Los Angeles Times
That assistant may someday be your boss, so show respect
With the pandemic came expanded duties, followed by new titles and improved pay.
Before the pandemic, executive assistant Yasmin Chung managed thousands of meetings right from her desk at the office, keeping a watchful eye on conference rooms, attendees and her bosses — one of whom was the ceremonial lord mayor of London. Today, her job is often virtual.
“Sometimes my boss sends a last-minute Slack message if a meeting is running over, but it depends on how easily he can message to tell me,” Chung said of her executive assistant gig at Juro, the legal-contract platform where she now works. “It’s a bit harder to anticipate where people are. I do feel more tied to a screen.”
Just as secretarial roles were upended by technology and the women’s movement, the job of assistants is now in flux. Since the pandemic, the position has evolved from predominantly in-person and hands-on to an often virtual and digital role, centering on a seemingly impossible task: keeping track of people in myriad locations, not unlike a surprise game of Pokemon Go. In turn, job titles, responsibilities and daily tasks are changing.
“They’re doing a lot of video calls and also sitting in on more meetings than they did pre-pandemic, in order to stay in the loop,” said Bonnie Low-Kramen, owner of Ultimate Assistant Training & Consulting, who worked for actress Olympia Dukakis for 25 years. “We’re seeing the word ‘assistant’ phased out altogether in some companies.”
Some of the preferred new titles raise eyebrows, such as strategic business partner, administrative partner, administrative lead or coordinator, business project manager and management associate. But assistants say the titles are more reflective of their increasing responsibilities.
“The stigma with ‘assistant’ has to do with the stereotypes of secretaries as the put-upon lackeys in ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ ” LowKramen said. “Some people really suffer from old ideas of what an assistant is.”
Assistant roles now consistently attract people who don’t want to be typecast as admins, particularly at competitive firms where assistant positions may be the easiest points of entry. The changing trajectory of assistants is evident at TransPerfect, a translation company with 7,500 employees. Some assistants have gone on to run divisions, and one former top aide is now chief of staff, said Chief Executive Phil Shawe, who employs eight assistants globally. Not one does primarily entry-level work such as booking appointments and travel.
“Often they’re taking meetings for me and representing the firm, and eventually becoming executives in their own right,” Shawe said. “I always tell people that you should hire someone you would want to go into business with, even if it doesn’t seem like that’s the needed skill set.”
U.S. executive assistants are 93% female, with an average salary of $66,870 in 2021, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Executive assistants in fields such as tech and finance earn much more, averaging nearly $90,000. Low-Kramen said jobs supporting the C-suite often start at $100,000, with a chief of staff beginning at $125,000 to $150,000. Typically, managing other assistants pays substantially more. The data don’t capture those with upgraded job titles.
The pay boosts that come with these new titles can be substantial.
“If I call myself an associate, I’m more likely to get management-level remuneration,” said Jill Larmer, who has worked as a secretary and assistant on four continents since 1979. As her duties expanded, from entry-level tasks, to writing board minutes that align with legal strategy and drafting board resolutions, to eventually taking entire projects off the desks of executives, she felt that “assistant” was no longer accurate.
“I assisted amazing leaders, and they mentored me in management skills,” she said. “It got to the point where as a mark of respect to them, and also to acknowledge the level of skill that I had gained, I decided to change my title to management associate.”
Perhaps the biggest shift in the field is a new preference for extreme self-starters. Support roles have always involved staying three steps ahead of the boss, but the job now often involves figuring out how to make things happen while working physically apart from others.
“No one’s putting task lists in their faces every day,” Shawe said.
The all-hands-on-deck ethos of the pandemic has resulted in expanded workloads, with assistants keeping fingers in a broader array of specialized work.
“I’m involved in more granular details of the business, and it’s probably more intense now,” Rebecca Burgess said of her role as executive assistant to the CEO at the international banking firm Interpolitan Money. “I attend a lot of meetings on behalf of the CEO.”
One task that has grown extensively is monitoring communications. A penchant for back-to-back Zoom meetings is leaving many bosses busier than they were pre-pandemic. Some assistants have formal check-ins with their bosses as often as twice daily, which were unnecessary when working together in the same office. Others now serve as mission control for entire hybrid staffs, answering queries that were once answered casually in hallways.
“I’ve spoken to most of the people in the company because they feel comfortable Slacking me,” Chung said.
The average company has 187 apps in its tech stack. For Chung, this includes email, text messages, Slack, Google Drive, an HR platform and Notion, where she can see tasks her boss is working on. Chung also manages seven email inboxes: her boss’, her own, multiple company general addresses and her boss’ personal accounts. Other companies use organizational tools such as Trello or Asana, as well as internal communications apps.
“Information is f lowing in a very fragmented way,” Low-Kramen said. “This has felt very new for even the most experienced assistants, and many are at the point where they’re raising it as an issue. Things are falling through the cracks.”
Chung noted that assistants’ newly expanded roles come with more appreciation from staffers. “Compared to previous roles I’ve had, there’s more respect now.”