January 22, 2014 / 2:21 PM / 6 years ago

Help from a personal assistant can be a half world away

NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than 2,200 miles separate New York City architect Alfredo Munoz from his personal assistant, Karen Cohen, who is based in Panama.

They’ve never so much as shaken hands, and yet he trusts her with everything: his credit card numbers, his worldwide travel, his research. She schedules his business appointments in Spain, India and the U.S. She also buys flowers for his family and friends. (She has even screened a few online dates for him, too).

“It’s a 24/7 challenge,” says Cohen.

A mother of four, she stresses that a virtual assistant gig allows her to enjoy the perks of working at home. Plus, she loves working with a U.S. client because of the time zone match between Panama and New York City. “Its easier to schedule appointments and to deliver on time,” she says.

After more than three years, the arrangement is working out beautifully, says Munoz, the founder of Abiboo Architecture. “It’s funny what globalization can achieve.”

If your tasks are web- or phone-based, the difference between hiring somebody local and hiring from abroad can be minimal.

Plenty of sites are springing up to help connect people to each other across the globe. Munoz found his help through Elance.com, which saw a 90 percent year-over-year jump in virtual assistant jobs posted there: 236,000 compared to 138,000 in 2012, says Rich Pearson, Elance’s chief marketing officer.

Earnings by assistants on Elance also increased 53 percent in 2013, from $12.1 million in 2012 to $18.5 million. About two thirds of Elance’s workforce is based outside the United States.

Other sites where potential employers can find internationally-based virtual assistants include onlinejobs.ph, which offers workers from the Philippines. There are also a slew of sites cropping up where you can hire local individuals for discreet tasks, like taskrabbit.com and fancyhands.com, as well as old stand-bys like Craigslist and local community bulletin boards.

Pay ranges depend on the tasks needed and the experience of the worker. In a busy month, Munoz might pay his assistant up to $1,000, although it has been much lower in many cases. She works 20 hours on a weekly basis, although it might expand to 30 hours or more.

Skip Shean, the founder 16Wells LLC, an online small business marketing platform based in Chicago, spends between $60 and $100 a week for assistants in the Philippines to help with his business and some personal tasks, including the upkeep of his wife’s natural health website and blog, naturalwellnessgirl.com.

Some obstacles exist, ranging from time zone differences to the challenge of vetting someone without face-to-face contact. And yes, there are tax issues to consider. Workers overseas are responsible for adhering to the income tax laws of their nation. For the people who hire them in the U.S., “it’s treated as a business expense like any other,” Shean says. “There’s always documentation of the payments, so I have a receipt every time that I spend money.”

Compared to U.S.-based help for the same price, Shean finds his foreign virtual assistant a bargain and convenient. He might be able to hire a university student or recent grad for the same price at home, but, he says, “with college kids, you get them trained to the point where they’re competent at what they do, and then they move on.”

Munoz says his deal with Cohen has worked because they were able to build trust over time. He started her with small tasks such as scheduling routine appointments and email correspondence, and then worked up to confidential information. “Both sides must be very organized as remote work needs even more planning and attention to details,” he says.

Yet some people, having worked with someone overseas, find the experience not so rewarding. Local employment customs may be unfamiliar. In the Philippines, for example, your assistant may expect an extra month’s pay at Christmas. And in India, it’s common for virtual assistants to bail on a client for an offer that pays even a pittance more, Shean says.

“I’ve attempted to hire overseas virtual assistants and have never been pleased with the results,” says Michelle Randall, a former senior executive and the owner of Enriching Leadership International in San Jose, California.

“One was flaky, the other did work to the best of their ability, but it wasn’t the quality that I needed. I did my best to communicate very precisely, which took far more time than with a domestic assistant. Still the quality wasn’t satisfactory. The lower price wasn’t worth the investment.”

Randall prefers instead to post ads online via Craigslist and use local help, in part because she needs some errands run in person.

Besides, Randall adds, there are plenty of qualified personal assistant candidates in her backyard who will work for a very reasonable wage, which she maxes out at $14 an hour. “The most recent one I had was a mortgage broker who was struggling due to the economic downturn,” she says.

Then there’s the happy medium as practiced by Rita Gunther McGrath, an associate Professor at Columbia Business School. Her virtual assistant is technically in Vancouver, British Columbia, some 2,400 miles from her office. She found her through AssistU, a service that both trains and helps people find virtual staff, in 2005.

“It has been a marvelous relationship, even though I’m based on the East Coast,” says McGrath. “She handles schedules, follows up on projects, interacts with my web team and otherwise helps keep things moving.”

(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Editing by Beth Pinsker and Rosalind Russell)

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