EP 364: The Abundant Value of Virtual Assistants with Janice Plado Dalager

Nov 23, 2021 | Business Models, Podcast, Top Episodes

Tara McMullin is a writer, podcaster, and producer who explores what it takes to navigate the 21st-century economy with your humanity intact. Click here to support this work.

In This Episode:

  • Consultant and virtual assistant Janice Plado Dalager joins Tara for a conversation about the unique skill set that virtual assistants and other support professionals bring to small businesses
  • How VAs end up mistreated by entrepreneurs—and the gendered and racialized components of these relationships that make mistreatment more likely
  • Why emotional labor is an undervalued skill for support pros, as well as why it should be a key part of how this work is compensated
  • How small business owners can check their own behavior to make these working relationships more humane

Back in 2016, the odd-job platform TaskRabbit ran a series of ads in New York City subways.

Imagine a photo of a thin, white woman in upward facing dog pose on a yoga mat. She’s blissed out. Above her, the poster reads “Mopping the floors” in trendy, pseudo handwriting script. Below her, the TaskRabbit tagline reads “We do chores. You live life.”

The ad campaign communicates the promise of letting your chores disappear into someone else’s workload.

We do chores, you live life: Who is “you?” And who is “we?”

Do the folks who are mopping floors ever get to be the “you” who lives life while someone else does the chores?

I’m Tara McMullin and this is What Works, the show that explores entrepreneurship for humans.

Independent work, the gig economy, online business—they’ve all been sold to us as ways to transcend old class divides. They promise a more level playing field for offering your time and skills. No fancy resume needed, just a willingness to put in the work.

Of course, this is far from the truth.

Michael Zelenko puts it this way in an article for The Verge:

Instead of establishing partnerships within a community, the gig economy and TaskRabbit’s ads reaffirm a class divide, between the “You” — whose life is defined by recreational activities — and the “We,” whose lives are devoted to doing your chores.

Rather than leveling the playing field, gig work and the ever-increasing push to classify more workers as independent contractors has, in effect, reestablished a servant class. Now, however, it’s not just elites and the aristocracy who get access to servant labor—it’s anyone with a smartphone and a few extra bucks to spend on takeout or housework.

The more times I get my groceries delivered, the more I see my time, work, and self-care as more important than running errands. It’s a short jump to start to see those who are running my errands as less important than me. Less deserving of the good life.

And, in classic upstairs/downstairs Downton Abbey fashion, the more I use these services, the easier it is to allow the people doing them to be invisible. Sarah Jaffe, the author of Work Won’t Love You Back, recently talked about the culture of entitlement to service that we have in the United States on The Ezra Klein Show. She suggested that our sense of freedom hinges, in some ways, on being able to get what we want, when we want it—without consideration for those who are making it happen.

And this is where I want to pivot to talking about micro entrepreneurship and digital small business.

I’m quick to point out that the types of businesses we build are not part of the gig economy. Many aren’t part of the so-called creator economy, either.

But they aren’t exempt from this class divide.

I hear from so many small business owners who are eager to rid their to-do lists of pesky chores like checking email, sending newsletters, or posting to social media. Maybe they’ve already taken a step in that direction and hired a virtual assistant to help out with customer service, client management, or moving files around.

This is where the class divide is most evident in the small business world today.

You get to do work you love. They do the entrepreneurial chores.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t hire people to support you. I’m not arguing that you should be spending less time on strategy or client work and more time on administrative tasks.

But I am arguing for hiring support in a more humane way.

Virtual assistants and online business managers, who are overwhelmingly hired as independent contractors, are business owners, too. Every right and privilege we feel deserving of as business owners, we should be extending to the people we work with.

Maybe that’s how you operate already. But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve seen good, compassionate people treat support contractors badly. I’ve seen passive aggression, disregard for boundaries, and lack of empathy. I’ve seen violent communication and condescending language used. I’ve seen agreed upon scopes of work thrown out the window.

In short, I’ve seen a lot of entitlement to service without regard for the person doing the work.

And that’s why I was desperate to have this conversation with Janice Plado Dalager.

Janice is a virtual assistant, consultant, and the founder of Janice Your VA. She manages a team of virtual assistants who pride themselves on making the lives on entrepreneurs and small business owners easier.

Just like me, Janice has seen some shit. She’s also been on the receiving end of that shit and has learned how to navigate the world of virtual assisting to avoid most of it.

Our conversation is all about the dynamics between support contractors and the small business owners who hire them. We explore how these relationships break down, the hidden skills that make the people in these roles so valuable, and why this class divide persists. We also touch on the gendered and racialized aspect of support work—and how small business owners often find themselves playing out the mistreatment they’ve experienced.

My hope is that this conversation changes the way you think about how you hire, who you hire, and the relationships you develop along the way.

Janice and I couldn’t help ourselves and dove right into the conversation—I’ve edited it lightly for flow and clarity.

Strap in for this conversation about the entrepreneurial class divide with Janice Plado Dalager.

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