The overflowing email inbox. The unanswered calls. The backlog of almost-done, but not quite complete projects. All of these signal that you need help. For the small startup or entrepreneur, help may come by hiring a virtual assistant.

Staffing is a huge budget line item. Owners of new businesses will likely do much of the work to get their business off the ground, but once a business is up-and-running, hiring staff will become a more reasonable option, and perhaps a necessity. But, can your business afford a large in-house staff?

An option for the budget-conscious business owner is to hire a virtual assistant. As the name implies, a virtual assistant or VA works off site, rather than in the office. Many VAs work from the comfort of their home or the local coffee shop. Virtual assistants are highly skilled workers who provide a variety of administrative and other specialized services for businesses.

Without the need to pay the virtual assistant benefits, hiring a virtual assistant is a good option when an entrepreneur needs a person to do a variety of tasks. Virtual assistants are highly skilled professionals who bring to the table skills ranging from managing administrative tasks, transcription and writing, to handling communications and promotions via social media, like Twitter and Facebook.

Most virtual assistants are not certified, but certification can be acquired through organizations, such as the Virtual Assistant Worldwide Certification. VAs may have training from organizations, like AssistU, but due to the infancy of the virtual assistant field, you may have to evaluate the VA on past work experience.

As with any task that needs to be outsourced, investigate what tasks you will need the virtual assistant to do, research the going rate of pay for VAs, and determine a timeline, for instance, is the VA needed on a daily basis, weekly, or on an as-needed project basis?

Communication with Your Virtual Assistant

In order to get the most out of your VA, have a clear picture of what tasks or roles you need the VA to do. Communicate your needs to the VA, but don’t take anything for granted. Establish a dialogue with the VA. The VA will be your lifeline in times of high volume of work. If you know you have a project in the works that will require many hours of your VA’s time, keep her in the loop on the timeline. With advance notice, the VA can rearrange her work schedule to accommodate the new assignment.

If hiring a virtual assistant for administrative work -- typing of letters, managing email inbox, and corresponding with customers -- ask the VA what his background is. Ask about previous employment. Tell the VA of any specific needs of your business. For instance, if your business does work with overseas vendors, a VA with a working knowledge of a second language may be helpful. Is your business highly technical? Consider hiring someone who can understand information-rich documents.

Keeping in Touch with Your Virtual Assistant

Make sure you have a way to contact your VA. Exchange phone numbers, home, office, and cell, emails, and fax numbers. Get her mailing address.

Find out what time zone he is in. Before you hire a VA, determine what core hours you will need him to work. Bear in mind, that the hours you need the VA to work may correspond with the number and volume of projects. Let your VA know if the work hours will change on an as-needed basis.

How will you reach your VA in a time of crisis? A phone call or email may work better than leaving a message on Facebook or Twitter. If your work is highly time-sensitive with multiple, changeable deadlines, be sure to hire a VA who is flexible.

Keeping Track of Progress

Since virtual assistants work on a variety of projects, set up project updates. Will your VA email you weekly with a rundown on project status? Complete a Google spreadsheet showing work tasks completed? Would you prefer a phone call or a Skype call?

Virtual assistants bring a range of skills to the table. VAs are more cost effective than in house employees as they aren’t paid benefits. A virtual assistant can be an asset to your business if given enough details about the tasks and responsibilities.