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Business

Virtual assistants - remote helpers in action

Why do it yourself, if somebody else can do it for you? John D. Rockefeller, one of America's first oil tycoons, allegedly was a big fan of that motto, and it comes as no surprise that he has modern-day followers.

In a video call, an athletic-looking man in his mid-40s says hello. "Hey, Bero, how's the weather in Croatia, what's cooking?" he asks.

"We're making good progress," replies Berislav "Bero" Jagustin, looking toward his laptop's camera eye.

Within seconds, data travel to Cape Town, where Luis Miranda is at the moment. He heads a Munich-based company called "My virtual assistant", and Jagustin works for him from afar.

"Many people still don't know what exactly virtual assistants are," says Miranda. They're not computer programs - they're real people with good qualifications.

Bero has a degree in business economics. As a virtual assistant, he does Internet-based research for clients, builds websites, or takes care of accounting tasks. The company that provides him with work is in Munich, but Jagustin works at home, in front of his own computer in Pleternica, a small town in the Danube region of Slavonia. Clients can book him with the click of a mouse button.

Geoarbitrage at its best

"Manage-my-business" or "e-Assistant" are another two names among a growing number of rival companies that help busy clients outsource tasks. Everyone involved seems to profit from different time zones, currency exchange rates and wage levels. The buzzword is "geoarbitrage."

Virtual assistant Natalia Photo: ©Nora Erdmann

Natalia likes the flexible working hours she enjoys as a virtual assistant

"I hope I've picked a good bicycle," Natalia Matvijishyn says. We meet the young woman in her 20s in a cafe called "Svit Kavy" near the main cathedral in Lviv, Ukraine. She tells us in fluent German that an online client has asked her to look for a suitable bike, within an agreed price range, the right frame size and so on.

The Ukrainian has worked for the "e-Assistant" startup for nearly two years. She says she can work no matter where she is, and independent of what the local job market offers. The only thing she needs is an Internet-enabled PC.

She adds that she simply earns more than she could with local jobs. "And I'm more flexible as I don't have any rigid working hours."

Sebastian Brinkmann pays 15 euros ($16.8) per hour to see his crammed mailbox emptied as if by magic. The journalist from Solingen, Germany, runs a number of web portals. Years ago, he tried to hire a temp in Germany, but failed because too much red tape was involved. "Nowadays, I simply get a bill each month, and I set the costs against tax," he explains.

Bero Jagustin's colleague Sophie Zupper knows the login data for five profiles on the biz platform Xing. "I'm always switching between them," the 23-year-old says. For one client, she adds, she stewards an online group, for another she makes sure that birthday greetings go out on time.

Flexibility matters most

Zupper, who speaks many languages and studied marketing, moved to Brazil for some translation work after college. She found she could do everything from Sao Paulo. And when you pack your bags and move on, she says, the job can easily move with you.

Natalia Matvijishyn has five clients keeping her on her toes. If the workload gets too big, she can easily pass on part of it to fellow virtual assistants. "We're a team, although we don't know each other personally," she says.

Virtual assistant Viktoria Photo: ©Nora Erdmann

Viktoria's language skills have helped her to become a virtual assistant

Her boss, Marco Schiesler, says if the team members feel content, clients get a good deal too. He founded e-Assistant back in 2010, with just one virtual assistant initially.

"We've learned a lot together," remarks Victoria Ivannikova, "how to shape our work, be efficient in doing the job."

We meet the slender woman at the port of Nikolayev, her home-town in southern Ukraine. "There's just one shipyard left," she says, recalling that the place used to be a shipbuilding hub on the Black Sea coast. But the town's economic decline started long before the onset of the conflict with pro-Russia separatists in the country.

"It's hard to find a job here that has do with languages," says Ivannikova, who studied German philology and lived in Munich for a year. What she likes about her new job is that it's rich in variety, whether it's looking for a nanny for somebody or establishing contacts with the London Stock Exchange. "And in between, I can always make myself a good cup of tea," Ivannikova says with a smile.

Some 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away, one of her regular clients, Sabine Hutter, lives with her family at Hinterkaifeck, a village in Upper Bavaria. There, in rural seclusion, she writes technical texts, very often working on standard and run-of-the-mill assignments. Nowadays she delegates some standard research duties to Ivannikova in Ukraine.

More than one way of looking at virtual assistant work

Martin Krzywdzinski, a researcher at the Berlin Social Science Center who has looked into how job models change over time, is a critic of the practice.

"From our perspective, getting a job done by somebody else who gets paid much less than you would have to pay for somebody here in Germany is exploitation," he says.

But he concedes that one's got to realize that those taking those jobs are happy to get them.

"The problem is that you always compare alternatives within your own country only," Krzywdzinski says. He notes that the average worker in Poland, for example, takes home only 30 percent of the money paid to Germans doing similar work. On the other hand, Ukrainians only earn about a fifth of what Poles get - only 150 euros a month, he says.

"In any case, virtual assistant platforms have no doubt kicked off a new trend," Krzywdzinski says, "and they're increasingly covering more demanding jobs and assignments."

Meanwhile in Pleternica, Berislav Jagustin is planning to establish the virtual assistants scheme at home. "I want to create a job for somebody else," the Croatian says. In his region, one in five people is out of work.

Research for this article was supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation on the basis of its "Journalists on the ground" program.

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