The Future for Administrative Assistants – A Checklist for Tomorrow
Published on November 7, 2019
Rohit Talwar – Futurist Speaker
By Rohit Talwar and Alexandra Whittington
Executive secretaries are in roles critical to the organizations and executives they serve. Indeed, the role can also be quite fluid – extending to encompass chief operating officer, internal communications, HR, learning and development, special projects, and corporate troubleshooting. Given this wide-ranging remit, we believe executive assistants are on the front lines of the exponential changes happening in the business world. Now, perhaps more than ever, they need to understand the forces of change shaping the future and the range of ways these could impact their own roles and shape the challenges and choices facing the organisations and executives they work with.
Secretaries have wielded a number of tools over the decades, from telegraphs, to telephones, to personal computers to, now, personal digital assistants. The evolution of the secretarial role in the workplace has followed a technological trajectory. Over the years, the tools have given admins the ability to perform and take in their stride ever-more difficult, complex, people-centred work. The latest waves of automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in particular have brought a new twist to this state of affairs. Now, the tools of the trade are, in a way, competing to do the admin role better, faster, and more efficiently, there is a new dynamic at work in organizations.
Below, we have selected several rising signals of change to help executive assistants prepare for what’s next and harmonize their career in the face of a chaotic symphony of exponential societal and technological change set to occur in the next 10-20 years.
Cognitive dissonance – long term vs. right here, right now –This tension between focusing on the here and now and allocating time and resource to an uncertain future is likely to grow rapidly. In this “new normal,” agility will become a critical priority – learning how to balance the “urgency of now” with the “importance of next”.
Executive assistants are often an unseen but critical player in handling uncertainty – they need to know who is involved in projects, the deadlines, contact lists, meeting times, where documents are stored and so on, but as organisations increasingly rely on technology to address these tasks, the emphasis for admins will shift to acting as the “hidden glue” between people to know all that is happening, highlight problems quickly and ensure everything meshes. The growing uncertainty over the future of business and how it will operate drives the need for personal agility, responsiveness, and flexibility as valuable and marketable skills.
Swarm organizations – For firms cutting back to the barest minimum of human resources, they are increasingly likely to adopt an accelerated “swarm resourcing” concept to respond to new opportunities. The model is based on the approach favoured by film producers – pulling together teams for critical projects on demand – drawing on contractors, partners, agencies, staff on zero hour contracts, and internal resources.
The rise of swarm organizations means executive administrative assistants may be seconded to work on projects or with project managers and other professionals to provide the voice of – and conduit to – the sponsoring executive. Strong understanding of swarm workforces may be a critical advantage; so could knowing how to amass talent, co-ordinate in chaos, and integrate new team members. There will be opportunities for executive assistants to create and influence a unique team culture – critical for swarm project success – their impact could indeed be felt across the entire project.
Always on the way-out and something on the side – In a gig-worker world with longer lifespans, new employees will always have an eye to the next job and many will be pursuing side-businesses – hopefully in their spare time. While such entrepreneurialism is increasingly encouraged, firms are going to be challenged to find ways of motivating and getting the full commitment of people who are “always on the way out” from the day they arrive.
There are three key questions for admins to consider in light of this trend: How do we work with people that are always on the way out? How do you work around the fact that someone could leave at any point and what back up plans and strategies do you need? How to motivate people that are not 100% invested in the business? One survival skill may be to gain an elevated comfort level with fluctuating workforces—either coordinating one or being part of one. Transitions are intimidating, but these types of adjustments should be viewed as a learning opportunity; not every role gets to be the backbone of the applications, systems and processes that are used to facilitate fluctuating workforces, and it will be a valuable experience.
Alpha male vs. embracing the feminine – While the issue of gender balance itself will undoubtedly persist for some time to come, concern is also now rising over the loss of feminine traits that help define our culture. For executive secretaries, who potentially sit in-between many individuals/departments, or work on behalf of a whole team with both characteristics, communication and adaptability are key.
One important factor of emotional intelligence in the transforming workplace is knowing when—or how—to imbue work with traditional ‘feminine’ qualities. The emerging world of work values competencies like sensitivity, empathy and relational skills. Admins, so key to communicating important information in the organization, may find people skills complement a high-tech-powered work role. Another subtle stand-out trait for executive secretaries might involve knowing when to automate the unseen glue of an organisation, and when not to. Preserving humanity may be an unexpected skill set of future admins.
Artificial intelligence vs. genuine stupidity – Artificial Intelligence (AI) is no longer the stuff of science fiction. From airline autopilots to smartphones and call centre chatbots to automated legal contract generation – the technology is firmly embedded in society and its scope, functionality and processing power is increasing. For admins, the age of AI is a unique learning and training opportunity. Today’s executive assistants may soon find themselves working in an organisation that uses AI very broadly, in either analysis of financial data or HR, or in a team that uses it very narrowly, i.e. to automate a certain task or process.
Artificial Intelligence represents an opportunity for admins to become familiar with machine learning capabilities and use the knowledge to their advantage. We think the opportunities will depend very much on the sector; AI is moving quite quickly in finance, law and insurance, for example, and admins in those areas may have an advantage compared to others. Already, it is already evident that AI can reduce work load and ensure consistency across tasks, and this is a reality coming at every sector, sooner or later.
Workplace stress – Mindfulness meditation, yoga, sleep advice, dietary improvements, and regular health checks can help mitigate stress. However, the real answer lies in radical shifts in the way we run our businesses, set personal targets, measure performance, and manage people. Those firms which have the courage to pursue a different approach and offer an alternative, less mentally damaging path to success could find themselves in greater demand as employers.
Executive secretaries may use a range of tools for communication and project management on top of normal emailing, meetings and calls – the list is growing e.g. Slack for messaging, toggl for time tracking, trello for work flow management, todoist for list making – there are hundreds of options for harmonizing the work of an assistant. With all of these integrated onto every device, even extending to their own personal phone or tablet, it is an information overload nightmare scenario in the making. To avoid stress, it may be important to set black-out times for notifications and limit how much the tools disrupt personal time off. Setting boundaries with technology is more than a workplace coping skill of the future; it may be an indicator of sound mental and emotional health.
Executive assistants are known for bringing a harmonious flow to the inner workings of the business world. However, their reign in this role is about to be disrupted, not just by technology, but economic, demographic and societal factors in play. With the proper approach, the disruption could be dealt with as growing pains to a much brighter future.
For example, many experts say AI will take up the unpleasant or unwanted parts of jobs rather than displace workers. Increasingly, algorithms will be designed to speed up and automate boring tasks – freeing time for face-to-face connections and critical interactions. Hopefully, the outcome will mean that over the next few years, the role of the executive secretary will become more impactful, personally fulfilling and human-centred than ever before.
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A version of this article originally appeared in Executive Secretary Magazine.