Tools: Virtual Assistants need to share work with clients and store data

For many Virtual Assistants, managing a project that requires a lot of back and forth with files has in the past felt emotional.  I totally accept that email can be used but when working on complex documents or something that needs to be used on a recurring timeframe can be a harrowing experience. It is very easy for things (or version control) to quickly become out of control. You’re working on version “c” while your client is already on version “e” and soon important revisions and notes are lost.

A better way to work from a single document is to simply add files to a shared folder. This way, as you or your client make changes, they’ll appear in real time, leaving no doubt about which version anyone has, or what changes were made when.  Depending which tool you use, you can both be in the document making changes that will save immediately…

There are several options out there but the main ones I use in my VA business are:


A favorite in the shared folder race is Dropbox. The simple setup and generous amount of free storage space (2GB) make this a top choice for many people even if sharing files isn’t on their minds. If you work from multiple computers, need access to files while on the move, on your mobile phone or iPad, or just want the extra security of knowing your important documents are backed up in “the cloud” then Dropbox is a good option.

The free version includes 2GB of storage space, which is plenty to get you started, but you can earn more space by Tweeting about Dropbox, referring friends, and connecting other applications. You can also upgrade to 100GB for around £6.50 per month – I personally have the Pro version and not the Business version.

I store all of my work in Dropbox and I am glad to do so, you may have seen that my iMac recently decided to stop working… (causing me lots of angst) but actually it didn’t really affect me apart from being a pain as my work was saved to Dropbox so I could still access stuff for clients and I didn’t have to worry about losing any of it.

Google Drive

Not surprisingly, Google has its own document sharing system. Formerly called Google Docs, Drive now operates similar to Dropbox in that you can view your files in a folder on your computer. However, opening a file requires a web browser and the use of Google Apps. If you want to edit a spreadsheet in Excel, you’ll have to download it first.

One noteworthy difference between Dropbox and Google Drive is how files are stored. With Dropbox, files exist both on your computer and in the cloud, meaning you can work on them without an internet connection.

As soon as Dropbox detects a change to a document, it synchs the new version with that on the Dropbox server. If you and your client are both working on a file at the same time, this can result in a “conflicted copy” showing up in your Dropbox.  So when I need to work on a collaborative project, I will often use Google Drive.  I probably don’t use this half as much as I could (or should) in all honesty.

Google Drive is different in that only one copy of each file exists. When you’re working on a file, you’re actually editing that file on Google’s server. You can see this in action if you have a file open that your client is working on – you’ll be able to watch as she makes changes.  It’s spooky but very clever and prevents that version control getting out of hand.

The biggest learning curve here for me also, was there is no “save” button or “close” button and for the first few times I did literally hold my breath to ensure it was saved.  (Which it was!)

Another great time to use Google Drive is when you are working with clients who have different systems, so if you are a Mac pages user and your client is a Microsoft Word user – there can be conflicts or strange formatting happening.  By working in Google Drive this gets eliminated.

There are a variety of other file sharing services available as well, and chances are your clients will have their own preferences, so you’ll likely use several in your business. But to start out, Dropbox and Google Drive offer a simple solution for collaborating with others, or just sharing files between computers.

I also use my CRM to save files in particular places for clients, or my Project Management Tool and more recently Evernote – the big thing to remember here, it needs to work for you and your client.

FINAL THOUGHTS!  Take the time to read the instructions – in my early days, I didn’t learn the correct way of sharing folders with clients and so I thought they could see / update stuff when in fact, I had only given them access to view the folder as it was on that date – check in the Dropbox guide how to share folders correctly so that you don’t look a “prat” in front of clients.  (It was a hard lesson to learn!)

I would love to know which of the online storage tools you are using for sharing files between you and your client – do you have particular naming conventions or ways of saving them so that you can both find stuff easily.  Please take a moment to share your ways of working in the comments box below.