The role of the Personal Assistant has changed enormously over the past decade or two. At the end of the 20th Century, the job titles ‘PA’ and ‘Secretary’ were often used interchangeably, and there was little difference in the public’s perception of the roles. Now, with advances in technology and a computer on pretty much every desktop, except in specialised areas such as legal and medical, the position of ‘secretary’ has largely disappeared, and gone are the days when a room full of ladies spent their days typing, making tea and answering the telephone.
Before looking at how the role of a PA has changed, what has stayed the same?
Last century and now, the PA was and is the right hand man or woman, always there to provide crucial support so the manager or business owner can focus on strategic objectives. They may still manage the diary and juggle meetings, but rarely now will it be using pencil and paper. While PAs may in the past have held a small budget, they may now be in charge of much larger sums and conduct negotiations with suppliers. Rather than arranging the office party, a PA may now be arranging events with hundreds of attendees, or co-ordinating an office move.
In short, the responsibilities of the average PA have become more complex and demanding, and what was once a background role has moved to pole position in driving the business forward.
What has prompted this evolution? In a nutshell, technology, and more recently the ‘credit crunch’. Word processing software has made typing and shorthand skills less critical – an inaccurate typist now simply hits ‘backspace’ rather than starting the important letter again (and the important letter is more likely to be an email!) The economic downturn coupled with the demystifying of the typist’s job has, surprisingly, had a positive effect on the PA’s role – with less of the basic typing and filing to be done, the PA has had to diversify to survive, leading to multi-skilled people carrying out a variety of tasks. The 21st century PA is more likely to be running marketing campaigns or social media accounts, managing projects and events, handling finances, and conducting research, than they are to be answering the phone and making coffee.
And the latest in the evolution of the Personal Assistant? The concept of the VA, or Virtual Assistant, has been with us since the early 1990s. Technology in the form of video conferencing, cloud computing and high speed internet connections have meant that an assistant no longer needs to be sitting outside the boss’s office, in fact no longer needs to be even in the same town. Self-employed VAs make it possible for even the smallest of businesses to use the support of a competent assistant without having to go down the route of becoming employers. The idea of running a Virtual Assistant business now attracts people from a wide range of senior commercial backgrounds with an ever-growing variety of skills to offer customers.
And as for the future? Well it seems that there will always be plenty of work for organised administrative professionals, and advances in technology will make communication ever faster and simpler.