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Dear Kerry Ann,

Thanks for your advice on the importance of delegating. My problem is that I know I should delegate lots of things, but I don’t have anybody to delegate them to! I have no TAs, no RAs, and my small department doesn’t even have a full-time staff person. I feel like I’m on my own here and overwhelmed with minutiae.

I’ve heard people talk about hiring freelancers and virtual assistants, but it feels like a big, complicated mess that will take a lot of time I don’t have. I just want less of my time and energy going to details and more going to my work as a scholar. Can you give me some specific advice about hiring virtual assistance?


Help Wanted

Dear Help Wanted,

I realize that advising people to delegate isn’t very helpful when there’s nobody in your immediate space to delegate tasks to! You’re not alone (in fact, this message is a composite of several that I received last week). Many faculty members are working in a campus environment where budget cuts, shrinking staff and an overall contraction of support resources make the idea of delegation seem impossible. But what I love about your request is your openness to nontraditional methods and your willingness to experiment with virtual resources. Instead of saying, “This won’t work!” you’re asking, “How can this work for me?”

My entire team -- full-time employees, part-time employees and contractors -- works virtually. Today, an increasing number of people work virtually as freelancers and virtual assistants (VAs) -- so many that it can be challenging to find the help you need when you need it.

That said, you do have to be realistic. If you expect someone to magically do work without any supervision, don't bother. And if you've never managed anyone successfully, this may not be the best venue to learn those skills. (Managing people virtually can be more difficult than in person.) But if you know how to designate tasks, establish benchmarks and bring out the best out in people, you can find an awesome virtual team to support you. Let me share with you a few questions to guide your efforts in virtual delegation.

What Tasks Can You Delegate?

It’s important to get highly specific about what tasks or projects you want to delegate. I encourage you to track your time for a week as a way of becoming conscious of the size and range of activities that you are completing throughout each day. As you’re tracking, ask yourself two questions: 1) Can this task be completed by someone else? and 2) What can only be done by me?

Once you spend a little time collecting data on yourself, you’re likely to find a wide range of activities that can be done by other people. Academics I work with often find lots of tasks that they can delegate! For example:

  • Transcribing audio files or handwritten notes
  • Creating PowerPoint slides (you provide content, someone else makes the slides)
  • Making travel arrangements, organizing receipts and putting together travel reimbursement forms
  • Proofreading and/or copyediting
  • Formatting a manuscript for a specific journal
  • Performing simple research tasks (finding a new doctor, dentist, insurance company…)

These are just some ideas to get your brain flowing. As a first step, I encourage you to start your own list of tasks that take up lots of time and someone else can handle.

Where Can You Look for Virtual Assistance?

You can find people who do freelance work though many websites. The most popular are Upwork and Fiverr. While each of these sites has their own processes, the basic idea is that you set up an account, post a job description, receive bids and proposals on your job, and pick a person to complete the task or project. If that sounds like too much effort up front, you can choose sites (like FancyHands) where you simply submit a request and then they randomly assign someone to do it. (No selection required.)

I don’t recommend starting with a large, important and complex project. Start small so you can dip a toe in the water to see how you like (or don’t like) working with virtual assistants before jumping all the way in. Pick a minor task (e.g., transcribing or copyediting a short manuscript) to practice writing a job description, chatting with potential hires, and getting some experience in managing a virtual assistant. You will need to set clear expectations, establish deadlines and set benchmarks in order to have successful outcomes. Be patient with yourself while you are learning to delegate virtually; it will take a few times before you settle into your own style of delegation.

How Will You Manage Virtual Assistance?

Most of the tasks that academics delegate involve documents, and you’ll need to create a way to share those documents with those who work with you. It can be as simple as a shared Dropbox folder or a Google doc that allows you to see work in progress. In addition to document sharing, you will also want to decide up front how you prefer to be contacted (whether via email, phone or text).

This is important because when you work with people virtually, they will have questions and need feedback. (They don’t just magically do perfect work without any guidance.) It’s far better to answer questions and overcommunicate up front than to be disappointed later on by an unsatisfactory outcome.

I hope these questions help you get started! I feel confident that once you become accustomed to determining what you want to delegate, decide which site will be your base for hiring and connecting with assistants, and get clear on how you will manage the relationship with your assistant, then it’s just a matter of rinse and repeat! You can use the same site and the same process, and sometimes even work with same people repeatedly.

Ultimately, you’re most likely to build the habit of delegation if you attach it to an existing habit. If you’re regularly holding a weekly planning meeting, you can easily just add an extra block of time to delegate the tasks that don’t fit into your calendar to assistants with whom you develop positive working relationships over time.


Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


P.S. I love your questions, so keep posting them on my Facebook page.

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