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Executive Assistants in the Age of Automation

A calendar and laptop on a  table with meetings and dates

Lately, every organization is looking at how to measure the value and return on investment of each member of staff and, for the first time, this includes the administrative staff. Smart businesses understand that when utilized properly, the executive assistant drives efficiency, saves costs and is a highly effective time management tool.

Nonetheless, the role of the administrative professional is suffering from a perception problem. It is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as commentators jump on the idea that artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are going to result in the role becoming obsolete.

The future of work

The latest report from the World Economic Forum lists the administrative role as number five of the top ten ‘fastest declining’ jobs, yet most executive assistants (EAs) excel in every one of the ten skills currently needed for the future of work. The commentators agree that what businesses of the future will need are human skills. Administrative professionals have these in abundance.

The confusion comes from the assumption that there is only one level of assistant; the task-based secretarial stereotype who is reactive and told what to do. This, however, is no longer what most assistants do. Administration is now a career for a fifth of the world’s working population. Whilst it is true that if you can do something twice in the same way, it can be automated, AI is playing a significant part in the evolution of the role. The more strategic assistant roles are increasing in both importance and impact as organizations begin to utilize them properly and treat them as talent rather than a resource.

Automation of assistants

As the business landscape evolves, so do the demands on these assistants. They are leading projects, writing briefing documents, conducting research, solving complex problems and reimagining processes.

And yes, automation plays a part in this. Assistants are increasingly integrating automation into their daily workflows to ensure they are streamlining processes to optimize their productivity, accuracy and efficiency. It is not going to replace them; it is a tool that is freeing up their time to focus more on the strategic administrative projects that their businesses need.

Here are some tasks that an assistant commonly performs, which can be automated to increase efficiency and productivity:

  • Email Management: Sorting and filtering emails, responding to routine enquiries, and organizing messages into relevant folders can be automated using AI-powered email management tools.
  • Calendar Scheduling: Automated scheduling tools can analyse participants' availability and set up meetings or appointments without manual intervention.
  • Data Entry: Repetitive data entry tasks, such as updating contact information or inputting data into spreadsheets, can be automated using scripts or macros.
  • Reminder and Notification Systems: Automation can be employed to send automated reminders, alerts, or notifications to individuals or teams for upcoming events, deadlines, or tasks.
  • Expense Tracking: AI-driven expense tracking tools can scan receipts, categorize expenses and generate expense reports automatically.
  • Document Generation: AI-powered document generation tools can create templates and populate them with relevant data, automating the process of generating standard documents.
  • Minute-taking: AI can be used for minute-taking in various ways - streamlining the process and improving the accuracy and efficiency of capturing meeting discussions. Voice recognition tools mean that assistants can focus more on actively participating in the meeting and understanding where they can provide additional support, knowing that the important details are being accurately captured in real time for tidying up later. Additionally, AI-driven minute-taking tools can facilitate better post-meeting follow-up and task management.
  • Travel Planning: Automation can assist with travel arrangements by comparing flight options, hotel prices and suggesting itineraries based on preferences.
  • Social Media Management: Social media scheduling tools can automate posting content at specified times and track engagement metrics. The posts themselves can also be rewritten based on word count to maximize impact.
  • Customer Support: Basic customer enquiries can be handled by AI chatbots, leaving time for the assistant to address the more complex issues.
  • Task Assignment and Delegation: Automation can be used to assign tasks to team members based on workload, skillsets and priorities, streamlining the task delegation process.

On the surface, it may seem from this list that much of what we expect from a traditional assistant is going to be automated, but that is only half the story.

The combination of AI with EI

An assistant is at their best when they combine these new tools with a skill that sets exceptional EAs apart from their colleagues; emotional intelligence (EI). EI, or the ability to understand, recognize, manage and express emotions effectively, plays a vital role in empowering EAs to excel in their roles and deliver a more personalized and supportive experience to their executives.

Back in 2015, Executive Support Media commissioned a psychological study in association with Avery UK that revealed marked differences in the abilities, experiences and personalities of assistants and their colleagues in the office. The study, which compared assistants with the rest of the UK working population, uncovered a number of extraordinary findings.

We looked at numerous factors of working life, including personality traits, stress levels and responsibilities, as well as their IQ, qualifications and EI levels, comparing each aspect to the rest of the working population. The results, particularly around EI, were striking. An assistant’s EI was 10% higher than that of a normal office worker and is a critical asset that enhances an assistant's effectiveness and impact on an organization.

Striking a balance

As we’ve seen, automation can bring numerous benefits to assistants and the organizations they work for. But, in this role, it is essential to strike a balance between automation and maintaining a human touch. It's easy to see the assistant role as purely task-based and therefore able to be automated. However, many of those tasks will still require human intervention, particularly those involving empathy, understanding and complex decision-making. We shouldn’t underestimate the role that these soft skills play in setting up an executive for success and ensuring that their time is maximized.

The assistant’s role is to give the executive back time; to maximize every hour of their time so that the business gets the most “bang for their buck” from their executives’ salaries. And when that is done properly, it drops directly to the bottom line. EI plays an enormous part in ensuring that the executive is operating to maximum capacity, both intellectually and emotionally.

Collaboration is key

An assistant's effectiveness lies not only in efficiently managing tasks but also in understanding their executive's preferences, communication style and emotional state. This ensures that each exchange is tailored to meet their executive's specific needs and emotional context, leading to a more productive working relationship.

Communication is provided not only through explicit instructions but also through nonverbal cues such as body language and tone of voice. Picking up on these unspoken cues means an assistant can anticipate needs and act proactively, further streamlining the executive-assistant collaboration.

Assistants are experts in building strong connections with their executives. They can read their executives' emotions from the way they talk and behave, responding with empathy and understanding. Whether their executives are going through tough times or celebrating victories, emotionally intelligent assistants know just how to provide the right support and encouragement. This skill helps them form a close bond and trust with their executives, leading to more open communication which, in turn, results in increased productivity.

They often provide a listening ear, creating a safe space for executives to share their concerns or sense-check ideas. This support strengthens the bond between executive and assistant, enhancing job satisfaction and loyalty. Particularly in high-pressure corporate environments, executives may encounter stressful situations that can impact their emotional wellbeing. An assistant offers a calming presence and practical support. By understanding how to de-escalate tense situations and manage emotions effectively, they contribute to a more balanced and focused executive performance.

Team players

And it’s not limited to interactions with executives; it also extends to how assistants engage with their colleagues and team members. By recognizing and managing their own emotions and those of others, assistants contribute to a more positive and harmonious work environment. They can diffuse conflicts, foster effective communication and promote teamwork, all of which are essential for a cohesive and productive team. They also play a crucial role in building and nurturing organizational culture. By embodying the values, mission and vision of the company, they act as ambassadors and role models for other employees. Through their interactions with team members, clients and stakeholders, they promote open communication and a sense of camaraderie.

Additionally, assistants often facilitate team-building activities, organize social events and recognize employee achievements, all of which contribute to a more vibrant and cohesive company culture. Their ability to adapt, problem-solve and offer support helps create an environment where employees feel valued, motivated and connected, ultimately enhancing overall organizational culture.

The best of both worlds

The good news is that you can have the best of both worlds. By integrating AI technologies strategically, assistants can augment their effectiveness and productivity. However, it is essential to strike a balance between automation and human skills. Utilizing AI as a supportive tool will enhance the assistant’s performance and free up their time to concentrate on more strategic work and the more human aspects of the assistant's role, which will in turn have a positive impact on both your executive’s productivity and your organization’s bottom line.

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