Q & A with Jan Jones: Can Executive Assistants Have Work-Life Balance?
In this article, Author Jan Jones discusses how executive assistants can maintain some sort of work-life balance when they have no backup.
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FlyPrivate: Do you have any advice for EAs who would like to maintain some sort of work-life balance when they have no backup and have to be available 24/7 for their executives even when taking vacation?
Jan Jones: If work-life balance is a priority for you, don’t take a job that doesn’t give you that choice and requires you to be available 24/7. Whether it’s a priority due to family commitments, or your desire to have personal time for other interests, you make work-life choices. You have to decide your priorities and find a job that fits them.
For certain types of executives it’s expected that their EA will be on call beyond normal business hours. EAs who are accustomed to supporting that caliber of executive know what’s required of them. For other assistants, ask about it specifically during the interview. If you are concerned about how it might come across, you could ask about the executive’s work style preferences. If they say that their weekends are family time, you’ll know that you probably won’t be disturbed over the weekend. If they go to the gym, get coffee and catch up on the news first thing in the morning, likely you can have those early hours free for your own routines. If they say “I work all hours”, you’ll know what you are in for. Pin down the executive as best you can in order to determine if you’ll routinely be required 24/7, or whether you can have some guarantee of private time outside of regular business hours.
Business is constantly changing so even if you were told you won’t be needed 24/7, your hours may start increasing as the business environment shifts. In that case, have a conversation with your manager to determine if this will be ongoing or temporary and try to establish some middle ground balance that suits both of you.
One assistant shared that her boss agreed not to contact her between 5:00 pm – 9:00 pm because that was family time when her kids did homework, ate dinner, relaxed and it gave her time to catch up with her husband. Once her kids were in bed, she would resume working if necessary. So these are the kinds of parameters you can establish with your executive to make sure you have private time, but are not completely out of reach.
I understand that assistants may feel frustrated because they don’t set the agenda and that makes life feel out of control. But even if you don’t set the agenda, you can manage the agenda. Set guidelines with your manager that work for both of you. Negotiate the parameters as early in your tenure as possible. Know that if you let creep happen and the hours start to get longer and longer, it’s up to you to manage it. Remember though, if you are inflexible you could end up in a strained working relationship and find you are not invited to participate in brainstorming sessions, or given meatier assignments. You have work-life choices. Choose wisely and accept the consequences of your choices.
Being on call has been typical for higher-level executive assistants even before email and smartphones invaded the workplace. It’s simply the nature of the EA role, especially for EAs whose executives partner closely and rely on them. 24/7 is routine for that breed of assistant who, like me, thrives on being central to the action and appreciates the fluid nature of business. But that work style doesn’t suit most assistants. On-call EAs should remember not to overdo it. Burnout sneaks up on you and at some point even the most committed assistant needs time to decompress and rejuvenate body and soul away from the business.
For better or worse, these days I don’t know of any senior-level assistants who go on vacation without checking in with work at some point. If you are going on vacation and have no backup, decide with your executive how they’d like your responsibilities covered. If they don’t want to bring in a temp, or use one of the other assistants, try not to leave them stranded. Some assistants say they like their manager to experience what life is like when they’re not around. OK, but be prepared in case they also realize what is missing when you are around. I like hearing from executives who tell me how thoughtful their assistants are, that even when the EA is not there, they’ve thought things through and made sure their executive is not left high and dry.
Showcase your anticipation skills and come up with contingency plans for when you are away. Offer to find a time when your executive can reach you if necessary. Or, set up a time when you will check in to make sure your executive doesn’t have anything pressing they need from you. Let them know if you are able to occasionally check messages if your vacation plans permit. I’m not encouraging you to do this; I’m simply suggesting alternatives if your executive will be left to their own devices while you are gone.
In jobs where I had an assistant, when I went on vacation we set up a time for her to call me every day so we could keep current. If later in the day I had some time to spare, I would give her a quick call just to check in. Even though I had an assistant who covered for me, I completed or got started on recurring work such as end-of-month reports, meeting agendas, signing purchase orders, etc., so work could proceed in my absence and I wouldn’t be too far behind when I got back. I briefed my executive thoroughly on the status of outstanding projects, let him know that I would be checking in daily with my assistant, and assured him I was available if he needed to get in touch.
Being a 24/7 EA suited me because my work gives me energy. It’s a means of self-expression. The role allows me to do something I’m passionate about. If your lifestyle preferences cannot accommodate being available at all hours, then choose a job that doesn’t place such demands on your time. Your work should support your life choices and those choices should be made without guilt or anxiety. Then, in the words of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, you can have work-life harmony.
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