Are Executive Assistants Essential in a Remote-First World?

Are Executive Assistants Essential in a Remote-First World?

Phoenix Normand 02/03/2021 5
Are EAs Essential in a Remote-First World?

Okay. It's time to rip off the Band-Aid and actually talk about this openly.

In a remote environment, specifically, are Executive Assistants essential anymore?

The Issue With Working Remotely for EAs

When COVID sent us all to our kitchen tables it's reported that about 30% of a typical Executive Assistant's responsibilities were deemed moot. No more greeting clients in person. No more ordering lunches and the requisite setup and teardown of conference rooms. No more chaperoning their Execs from meeting-to-meeting to stay on schedule. No more lunch and coffee dashes to keep their Execs productive. Many of those creature comforts Execs relied on were taken off the table because, well, there is no longer a table.

One of the main challenges Executive Assistants now face is relevance. Sure, meetings still need to get scheduled. Calendars need to be audited. Correspondence still matters. Teams need to stay tight. However, there is a growing belief that many of these tasks don't necessarily require a high-ticket Executive Assistant. Many larger organizations are cutting their Executive Assistant teams altogether and mandating their Execs book their own meetings and handle their own administrative tasks in an effort to reduce costs and headcount. Scores of $100K+ Executive Assistants are being shown the exit because they have been deemed non-essential or "too expensive" even after years of stellar service in an office environment.

I've also noticed a bit of a recoil from this practice once Execs get a real taste of what it's like to have to schedule their own meetings, email, manage team dynamics, and handle the myriad of inconspicuous tasks Executive Assistants typically handle and, ironically, don't get paid for because their hard to quantify on paper. A burgeoning US startup recently cut their entire Executive Assistant team, sent the "do it yourself" mandate, and within 3 months realized how STUPID AND UNINFORMED that decision was. Once their top Execs got bogged down in the minutiae of their day-to-day, they realized there was no forward momentum. And the revolts began. They've since hired back several EAs, albeit at a discount, to get the train back on the tracks. These EAs aren't 1-to-1, more like 3-to-1, but the company is running much more smoothly and the revolt has been quashed. Given the amount of expensive Execs' time wasted and likely loss of profitability, this decision was a rather expensive mistake.

Still The Lowest Hanging Fruit

Executive Assistants have always been first in line to be cut anytime markets turned bad or companies downsized or complaints of various abuses were filed. I was once "asked to leave" my dream job because I squealed to HR about one of my Executives deemed "a Golden Child." Sure, his work was exemplary, but he was a complete gnikcuf elohssa who made the mistake of tearing me a new one via voicemail because I defied his order and went on an outing with my other Exec's group, an event I had created and managed from day one and had no backup to run point, ironically because there were only 4 Executive Assistants in an entire company of 1,500 employees at the time. He was salty because several members of his team were leaving for better roles, more money, and Execs who actually cared about their employees' professional growth vs. just their own. And despite doing some pretty stellar work, working at an inhumane pace, and producing at a level that couldn't be matched, I was bounced, essentially because he was losing key members of his team, deemed my fault in the nasty, f-bomb-laden tirade left on my voicemail. The first time I'd ever been fired in my life. In retaliation at that. The payout to get rid of me was great tho, so all is forgiven.

Even after all these decades of making Executives shine among their peers and within their own teams, Assistants are still largely seen as accessory and adding little tangible value to the company's bottom line. However, when you strip away all those creature comforts EAs provide on a daily basis, it becomes glaringly obvious that there's definitely tangible value to having a comprehensively skilled, well-connected, passionate EA on your team. What people fail to realize is that not every role provides value in the same way. This role, especially at the top of the game, is far more nuanced than a more obvious, singular-output role like an Engineer. Much of the value Executive Assistants provide is done in the shadows. Here's an example.

In my last role, we were looking to raise a $75million Series B. I was put in charge of managing the creation of the roadshow and all of the correspondence necessary to book the meetings. Cool. However, what my boss at the time didn't realize was that I had grown up in Silicon Valley and worked with or had intimate knowledge of at least 70% of the VCs we were seeking checks from. Many of the Execs upon seeing my name on the emails would comment with things like, "What's up, Phoenix!" or "So this is where you ended up...nice!" I'd have an exchange offline with many of them and provide a bit more context about the company, my CEO, and apply a little pressure on them to take the meeting and get ready to write a fat check. It worked. The round ended up closing at $100million. I'm confident that several of those meetings would not have happened without my brand recognition. In fact, one told me that he never would have taken the meeting, but was in absolute awe of me when we'd worked together decades ago at the same investment bank. Did I get any recognition from my CEO? Nope.

Instead, I got slagged because, despite me wanting to hire a car and driver to keep him on schedule, my CEO decided it would make more sense to just Uber from meeting to meeting and save the money. Well, you can imagine how that turned out. Several Ubers simply didn't show up. Many took forever to arrive. And my entire day was spent pushing meetings, begging for reschedules, trying to save face personally and protect my Exec's reputation, and managing his growing frustration (and mine!) on the day. Uber was not my suggestion, yet I ultimately fielded the blame for the poor decision. And, like most Executive Assistants regardless of level, you simply take the bullet and keep it moving. However, the unfair blame then becomes this subconscious doubt in your Executive's mind that maybe you're a liability. And, ultimately, that's what led to me leaving the company and leaving the Executive Assistant chair for the final time after a mostly stellar 27-year career.

This role forces blame, often unfairly, onto Executive Assistants based on their Exec's ineptitudes. Worse is Executive Assistants have to accept the blame often with no recourse. What can they do? Go to HR? (insert eye roll) My experience is that HR is taking direction from the same individual who happens to give them their marching orders and sign their paychecks. So, historically, they've been unwilling/unable to help in any way and, often, co-sign the same blame because, low-key, they don't really see Executive Assistants as essential and are more than willing to roll in another one should this one not work out. And therein lies the issue. No REAL support or respect for Executive Assistants in position, especially when things go off the rails a bit. This is exacerbated by the fact that no one truly understands ALL Executive Assistants do thereby allowing the narrative to be created and perpetuated by the clueless and those with an agenda. Want proof? Alexa. Siri. Cortana. Who are they aimed at "replacing?" Any idea why AI Engineers have Executive Assistants in their crosshairs so vehemently? WTF did we do to you?!

An Argument for Going Virtual 

Full disclosure: I started a Virtual Assistant business because I see where all of this is headed. I had predicted remote-first work and talked about the benefits even before COVID forced us to flee to our homes. In my book I talked about the potential benefits of companies allowing their employees to work remotely, mainly increased productivity, less distraction, and savings to the bottom line. And, sure enough, all of those predictions were prescient.

Companies are now downsizing the behemoth offices and crafting, essentially, WeWorks where employees can drop in for a few hours a few times per week to have some normalcy and sync-up with their teams. This hybridized work schedule will still allow for the focused work done at home but provide some much-needed human connection, missing for the last year.

However, for Executive Assistants, this creates a bit of conundrum. If companies aren't going whole hog back into offices, many of those aforementioned creature comforts won't be returning and, thereby, considered moot. Again, that begs the question, "Are Executive Assistants essential in a remote-first environment?"

While things were great, Executive Assistants wouldn't even get out of bed for less than $120K per year. EAs were regularly joining the $200K/yr club and living squarely beyond their means with regard to actual relevance and respect, in my opinion. While I'm considered one of the top EA advocates in the game, I have to admit, I was getting a bit annoyed at the prevailing narrative that EAs deserved these exorbitant salaries based less on ability and more on what the market was allowing. Unfortunately, we shot ourselves in the foot here, because once COVID flipped the dinner table like a pissed-off Italian housewife, and much of what was being paid for disappeared, companies were left with a bunch of expensive Executive Assistants now with 30% less responsibility. Overnight. And we're now paying the piper...with our jobs.

I believe Executive Support was long overdue for a refresh. While I do believe Executive Assistants at a certain (read: highest) level are absolutely essential and provide quantifiable value to Executives, especially in concert with a dope Chief of Staff, I don't believe teams of Executive Assistant headcount are necessary, especially if companies remain remote-first and the role is dumbed down to more simpler tasks. As a businessman I see it as a tacit waste of money and a tacit ignorance of ROI. Now before EAs start lighting their torches and marching to Downtown Los Angeles demanding my head, let me explain.

The EA role has been overdue for a reckoning easily for the last 5 years. Remember, I spent the last 5 years on the road teaching EAs all around the world. This gave me an opportunity to gauge level of skill, commitment, education, passion, etc. Sadly, I was often left dumbstruck at how few EAs really "wanted it." Meaning, we're thirsty for real education and insights. We're actively pursuing a higher level of understanding. We're networking effectively and often. We surround ourselves with people smarter, more connected, more successful, and hungrier than they were. Were producing at the same level as their Execs and operating with a similar mindset. Worse is that I encountered a level of complacency and entitlement so high and pervasive, that it actually sent me into a depression. That depression was mainly because I knew that once companies and Execs got a real whiff of what's mostly going on the revenge that would get exacted would result in a wave of job loss, disrespect, and loss of trust of epic proportions. And here we are.

Needs have changed. I believe a hybrid of top-performing EAs and Virtual Assistants is the new look, especially for companies like Facebook, Twitter, Square, and Amazon who use scores of Executive Assistants. Companies may want to consider hiring VA teams via companies like mine that allow for the basics to be handled for numerous Executives and defer to their permanent EAs to manage the output of the VAs, thereby giving them an opportunity to grow their own business and management skills while, ironically, saving the company money through reduced, permanent headcount. Companies of a certain size can save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year by hybridizing their administrative crew in this way and actually experience more efficiency. Note: remote VA teams can work 24/7/365 vs. being bound to the regular business hours of most companies. Imagine doing "the dump" of work requests at 10pm, waking up the next morning and finding that it's all been completed overnight. Traditionally, that same amount of work would have to be completed the following day thereby pushing the results of that work by a day or more. AND your company saves money on headcount by hiring a remote VA team at a fraction of the cost of a set of full-time employees working only 8-6pm, Monday-Friday. Catching my drift, here? We've been doing this incorrectly for the last 6 years. And, now, the error in our ways is glaring. And expensive.

In Conclusion

Let's revisit the original question: "Are Executive Assistants essential in this new, remote-first world? Yes and no.

I believe Executive Assistants are critical to Executives' success. Executive Assistants at the highest levels provide insane value that's often unquantifiable on paper. The best in the biz have a way of pulling everything together, leveraging their vast networks, and making miracles happen that can rarely be explained. Executives who have experienced this level of badassery are the biggest fans and deem their EAs indispensable, as they should.

However, we're now in a situation where EAs at more junior levels or with less critical responsibilities are being looked at as accessory and expensive. If 30% of their responsibilities have been cut by working remotely and many are now only handling basic tasks, is it good business to keep them at $100K+ each? Or would it make more sense to spend $100K+ on one or two and have them manage a Virtual team that works 24/7/365 and costs the company 40% less?

COVID has flipped the table and changed the rules. And as much as ripping the Band-Aid off hurts, it's critical we do it and expose the obvious. 2021 is the perfect opportunity for companies to get smarter about their administrative support strategies. If you're trying to save money, I've outlined a great strategy above to do so. Sure, once the projected recovery in 2022 happens this entire conversation will likely be moot as profits and hiring will increase exponentially and, I believe, we will experience a market rebound unlike any in history. However, I believe the underpinnings of this strategy still need to remain, at least until Q1 of 2022. A new, leaner, remote-first strategy could serve as a blueprint for future hiring practices and continue to save companies money even as they expand once again.

On the flip side of this, Executive Assistants globally need to finally wake up. No longer can you do the bare minimum and collect the check. That gig has been up for awhile now and it's manifesting in a ton of layoffs. If you are not providing conspicuous value to your Exec's efforts your days in position are numbered. Expensive EAs with 30% less responsibilities and no conspicuous effort to recreate their roles over the past 12 months are now on blast. Those who have annoyed the crap out their Execs for more project work, "stole" a couple of new hats to wear, created some new efficiencies and refreshed processes, inserted themselves into critical projects, and even led initiatives with quantifiable, positive effects on the bottom line, are the ones who are not only keeping their jobs but are likely first in line for a promotion or a reclassification of their role in the new year. I have several superstars in my personal trīb who have done exactly this and have increased their compensation, classification, and level of respect with their Execs and teams...during a pandemic and numerous layoffs within their organizations.

For many Executive Assistants, especially those who aren't performing to the best of their abilities, this is the end of the road. As companies move to a hybrid of permanent and third-party Virtual Assistants, those EAs who got caught out will need to either become Virtual Assistants themselves or find new roles leveraging all the skills learned while in the EA seat. This shouldn't sound all "doom and gloom" at all. If anything, it should give EAs a new goal of maybe starting a VA business of their own or maybe dusting off an old passion and pursuing it as a business leveraging their EA experience, network, and what the market needs. It's possible. I'm proof.

There is a bit of Darwinism at play here. Let's keep it 100. Business changes and adapts according to need and the cards the market deals at the time. EAs, en masse, have been slow to adapt and are typically the first to be picked off during market downturns. However, companies do themselves a disservice by lumping all EAs into one category with one narrative and with incorrect assumptions about the value they provide. Sadly, most companies will defer to the bottom line and make rash cuts accordingly. This unfairly impacts EAs who are slaying the game and are victimized by the aggregate, historically poor PR of the EA role.

Personally, I don't believe companies are being thoughtful enough when it comes to hiring Executive Assistants. I also don't believe 40% of EAs deserve the salaries they are getting, especially in a remote-first world with 30% less responsibility. However, I do believe that companies who can strike the right balance between permanent EA headcount and Virtual Assistants (managed by permanent EAs) will not only save money in the long term, but will provide opportunities in the future for more permanent EAs to grow in-position by allowing them to focus on more needle-moving work for their Execs and teams. Leave the minutiae to the VAs, empower the permanent EAs in a completely new way, and finally utilize and compensate them commensurate with their actual contribution. Which is vast, often done under the cover of darkness, and impossible to accurately quantify on paper.

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  • Scott Lingard

    Organisations should repackage the position of executive assistants.

  • John K

    EAs whose duties have focussed predominantly on booking restaurants, flights, travel and coordinating complex itineraries will see their responsibilities change.

  • Brian Wood

    Coronavirus has changed the duties of executive assistant roles

  • John Lappin

    The duties of EAs of predominantly booking restaurants, flights, travel and coordinating complex itineraries will see their responsibilities change.

  • Aaron Williams

    Executive assistants need to focus actively on staying visible to avoid getting redundant.

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Phoenix Normand

Society Expert

Phoenix is coaching and supporting American billionaires, CEOs and executive teams in tech, retail and banking for over 25 years. He also founded and created MEGA Assistant University, a revolutionary skills and mindset “boot camp” for top Executive and Personal Assistants who want to level up quickly and begin forging a mutually successful business partnership with their executives and teams. Phoenix holds a Bachelors of Arts in European Studies/Civilisation from Trinity College Dublin.

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