Business

Executive Assistant vs. Virtual Assistant: Advice for Founders on the Differences and How to Choose

Jason Hreha
May 16, 2022
8
min read

Over time, it's become more difficult to tell the differences between executive and virtual assistants. This article discusses why that is, which differences really matter for executives making this decision, and provides advice on how to choose the best option for you.

Executive Assistant vs. Virtual Assistant: Advice for Founders on the Differences and How to Choose

Over the last 4 years, our team at Persona has spoken to thousands of founders and entrepreneurs about their assistant needs, as well as their past experiences working with virtual and executive assistants. 

Through those conversations, as well as our own experiences building a remote executive assistant service (where we assess thousands of assistant candidates every week), we’ve developed a deep understanding of both the executive and virtual assistant landscapes. 

Today, more than ever, differences between these two types of assistants have become less clear. This is largely because many services position their virtual assistants (VAs) as the equivalent of remote or virtual executive assistants (when in reality, they’re not). 

So, if you’re a business owner or entrepreneur who’s looking for an assistant and weighing these two options, it’s become more difficult to tell which of these types of assistants would be best for you. 

That’s what we’re going to discuss and help you figure out in this article. Below, we’ll cover: 

If you’ve been wanting an assistant but haven’t had the time to hire one, click here to get started. You can try an assistant for a month or two and see how you like it. For testimonials from our clients, check out our homepage.

When you look around online to learn about the differences between virtual and executive assistants, people tend to place too much emphasis on obvious differences that aren’t that useful. 

For example, VAs are typically part-time, 100% remote assistants, while EAs have traditionally been in-person, full-time employees. However, today it’s possible to hire 100% remote executive assistants (as well as part-time EAs)—so the distinctions of part-time versus full-time and remote versus in-person have become less useful for understanding how the two types of assistants differ. 

The same goes with whether they’re an employee or a 1099 contractor. Traditionally, VAs have been contractors and EAs have been in-house employees. However, staffing agencies and executive assistant services like ours offer the ability to hire full-time EAs as easily as hiring a contractor—so that difference has become less relevant as well.

In our experience, the two factors that matter most for executives making this decision are:

  1. The types of responsibilities that each type of assistant is best suited for.
  2. The costs associated with hiring each type of assistant.

Let’s look at each.

1. The Types of Tasks That Virtual and Executive Assistants Are Best Suited For

There is some overlap in what VAs and EAs do, but there are distinct differences as well. 

In general, VAs are best suited for executing time-consuming, repetitive administrative tasks that don’t require a high level of skill. For example:

  • Spreadsheet data entry
  • Updating contacts in a CRM
  • Invoicing clients or customers
  • Booking basic travel arrangements
  • Miscellaneous personal tasks

EAs (when they’re thoroughly vetted for the right traits and skill sets) are well suited for managing and executing these types of tasks in addition to more complex projects and responsibilities. For example:

  • Executive calendar and time management: Scheduling meetings and appointments based on executive priorities. Understanding which meetings and contacts take precedence over others. Anticipating and resolving scheduling conflicts on the executive’s behalf.
  • Email management: Processing email for the executive. Understanding which emails can be deleted, ignored, filed away, or responded to at a later time. Understanding which emails they can respond to personally on the executive’s behalf—and doing so in a personable and professional way. Knowing which emails and contacts must be replied to by the executive, as well as which require urgent responses.  
  • Client services: Handling important interactions with clients or customers and providing ideas and feedback about how to improve systems and processes.
  • Project management: Managing the CEO’s to-dos, ensuring they stay up to date and on track with their key projects.
  • Business operations: Helping to create, organize, and improve on internal business processes and standard operating procedures. Managing tasks like bookkeeping and other key operational functions.

We’ve written previously about why EAs are better suited for these types of more complex responsibilities. The primary reason has to do with the criteria on which EAs and VAs are hired.

Generally speaking, companies and services who hire EAs have more strict hiring requirements than those that hire VAs. These requirements often include having a bachelor’s degree, past years of experience in an assistant role, and other criteria that indicate applicants are smart and capable candidates. 

For example, applicants for our EA service are rigorously vetted through a series of quantitative assessments, structured interviews, work sample projects, communication exercises, and reference checks (more on this below). Candidates are required to prove their capabilities before they’re hired.

In contrast, whether you find them through a freelance marketplace like Upwork or a virtual assistant service, VAs typically have much less stringent hiring requirements, and thus their talent level is less consistent and generally less suitable for more complex responsibilities like those listed above.

This is not obvious when evaluating assistant services online. Many VA services, for example, feature things like email, calendar, and project management as services their VAs offer. 

However, outsourcing key functions like email and scheduling—things that are often high stakes and involve a nuanced understanding of an executives’ preferences, important business relationships, and overall business operations—is not where we’ve seen founders successfully use VAs. 

In fact, trying to rely on a VA for these types of things often does the opposite of what executives hope. It creates more work and headaches, not less. 

2. The Costs Associated With Hiring Virtual and Executive Assistants

As you’d expect, these differences in capabilities come with (in some cases significant) differences in price.

In our previous article—how much does it cost to hire an assistant—we provided a cost breakdown of the four main types of assistants (administrative assistants, personal assistants, specialized assistants, and executive assistants):

Assistant Type & Location Administrative Assistant
Specialized Assistant Personal Assistant Executive Assistant
US-based in-person
$45K - $75K per year salary; $30 to $60 per hour for project work. $50K - $130K per year salary; $30 to $70 an hour for project work. $50K - $125K per year salary; $30 to $65 an hour for project work. $60K - $150K per year salary; $35 to $80 an hour for project work.
US-based virtual $40K - $75K per year salary; $20 to $60 per hour for project work. $45K - $130K per year salary; $25 to $70 an hour for project work. $45K - $100K per year salary; $25 to $65 an hour for project work. $50K - $120K per year salary; $30 to $70 an hour for project work.
International virtual $6K to $75K per year salary; $3 to $50 per hour for project work. $12K - $120K per year salary; $5 to 60 an hour for project work. $6K - $60K per year salary; $3 to $30 an hour for project work. $12K - $90K per year salary; $6 to $60 an hour for project work.

For our purposes here, you can focus on the Administrative Assistant (which equates to what we’re referring to as a VA in this article) and Executive Assistant columns. 

Virtual administrative assistants are generally less expensive to hire. On average: 

  • US-based VAs range from $40k - $75k per year or $20 - $60 per hour for project work.
  • International VAs range from $6k - $75k per year or $6 to $60 per hour for project work.

Executive assistants are generally more expensive to hire. On average: 

  • US-based in-person EAs generally range from $60k - $150k per year or $35 to $80 per hour for project work.
  • US-based virtual EAs range from $50K - $120K per year or $30 to $70 an hour for project work.
  • International virtual EAs range from $12K - $90K per year or $6 to $60 an hour for project work.

In both cases, the cost of your assistant is highly dependent on whether they’re hired domestically or internationally—or in the case of EAs, whether they’re hired for a remote or in-person role. Their costs are also commensurate with the value they can deliver.

Now, let’s bring together the two factors we’ve covered throughout this section—what each type of assistant is best suited for and how much they cost—and discuss how to think about deciding which is best for you.

What you can afford or what you’re willing to spend is a factor in making this decision that obviously can’t be ignored. 

If you already know you have a relatively small budget for hiring an assistant at this time, finding a high quality virtual assistant to help you with simple administrative tasks is likely going to be your best option.

If this is you, read our article on how to hire a virtual assistant for an in-depth look at how to do this successfully. 

Alternatively, if your budget is flexible, then your decision comes down to what you want your assistant to do. If you would be satisfied getting some part-time support for rote tasks like spreadsheet data entry, then a VA could be sufficient for you. 

But per our discussion above about what each type of assistant is best suited for, if you’re more attracted to hiring a team member who’s dedicated, working in a full-time capacity, and capable of managing things like email and scheduling and other complex projects, then an EA is absolutely going to be your best option.

In that case, the next step is to figure out your options for hiring an executive assistant. Do you want to hire one in-house? Outsource hiring to a recruiter? Use a staffing agency? Use an executive assistant service? A remote executive assistant service? 

We’ve written a number of articles that can help you understand the pros and cons of these options, so we won’t go into detail on these here. Check out these articles to learn more about each:

Next, we’re going to share about our remote executive assistant service—specifically what makes it different from other services and options on the market—for those leaning towards going with an EA.

As you’ll learn if you read the articles linked to above, despite EAs generally having greater capabilities than VAs, the talent-level among EAs available for hire is still wide-ranging.

A significant portion of executive assistant applicants are capable when it comes to general administrative tasks, but less competent when it comes to more complex or self-directed projects. Meanwhile, there is a smaller portion of EA applicants who are highly intelligent, motivated, and capable of going above and beyond the typical EA job description.

When you hire an EA that’s truly world-class, the range of tasks and projects you can ask them to do with minimal direction is much wider—and the quality of their output much higher—than what the majority of EAs typically have to offer. 

And through the process of building Persona, we’ve learned that most recruiters, staffing agencies, EA service companies, and in-house HR departments don’t have effective hiring processes for finding top EA talent. 

We’ve written at length about this, so we won’t go into it deeply here. But in short, people don’t tend to rigorously vet applicants on the three key qualities that predict success in an EA role:

  1. Problem Solving Ability: How smart are they? Can they figure things out in new and complex situations? 
  2. Key Character and Behavioral Traits: Are they organized, reliable, detail-oriented, etc.?
  3. Communication Ability: How well do they write and communicate? Can they communicate on your behalf or alongside you with key stakeholders (executive team members, board members, investors, etc.)? 

To solve this, we’ve developed a hiring methodology that rigorously evaluates candidates in each of these areas. It includes a mix of the following:

  • Quantitative assessments: Tests that allow us to evaluate candidates accurately on key generalist abilities. 
  • Structured interviews: A strategic interview process to cross-compare candidates on the qualities and abilities that matter.
  • Work sample projects: Mock projects to see the quality of their work, based on the types of tasks they’re likely to do in an EA role.
  • Communication exercises: Exercises to evaluate candidates on key communication skills such as email etiquette. 
  • Reference and background checks: A structured approach to interviewing candidates’ references.

As a result of this approach, which is customized on a candidate by candidate basis based on how individuals progress through each step, we’re able to see how candidates perform complex EA tasks before they’re hired—as opposed to once their on the job and it’s too late (a common experience for many executives that hire EAs).

This allows us to hire top EA talent (we hire roughly 1 assistant for every 1,000 candidates) that are capable of performing both standard administrative work as well as more complex tasks and projects. To summarize what our assistants offer, they perform a combination of the following for our clients:

  • Communications: Manage email, sit in on phone calls, communicate on an executive’s behalf and alongside them with company staff members and key stakeholders, draft company memos, etc.
  • Scheduling and time management: Manage an executive’s calendar, schedule meetings, schedule appointments, resolve scheduling issues, balance personal appointments with work meetings.
  • Project management: Manage the CEO’s to-dos, ensure they stay up to date and on track with their key projects.
  • Business operations: Help create, organize, and improve on internal business processes and standard operating procedures.
  • Marketing and social media management: Create and schedule social media posts, monitor engagement metrics, respond to comments, help grow overall online presence. 
  • People operations: Manage employee onboarding, assist in the employee recruitment process (e.g. reviewing resumes and cover letters for certain criteria), manage payroll, etc.
  • Strategic planning: Work with the company leaders to define and come up with plans for new products, initiatives, and services. Project manage some or all of these new company programs. 
  • Client services: Handle important interactions with clients. Provide ideas and feedback about how to improve systems and processes.
  • Special projects: Manage a wide variety of unique projects depending on what your executive needs. For example, our EAs have worked on things like web design, video editing, workflow design, building data sets, and more.

To date, we’ve helped many busy professionals win back their time so they can focus on the most important parts of their job. This includes executives at large companies, small business owners, startup founders, and former employees of tech giants like Google, LinkedIn, and Uber. And we can do the same for you. 

How Our Executive Assistant Service Works

If you’re interested in having one of our assistants work with you in a full-time capacity, you can try out our service for a month or two and see how you like it. We have no long term commitments. 

Here’s how to get started with us: 

  • Step 1: Complete our form to let us know your needs. 
  • Step 2: If you’re a good fit, we’ll set up a call to discuss our service with you.
  • Step 3: Our team will hand pick an assistant who we think will be a great fit for you based on your needs.
  • Step 4: Our talent team will guide you through the onboarding process over 2-3 weeks.
  • Step 5: For a flat monthly rate, you get a world-class assistant that equates to a full-time remote employee (40 hours of remote work per week, with no long-term commitment needed).

If you’re ready to try an executive assistant that can be truly transformative for your business, click here to get started. For testimonials from our clients, check out our homepage.

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