After I wrote yesterday’s post on automation becoming a big or bigger problem for the middle class than it has been for blue collar jobs, an article about Secretaries and Administrative Assistants appeared in the New York Times, discussing the loss of over 2 million administrative and office jobs in the current recession, and whether or not secretaries have a future. While the article touched on both the automation of the office, it seemed to focus on some of the tensions in the office caused by hierarchy and service postions. The ending paragraphs dealt with the social tensions regarding service, and particularly whether it was demeaning for someone to have to get someone else coffee or not. This made me wonder if the whole article could have been rephrased “Do we need an admin staff since we got a Keurig Machine?” I think this whole article glosses over the very real contributions support staff and admin help makes in our lives on every level.
As much as we are trying to scale down and level out hierarchies at work and at home, the bottom line is that we can’t do everything for ourselves unless we really want to become Amish. (Even then, the Amish still pool together to share jobs ranging from barn raising to quilting). Clearly, none of us living in the modern, or as the Amish put it, “English” world, are quite ready to raise our own crops, grind our own wheat, build our own homes, etc. and rely on others to produce everything from our communication systems to our daily sustenance. In our work world, even freelancers find that they need help doing all the things that are required to run a business. Between Business development, marketing what you do, client services, and then actually doing the work, there’s a lot to get done on any one day. Chris Brogan talks about this on his blog when he talks about Chores and in other posts where he discusses all the different things required to make a small business grow and thrive. It’s clearly more than one person alone can reasonably manage, which is why there is a whole level of administrative tasks we outsource to others. It’s more than booking your own travel or making your own coffee- it’s also about having someone else see the big picture of your life and help you keep in organized and structured, especially when you are overwhelmed or lost in the weeds.
Chris Penn summed this up nicely in a post called Knights in Shining Armor, discussing why we pay more for people who help us achieve fantastic results. We NEED help. Yet, we resent those that give it to us, or minimize their importance. Secretaries are often dismissed as having thoughtless jobs, but they are the grease that make the rest of the machine operate correctly. They are the power behind the throne, and the person who often controls access to the higher up and deserve much more respect than they ever get. If all the admins in the nation took a week off, things would grind to a halt as bosses wouldn’t know where to go at what time, couldn’t schedule meetings for the future, keep on track with ongoing projects, etc. It’s not that they would simply type their own documents and manage their correspondance, and make their own coffee. Their lives would rapidly become cluttered with tasks and the larger projects that produce the more “value -added” income wold slow down tremendously. Instead of concentrating on making the next big thing, Mr. CEO would be spending more time trying to find that guy’s phone number to come fix the copier – is that really the best use of his time? We undervalue what admins do to make our lives better, because most of the time, it is invisible and intangible, and done well, it makes our lives flow like water.
For example, as a Mom, I am the CFO of our household, Logistics Manager, Director of Acquisitions, IT Manager, Chef, and laundress, as well as Keeper of the Keys/Concierge. I am the household Admin and Linchpin, and when I’m gone for any length of time, things rapidly fall into a bit of disarray. I also take the blame for everyone else’s problems- a kid forgetting to give me a permission slip, forgetting homework at home- it’s always “Mom’s fault” or “Mom’s duty to fix it” in the vast majority of circumstances. I serve at their behest and convenience, and take the blame when their lives don’t function perfectly, whether I deserve the blame or not. (This is the real reason why Moms want stuff on Mother’s Day, by the way- it’s to feel like what they do for you all year long is appreciated, even if you don’t act like you do most of the time. It’s payback time, with flowers.)
For my business, on the other hand, there are many aspects I can manage on my own, but I eagerly rely on a business “concierge”- my own virtual Keeper of the Keys, Michelle Wolverton, to keep me in line and organized. She acts as my second brain, my conscience, and my resource for all things that help make my life more efficient. Whether it’s her excellent advice about not using my inbox as a to do list to help me get a handle on my mail, or looking over my daily routine and finding ways to make sure I’m more productive, even with family stuff, Michelle is a resource I rely on and cannot function without. This assistance allows me to concentrate on things like client service and acquisition, and frees up time I need to spend doing other things that bring in the paychecks. Without this help, I would be less efficient and unable to scale at all. By “outsourcing” some of my responsibilities, I get more time back to concentrate on bigger projects.
Yet because admins, like moms, often stay in the background, they’re not appreciated for the value they bring to a business or household. When I worked as a legal secretary before going to law school, I saw my job as trying to make each of our clients feel as much as possible like our only clients. I tried to get everything done as promptly as possible and make my boss look great in return. I learned my importance and how much my boss relied on me for even the simplest chores when I left town for my father’s funeral, and my boss called me to try to figure out how to use the copier in the office. Now this man, with advanced degrees who had gone to law school, surely could have figured this out on his own had he wanted to, but he had become so reliant on my help, many parts of his day simply did not function without the “keeper of keys” in place to make it all happen. My contributions may not have appeared “sexy” and important, but they were the grease that made the office machine function efficiently, and without which, even the simple things ground to a halt.
I suspect the real debate going on in this Country is not about whether or not we need administrative help and people to help us manage the more mundane tasks while we add value in other ways, but how much we value or are willing to pay to outsource these services. Each service, on its own, may seem like an ”I could do that on my own”, but add them all into your day, and you run out of time before you’ve done anything work related. This is why, of course, baristas, dry cleaners, frozen dinners, house cleaners, gardeners, restaurants, grocery delivery services, car mechanics, lawyers, doctors, web designers and the like all exist in the first place. We can’t know or do everything, so we have to outsource what we can to others with specialized skills who make our lives possible. While automation may make some tasks easier for a person to do on their own, we also need to ask “Should we be doing this?” or is this a task someone with more experience and expertise should be doing for us instead?
In conclusion, while we’re at it, it would do us all some good to treat those who work very hard at making our lives better, whether its by delivering our mail, taking our trash, teaching our children, filing our claims or helping a doctor take out our appendix, better as well. We depend on more people in our lives than we’ll ever really acknowledge, so spending some time just being thankful and grateful to those who help us reach our goals better would go a long way. And that includes the secretaries who are just sick and tired of you treating them like your Mom, who you should treat with respect for all they do just as much as you do. Just like your Mom, you’ll respect them and miss them more when they’re gone and you realize how much they are needed and do to make your own life easier every day.
Tomorrow, we’re back on track and will talk about the importance of personal branding in the new economy, and why we still need to consider specialization and our own nique value-add.