Technology has been slowly encroaching on our work for years and we’ve snoozed the alarm bells but after this pandemic, I fear that assisting as we knew it as a profession is nearing its end. We have to start diversifying ourselves and making ourselves indispensable by leaning into the soft skills that an AI cannot yet replicate. We must find that sweet spot between technology and the “old ways” to really make ourselves value-add. Our human qualities will save us and our jobs, but not before it culls the herd.
I haven’t always been sounding the alarm. I contributed to an article in Departures magazine a few years ago and when asked about AI (like Alexa/Google) taking over assistants jobs I generally dismissed it. I still stand by that because I don’t think AI is yet capable of recreating the human experience of being and having an assistant. However, with this pandemic reaching its ninth month, it’s becoming clearer to me what the other side of this will look like and I’m not as optimistic about it as I once was.
What does our profession look like after this pandemic?
Physical Office: The purpose and use of the physical office is changing and will stay that way.
Hybrid Work: Work is being conducted in a more hybrid way and this model is going to be the “new normal”.
Rise of Automation: Corporate budgets are putting pressure to reduce costs and use technology/AI to automate routine tasks.
How do we adapt ourselves to this new reality?
Physical Office: As we’ve found, the physical office is not as necessary as it once was in order to facilitate collaboration and getting the job done. We’ve already been discovering how to do our jobs without physically seeing our bosses except on video conferences. We’ve already had success as assistants transitioning everything online at the beginning of the pandemic. We can do more though. We should start preparing now for what the physical office will look like when we return and how technology will help us in that pursuit. We should start embracing the technology now that will help that by: setting up apps that help us track and monitor cleaning/office supplies, researching and learning about self-check-in software for our offices, setting up new ways of booking conference rooms while allowing for social distancing and time to clean the rooms between meetings.
Hybrid Work: One of the most important ways we as assistants can prove our value-add as we move to a more permanent hybrid model is within the office culture. We are one of the only roles in every company that reaches all employees on our team or in our organization. We have to be the leaders and drivers of the office culture and that has to be adapted even further as we come out of this pandemic. Since physical office culture will mainly be gone, we, as assistants, should continue to help facilitate the culture of the office by participating in or organizing Zoom happy hours with employees, creating company book clubs, plan virtual holiday/birthday celebrations, or just scheduling 1:1 time with co-workers to have that all important “water cooler” conversation or a breakout session to talk about a project.
Rise of Automation: Say you are tasked with helping your boss and his/her family find a rental house for a vacation (or a pandemic hideaway! Ha!). Sure any AI/technology/website could show you all the listings for a particular area/budget/size etc. But how many can actually do the intuitive research that an assistant can do? You know intimately your boss’ taste/style/requirements and can eliminate the ones that don’t work but you can also find creative solutions when properties are not shown as available on the public sites. AI is not going to take the extra step to call luxury real estate brokers to see if they have any pocket listings or find properties that are for sale whose owners might be interested in renting for the right price. An assistant can do that but only if that assistant has first fully utilized the technology at hand.
What can we do now?
Physical Office: Learn about and get up to speed on the newest tech for booking meetings, self-check-in, scheduling, supply ordering, travel, etc. Even better if you can download the apps and start doing your work from your smartphone. Here are some of my favorites: Google Docs (collaboration and version management), Zoom (video conferencing), Dashlane (password management), Crestron (electronic management), ADT (security/cameras), Sonos (home/office entertainment management), FedEx/UPS (package management/tracking), Resy/OpenTable (reservations), Nest (HVAC management), PowerPoint (ability to use PP on my Apple iPhone or iPad), Artwork Archive (manages collections), AXUS (all of the active and past travel bookings/itineraries), Grove Collaborative (office cleaning supplies).
Hybrid Work: Learn about virtual office/meeting tech. Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Good Docs, etc. This is an opportune time for you to start thinking about how you can be a leader in your company through this transition by helping to redesign the workplace and further contribute to the office culture.
Rise of Automation: Find that sweet spot where the technology ends and the human begins and lean into it. That is your true value-add.
It’s not all bad news.
As an assistant for over 15 years now, I’ve seen things changing around us and have witnessed the need to adapt to new technologies. When I first started blackberries and emails were still fairly new and we did most of our work on the phones and in-person. In the past few years, we rarely make phone calls and do everything via email and text. So we’ve done it before – we’ve adapted to the new way of doing things and the newest technology – but I’ve never seen such a massive shift in the embrace of technology this quickly. I do believe strongly that there is still a place and a need for assistants but we have to find that sweet spot between where technology ends and our innate human qualities (and thus our value add) begins. We have to open our minds to the technology all around us and integrate it into our lives and continue to be flexible. It will take thought and precision of action but it can be done. And eventually the young millennials who are well-versed in the newest technologies will be in the C-Suite. When that happens, the need for assistants will not diminish but the job will substantively change. The lift on technology will be less but our human qualities and ability to “read the room” will be even more necessary.
In short, the job of an assistant is in crisis but it’s not dead. We need to be ready to adapt to a new way of doing things, have some alacrity, and prepare ourselves for substantive and fast changes once this pandemic subsides. If anyone can do it, it’s my fellow assistants.
Patrick Healy has been a Personal and Executive Assistant since 2004. He has worked with both celebrities and corporate clients – most notably Olympia Dukakis. He served as the President of New York Celebrity Assistants, a networking group of celebrity personal assistants, from 2016-2019 and has been a member of that group since 2009. He is a sought after speaker at assistant conferences as well as a contributor to several blogs/articles targeted for the assistant community.
© 2020 Patrick Healy