At the recently held Office Management & PA Show, PA Life Editor Colette Doyle led a debate between four PAs from vastly different sectors. They discussed openly what they felt about the profession and shared their thoughts on the future development of the role.
To open the debate, Doyle asked the panel how they felt about the possibility of remote working and whether it is always necessary for a PA’s role to be office-based. Karen Brown replied that there is space for flexibility, but that she prefers to be where her boss is.
Merryl Futerman agreed, adding that it is important to remember the ‘personal’ aspect of the personal assistant. “The ability to work remotely can be frustrating and liberating in equal measure,” she commented. Samantha Stirland added that she needed to be in the office or, at the very least, somewhere she can see her directors and, if necessary, “boss them around”, she joked. By contrast, Anthony Thomas’s executive is often on the road and rarely on site. This gives him the option to work from home and liaise directly with his boss in the evenings, but means almost no chance for face-to-face meetings. The panel reflects the idio- syncrasies of the profession perfectly; for some, remote working is a necessity, but the majority like to be in close contact with their executives.
Next, the PAs were asked what improvements in technology they would like to see to make their working lives that bit easier. Karen leapt in with the wry comment that a working arsenal of IT tools would be extremely useful. She continued by saying that it is most frustrating when basic equipment isn’t functioning, such as Blackberries not receiving email. Brighton & Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust,explained Samantha, is being encouraged to go entirely paperless, but she felt the transition could be challenging for PAs. In an office environment, “IT and finance need to be your best friends”. Anthony was the most fortunate of the panel, saying that as his department has a dedicated IT manager on site, they rarely have issues.
So once they’ve charmed the IT team, and email, computer and phone are all in perfect working order, will they be using social media to tell everyone how well their business is doing? Merryl stated that she is a fan of Twitter and acted as her client Julian Clary’s voice to rally support for him when he was in the Big Brother house. She added that as he currently has more than 160,000 followers, this was a quite terrifying undertaking. “It also goes without saying that you have to be careful,” she continues; a Tweet that she was running an errand in a jeweller’s once resulted in the rumour that Julian was buying an engagement ring.
By contrast, Karen’s workplace has a dedicated media team to deal with work-related publicity, but she likes the concept of Twitter. She also appreciates the publicity that Facebook provides for the company, although she admitted that she personally gets approached quite often by “random people” on LinkedIn, who take a marked interest in the fact that she works for Arsenal Football Club.
Social media is, then, a mixed bag for PAs, so what about networking? Unusual in her profession, Samantha admitted that she isn’t a member of any PA organisation, but she would welcome the extra support one might provide. Merryl said that she finds having a network massively useful, as you get to hear how others work in the same role. As the job can be isolating at times, having a social group you can turn to is also important “when you need to let off steam”. It’s always a good way to share best practice and communicate with other professionals, added Anthony.
Having talked about the necessity of networking across the vocation, Colette asked the panel what the possibilities were for ‘moving up’ as a PA. Does the glass ceiling that supposedly prevents women or minorities from getting to the top of the corporate ladder really exist? For Karen it does; she undertook a Master’s degree to move past the ‘ceiling’ and get into HR, as she found there was a pay barrier. But she soon went back to her PA role to make it more her own, because “people don’t appreciate the extent of the role and the high-level information you’re privy to.”
Samantha acknowledged that at the NHS your choices are to move sideways or change departments. In Merryl’s experience, some organisations have a rigid structure but others provide flexibility and the opportunity to take on more, as “there are always things to learn”. Anthony has never wanted to change role, but he did move across several departments until he found something that suited him, and his role is now challenging and different every day. He added that Reckitt Benckinser offers plenty of training and assistance.
Speaking of training, how essential do the PAs think education is to their roles? Karen feels that it’s very important both personally and professionally as “it’s important to mix things up, or it gets mundane”. Always putting herself forward for more in-house courses, Samantha agreed that learning is essential. “We can all learn from each other. Training is also a good way to network and make contacts,” commented Merryl.
While increasing your skills is crucial, there is a flip side to the amount of responsibility PAs can take on. As companies downsize, workloads often increase and the demands on their role are amplified. For Samantha, it has been difficult. “The work load is hectic and full-on; we are a large teaching hospital and we have to save five per cent of our yearly budget.” Anthony agreed that there is a “more-for-less” mentality across corporates, which can only be compensated by enjoying your role. But it can be an opportunity to embrace new challenges, added Merryl, as long as you’re not taken advantage of.
What the panel all agreed on is that being a PA means a never-ending variety of responsibilities to face every day; and that is a huge part of what makes their job so worthwhile.
THE PA PANEL
PA Life’s final question to the panel was what they considered to be the biggest challenge in their current roles.
Karen Brown, PA to Ivan Gazidis, CEO of Arsenal FC
“My biggest challenge is managing Ivan’s direct reports: everyone wants space in his diary.”
Merryl Futerman, PA to comedian Julian Clary and the co-founder of training course provider PA Access All Areas
“Getting hold of my boss – he can be inaccessible at times and I will have to make decisions on his behalf.”
Samantha Stirland, PA to the COO and her Deputy at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals
“Finding space in my directors’ diaries to have face-to-face time with them can be a nightmare. I often chase them to A&E just to catch up with them.”
Anthony Thomas, EA to the Group Head of Audit at Reckitt Benckiser
“My main challenge is how much my boss travels. The largest part of my role is getting him safely from one location to the other.”