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What It Takes to be a Virtual Professional

(Part 1) (2nd in a three part series) (Part 3)

Nowadays, people who want to work for themselves from home often aspire to be virtual professionals because it broadens their potential client pool, and today's technology makes it possible. But few people are really prepared for how different it is from the typical job, or understand what preparation and attributes they might need to have before trying it. Self employment alone is a big challenge and working from home creates another layer of issues. Add to that the fact that as a virtual professional, you may never get to look your clients or colleagues in the eye and it gets very interesting, indeed!

Prior to starting virtual businesses, most of the people surveyed had some sort of experience that prepared them for a life working through a computer connection, but the majority had not received any type of training or certification prior to starting their work. Seventy-six percent, however, said they now belong to some type of virtual professional's organization, while industries such as that of virtual assistants have training and certification programs to prepare people for becoming one.

The greatest challenge for nearly three-quarters of the virtual professionals was stabilizing income, specifically getting and retaining clients. Nearly half mentioned isolation and loneliness as the toughest aspects of working virtually, because not only are there no employees or colleagues hanging about but they also don't often physically interact with clients. Many of these issues, however, are inherent to being self employed and having a small, home based business; not just about being virtual. When asked how virtual professionals get their work, three-quarters said that they get jobs through referrals. Interestingly, many also said networking in person was important, even if the actual work is completed virtually. Many virtual professionals still work quite a bit with local or regional customers, with only 25% being completely virtual. The virtual professionals also mentioned that a web site figured prominently into their marketing strategy, but surprisingly, only 16% felt online networking was a good way to get clients. Even fewer used advertising of any kind.

Obviously, working virtually must have some serious perks, or no one would do it! The number one benefit that most virtual professionals noted was flexibility of time. The irony, of course, is that most people also said they work well over 5 days a week and over 8 hours a day. Apparently, as long as they are free to choose which hours, it still is a perk! Being home based and virtual presents a challenge because it is very hard to "go home" and wireless networks make it even easier to just take the laptop into the living room to watch TV with the family and still get some work done. The other big reason they like working virtually is the variety of projects. Copywriter Katie Winchell said "Be sure you want it. It's very hard, it's very rewarding, and you'd better like doing everything because from day one you will be the owner/ janitor/ IT staff/ graphic designer/ HR department/ accountant/ worker."

Of course, the ability to work from anywhere is considered another perk, although most virtual professionals said they are already working from exactly where they want to be!

When asked what skills a person should have to be a successful virtual professional, the obvious answer was to have strong computer skills. As Scott Allen, Entrepreneur's Guide for About.com put it "Know thy computer -- it can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy." But close behind in importance were communication skills. Managing client projects and colleague relationships online, without the benefits of being face to face, requires a very special set of communication skills. You need to know how to say things clearly, quickly, concisely and in an organized manner. CJ Rhoads of ETM Associates reminded us that it is best to "always respond to people as if they are in front of you" and when communicating in an impersonal medium like email "one must take extra time and trouble to ensure pleasant exchanges."

The ability to market services was another highly regarded skill because not only must you do whatever you're selling, you have to be able to market and sell yourself constantly. "This is hard to do when you are up to your eyeballs in work" advises Suzette Flemming of Flemming Business Services, "but if you don't market when you are busy you will have serious downtimes with nothing to do but market." Organizational skills were also considered critical by over half of the virtual professionals. This is important because you have to set up and maintain systems to manage intangibles like ideas, files, data, and be able to retrieve them efficiently.

It is clear that not everyone is cut out for life as a virtual professional. If you have a need for regular face to face contact, enjoy a steady paycheck each week, or want to punch out and go home at 5, then this work style is not going to make you happy. A number of virtual professionals stressed how having the support of family and loved ones was crucial to their virtual professional success. If you are strictly self disciplined, and equally self motivated, with the right support system and environment, it can be a very fulfilling and successful way to make a living. But don't think discipline means being rigid - on the contrary, being flexible and able to turn on a dime was mentioned by 40% of those surveyed. Independence and creativity were also noted as important, if not entirely critical to success.

As technology advances, increasing numbers of professionals find themselves able to work in this manner and have to ask themselves if their own strengths and personalities are suited to it. In addition, virtual companies are growing so that opportunities to be a virtual employee without the stresses of self employment might eventually become more widespread. The future is wide open for virtual professionals and like Beverly King of Global Connection Virtual Office, most "wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."

A Humorous Side Note:

In the survey, I asked the question "if you were a virtual guru on a mountain top and someone crawled up to ask your advice about being a virtual professional, what would you tell them?" The best answer was:

If you had to come all the way up here to ask me about being a virtual professional you aren't ready Junior. Ever hear of e-mail? Instant Messenger? You are invading my private space! Scram!

Thanks to Renae Bolton - Triple J WordProcessing Co., for a hearty LOL!

2003 Eileen P. Parzek, Business Design Studio

Eileen Parzek is a graphic designer and writer providing marketing and web design services. Always found at the intersection of information, creativity and technology, her business, Business Design Studio (www.businessdesignstudio.com) specializes in helping big thinking small businesses market and grow with technology.

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