I put just a tiny bit of whole milk…

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: Or like even half and half in it.

Gene: Half and half. Yeah.

Elizabeth: If someone comes at me with skim milk…

Gene: Yeah. Gross.

Elizabeth: It’s like, why don’t you just dump water in my coffee?

Gene: I know. I agree.

Elizabeth: It’s disgusting.

Gene: Oh, he hates it. Bas de Groot hates it when I recommend that. He likes the full flavored, full-fat milk.

Elizabeth: But fat-free milk? What is the point of that?

Gene: What’s the point of it? Right.

Elizabeth: It’s gross.

Gene: Oh, you would hit it off with him. We should definitely get him on this show and have a great conversation.

Elizabeth: Alright, what’s his name again?

Gene: Bas de Groot.

Elizabeth: Alright, let’s get him on the phone. We’ll talk to you in a couple days in our next episode.

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