Who’s dictating now?

Secretaries and PAs are knowledge
workers with raised expectations. Helen Vandevelde warns that employers must
invest in their skills

Time was when the first
task of the day for the secretary was to make the coffee. These days, smart
managers make their own. And the really sharp ones will be pouring out the
aromatic jump start which their secretaries need to launch their day, while
their secretaries get on with acknowledging the e-mails and prioritising the
voicemails that have come in overnight.

The development of information and
communications technology has made the work of PAs, secretaries and management
assistants, well, more managerial. They’re expected to research for information
on the Web, keep up with data on the company intranet, work remotely with
managers away on business or with colleagues in different time zones.

“They’re expected to cope in the
digital world,” comments Will Hawkins, business development manager for
Microsoft Press in the UK.

Above all, secretaries are required
to program and reprogram their minds for different tasks.

“Secretaries will need to be
proactive self-starters who can take autonomous decisions based on often
inadequate information,” observes Adrie van der Luijt, chief editor of
DeskDemon.com, the online support service for PAs and management assistants.

As technology protocols process
routine work, the humans deal with the exceptions. If you’re no good at solving
problems, secretarial work isn’t for you.

It comes as no surprise, then, that
employees value training well above other benefits.

Research by Office Angels, one of
the UK’s leading secretarial and office support recruitment consultancy,
reveals that more than half of these employees prefer flexible benefits to pay

And 93 per cent of them single out training
as their most prized benefit.

Flexible benefits

The Office Angels research also
showed some 30 per cent of employers in the sample had introduced flexible
benefits in the last two years.

These employers recognise the need
to attract, motivate and retain talented staff in a competitive labour market.

Secretaries too understand the
importance of skills updating in an increasingly technology-driven environment.

The myriad uses of videocoms that are
just around the corner will make today’s range of software applications feel
like a gentle scroll around a pixellated park.

And arguably, using the technology
is the easy bit. It’s dealing with the human side of ICT that presents the real
challenge. ICT puts us in contact with more people for shorter periods of time.
Already we “get to know” new people via e-mail.

Swapping several e-mails within a
few days creates a new kind of relationship that was never possible with postal
correspondence, or even fax exchanges.

Secretaries also have to manage a
wider network of relationships. It’s easier to make misjudgments when you don’t
know people’s likes, dislikes and tolerance thresholds.

Deprived of clues

When you’re managing relationships
over a distance, you’re deprived of the clues you get from colleagues’ body
language or from what you learn as a result of sharing the same space with them.

Hawkins observes, “Technology and
the competitiveness as a result has turned the secretarial role inside out.

“There’s less communication with the
manager, but much more relating to other people in  support of the manager.”

As round-the-clock communication
becomes more common, secretaries will need to deal with yet more relationship
variables. They might start their day with a briefing from someone signing off
in Singapore.

And the day could end with a
handover to someone who’s just arrived at work in Winnipeg. Allow the
irritations of the day to interfere in these kinds of exchanges and you’re lost.

All that’s before you start taking
cultural differences into account. “Interpersonal and cross-cultural skills are
high on the agenda,” comments Adrie van der Luijt.

Cultural behaviours

We have just entered the
multicultural century. Just as currencies converge across whole subcontinents,
so will we need to acclimatise to different cultural behaviours and

For many people, this is one of the
most rewarding aspects of globalisation, but it is also one of the most
demanding. So what are the core knowledge-based skills for secretaries and
management assistants? They would seem to be:

– Competence with changing technology
– Versatility in use of software
– An eye for presentation of text and image combinations
– Ability to switch from person-to-person to remote communication
– Web-based research skills
– Remote relational skills
– Versatility between work levels, from compliance to generation of solutions
– Flexible adaptation to work functions, such as switching from machine
interface to diplomatic firmness with a difficult caller
– Cross-cultural sensitivity
– Network management
– Time zone and relay collaboration.

Hawkins sees secretaries in a
decision-making role. “They’re involved in a more hands-on way in the business,
helping to make decisions in the areas of the business they’re working in.”

Kevin Marchand, training and
development manager with EWS Railway, saw the need to integrate secretarial
staff into the work of the team they were supporting, shortly after the company
was formed.

“We’ve included them in team
briefings, but we’ve also developed their time management and report writing
skills,” Marchland said.

Which strategy to adopt?

Adrie van der Luijt doesn’t rate
providing blanket training throughout the organisation. Instead, he suggests
that training managers should “work with people to help them develop into
self-confident, proactive team players who really add value to your

He also confirms that the days of
dictating to secretaries have disappeared. Van der Luijt points out that in
Sweden, inadequate training and a lack of respect for the secretarial
profession has led to the closure of the last secretarial college.

“Big-name Swedish companies are
desperate for qualified people who want to work as secretaries. We haven’t
quite reached that point in the UK, but there’s a real danger that the best
people will leave to work on their own terms”.

Employers who fail to invest in
their secretaries’ employability may find themselves having a lot more to do
than just making the coffee…

Helen Vandevelde is a
business consultant and professional speaker on the future of work, helen@workingahead.com
 She will deliver a keynote presentation
on talent management in the global economy at the IQPC Forum for HR and
recruitment directors in London on 25 June

Case study
Cash bonuses for
Microsoft users

One popular knowledge-based
qualification among secretaries is the Microsoft Office User Specialist or
Mous. Its modular structure enables people to exploit the features of Microsoft
desktop applications like Word, Excel, Access, Outlook and Powerpoint. Entrants
get the result of the one-hour assessment within minutes.

Will Hawkins says he receives
positive feedback from people who have completed the qualification. “They refer
to the advantage of a globally recognised qualification. People say they’re
more productive and it makes life easier because they understand the programmes

“Some people use it to go on to
better things. Others are happy with the enhancement they get with their day-
to-day work,” he says.

Steve Rogers, program manager EMEA
West Microsoft Office User Specialist Program, is himself a Master in Office 97
and Master in Office 2000, in addition to being an authorised instructor in
both. He points out how committed employers are to the scheme.

“Some companies are so keen for
certification to be rolled out that they pay cash bonuses to staff which
achieve these certifications. That’s a sign that employers are taking this very

He adds, “The exam allows candidates
to explore different techniques during the test by utilising a full working
version of the application, unlike other ‘simulation-based’ computer assessment
tests. Thanks to this, candidates have reported learning new features as an
outcome of assessment. That makes taking the exam very satisfying and fun to do.

“Its popularity is growing fast too.
We’re starting to get some major blue-chip companies on board, and public
sector too like county councils and police forces.’

Marion Coles, IT training and user
support manager with Nabarro Nathanson, one of the UK’s leading commercial law
firms, saw Mous as an opportunity to raise the profile and skill level of the
firm’s trainers, as well as the secretarial staff. “I thought, ‘This is great.
Our training centre can become an approved testing centre and our trainers will
have the opportunity to work to the highest level and gain the respect they

“The secretaries grew in confidence
in their ability to use the applications. They were given a globally recognised
benchmark to enable them to work to the highest level. That’s exactly what

Case study
employability at EWS Railway

EWS Railway developed its Moving
Into Management Programme in 1999. It is open to all employees, and aims to
develop employability skills with participants setting the agenda.

Kevin Marchand says, “It’s a
programme that aims to draw out the potential of people with latent talent.
Basically, it’s up to them. They put themselves forward and they’ve got a lot
of learning to do. Most of the people have succeeded in getting promotion.”

The programme comprises modules on:

– Self-awareness
– Finance
– Basic management skills

The learning package also includes
work shadowing and managing a project. It is accredited through the OCR
validating body.

Participants have been warm in their
endorsement of the programme, according to Marchand. “Comments kept coming back
like, ‘I never knew I could do it’ and ‘this is great; I’ve stretched myself’.
One person told me she’d learnt about things she didn’t know existed.”

Marchand’s attitude to retention
following the programme is realistic too. “They realise that these skills make
them more employable. Will they stay with our company? Well that’s up to us to
keep them attracted to working with us.”

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