Is the Executive Assistant’s Role Compatible with Work from Home?

In this article, Author Jan Jones, discusses the executive assistant’s role in regard to hybrid and work from home practices.

FlyPrivate is a proud partner and associate of Jan Jones. Jan brings valuable, actionable information to EAs across the globe. We hope you enjoy her blogs as much as we do! 

FlyPrivate: We’ve noticed you commenting on social media recently about the “true role” of the executive assistant in regard to hybrid and work from home (WFH) practices. What is the true role of the executive assistant and which aspects of the EA role lend themselves to hybrid or WFH, if any?

Jan Jones: This is such a hot topic with a lot of passion for and against returning to the office full time, hybrid, or WFH. From various global CEOs’ comments, it seems hybrid and full-time in the office are winning out. Companies fear that hybrid and remote working dilute a cohesive corporate culture and cause loss of creativity like when people meet spontaneously in the hallway, or at the water cooler, to exchange ideas. Employers are being empathetic now because people are mentally fragile, but as things settle down, many will mandate full return to office. My comments in this article are not endorsing any options. I’m simply putting forward whether the role of the true executive assistant suits WFH indefinitely, or permanently.

As far as the work administrative assistants or executive administrative assistants do, key elements of their work consist of procedural and assigned tasks. With a laptop and a phone they can function from anywhere. We’ve seen this long before the pandemic lockdown. Unfortunately, the very thing that makes it possible for assistants to enjoy the WFH lifestyle that many covet, is what’s causing them to be replaced, as companies speed up the digitization process, post-pandemic. We had a clear reminder of this in recent weeks when Deloitte UK announced the layoff of 500+ administrative staff. This follows substantial layoffs of assistants at firms such as Ernst & Young and KPMG. Deloitte said: “The shift to remote working will speed up the digitization of staff services, reducing the need for administrative staff.” What many missed is that Deloitte said only the most senior management would retain their executive assistants. Hmm. Senior level executive assistants keep their job, administrative assistants lose theirs.

I understand that many administrative and executive administrative assistants may not wish to work in the manner I describe here, or even think it’s necessary. Their mindset and the functions they perform are different from someone who serves the “true role” of the executive assistant. Remember, true role of the executive assistant is not dependent on the age, or years of service of an assistant. It’s dependent on a mindset that views the role as a calling, not a job. Any assistant with a deep love for the role and everything it embodies, who understands the inherent purpose of the role and is committed to bringing their heart and soul to the work, is serving the true role of the executive assistant.

True-role assistants have a service-oriented mindset. They understand that delivering on the executive’s requirements is premium. They are the facilitator, but the job is never about them, even though they are central to the outcome. They have an innate understanding of the purpose of the role and strive incessantly to fulfill it.

True-role assistants accurately exemplify the definition of the tested, proven, agreed-upon and sought-after executive assistant (which I wrote about in my book). They are steeped in its core principles, performing all key functions of the role at the highest levels of excellence, with a focus on delivering results. They understand the impact of the work they do with their executives and the purpose behind the work. They bring their totality to the role, not only their technical and “soft” skills, which I call “Intangibles” in my book.

True-role executive assistants understand they are their executive’s key ally and first line of defense. They are self-starters who are fully invested in the partnership with their executive. Along with a true-role mindset, they also embody an executive mindset, meaning they think comprehensively about the business at all levels, not only their specific area of operation. This big picture perspective helps them do their job effectively. It keeps them focused on the purpose of what they are doing and keeps them motivated through challenging situations – and heaven knows there are plenty of those.

Their executive is their priority. They are ever-present, in the thick of it with their executive, helping to build the business in real time. These are the assistants who are most likely serving as EAs to the CEOs of companies that have mandated a return to office, such as Chase, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs. They are the ones exempt from those massive layoffs.

For all executive assistants, this role is a high-touch customer service one. Who are your customers? Your immediate executive, their direct reports, your team members, the wider organization and your company’s clients. You are in service to this business ecosystem. Executives cannot “touch” everyone they should, so they rely on you as their deputy, to help them do exactly that. You are an extension of your executive and you “touch” that extended world on their behalf.

To do that, sitting cozily at home in fluffy slippers, sweats, and uncombed hair, with a bowl of potato chips by your side, won’t cut it. You’ve got to look and feel like you mean business and get out in front of stakeholders, clients and fellow employees. You must be visible, letting everyone know there’s a leader in the house and employees are not alone, fending for themselves. That’s exactly how many EAs stepped up during the pandemic, virtually and in-person. When Richard Branson was asked why he took the trip on Virgin Galactic to the edge of space recently, he said his company will be selling seats to customers for those flights, so he had to show them it’s safe. The way to provide that assurance was to take the journey himself. As I like to say – “Showing is better than telling.” Richard Branson clearly understands that and so must you.

Business is capricious and fast-moving. Working alongside their executives, executive assistants must help their executives keep ahead of rapidly changing trends and fickle customers. The assistant has to be flexible and available. They have to be on call. Incidentally, this is not something particular to “modern day assistants.” It’s always been this way. Long before computers and internet, assistants were taking late-night and early morning calls from their executives, who would inform them of the latest updates the assistant needed to handle immediately they arrived at the office. Before the telephone was invented, (yes, there was such a time; no I wasn’t born and anyway, you had to be a male to be a secretary in those days), secretaries would receive a note from their bosses, delivered to their homes. Suddenly the secretary’s life was thrown into turmoil as they rushed to get to the office and get a jump on things. With laptops and cellphones at their disposal, EAs today have access to more resources, but that hasn’t lessened the demands of the job.

Something interesting: The first telephone call in history was made by the inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, to his assistant Thomas Watson. He said, “Mr. Watson come here, I want to see you.” That happened in March 1876. Mr. Watson’s name is in the history books. Just think of what he’d have missed if he were working from home.

Being accessible and available comes with the territory and every bona fide executive assistant knows it’s the nature of the job. That’s why I believe and say repeatedly, “Being an executive assistant is not a job – it’s a calling.” You have to want to do it, and you do it because the satisfaction, joy and sense of purpose you derive from the achievement of a job well done, is worth it to you.  

A 9-5, Monday-Friday mentality would not work for someone who sees themselves as integral to the success of their executive and the business. When the call comes, a true executive assistant answers it because they understand the immediate and demanding nature of business.

Can you set up boundaries so you aren’t being taken advantage of? Of course you can. Be clear with your executive that when you are called during family breakfast time on a Sunday morning, it’s for a darn good reason. That way you don’t become overworked and resentful. You trust your executive’s motives and you build that trust by being around them, seeing them in action, seeing how they respond to you, how they treat you. You understand how they respond to the rhythm of business, and you fall into that rhythm. Now you are truly in partnership and it brings a smile to your face.

My assessment – which is shared by countless executives and assistants – is that the true role of the executive assistant does not lend itself to absentee assisting indefinitely. You can’t learn the intricacies of business by being remote, any more than you can other life skills. Just ask school and college kids who tried to learn via Zoom this past year. They hated the experience and don’t feel like they learned much. Parents likened it to “brain torture.” What did students miss most? Being able to talk to other students directly and make physical contact with them.

Technology-enabled assistants who can work from home permanently are more akin to executive administrative assistants, who provide elements of senior-level input and support, but probably should not claim to be “business partners,” if they are permanently working in absentia.

In my first job I worked for two business partners. They were in the office together. They were in constant communication about all manner of things on which they agreed and disagreed. I learned first hand how partnerships worked. Communication and proximity are key. Every CEO I worked for, was relentlessly in communication with their direct reports and their assistant. I was constantly in and out of their offices because I needed something, or they needed something from me. We were all an integral part of the operation. Even when they were away, we were in frequent communication. At some point, the original momentum remote assistants had from being face-to-face with their executive will wane, and their skills will plateau. You need a frequent fresh injection of energy, motivation and upskilling. The role is high touch, highly interactive, responding in real time to the cadence of business, ready to tackle any issues that need immediate resolution. Remote assistants lag behind. Someone needs to tell you what’s going on because you are not there to experience it first hand.

We didn’t need the pandemic to prove that technology enables us to work from anywhere. That’s been the case since laptops and smartphones were invented. Executives have routinely taken days away from the office for strategic thinking and planning. As a practical matter, assistants can be located anywhere and use technology to do functional, transactional tasks, but are they functioning as a true executive assistant?

For managers and executives who’ve never experienced a true executive assistant, transactional, remotely located assistants might do just fine. The quality of the help they need, can be sufficiently provided by an administrative assistant in the office, or remotely, because they are using you in an administrative capacity, not as an executive assistant, no matter what your title says. Your specific EA expertise such as inter-personal skills, communication, emotional intelligence, intuition, observation skills, being a sounding board, are not a full-time requirement for them.

What has always been special and unique about the EA role is that personal touch. The “little” things that cement the bonds of the relationship like bringing your executive a sandwich if her meetings end up being back-to-back, or sitting together at the end of the day to review status and have some chit-chat that’s always full of insights, going deeper into the business, insider gossip and such. Having people drop by who want to exchange how the day went, what they’re working on, an exciting new account they’ve landed. None of these spontaneous personal interactions are possible if you are not in the office. This is how you brush up on your business expertise, receiving unscheduled, direct mentoring from your executive that stays with you throughout your career.

And then there’s that special skill assistants bring to the workplace – emotional intelligence. How do you connect with others and demonstrate your emotional intelligence remotely? How do you display your sensitivities digitally? How do you use your power to influence if you haven’t first built personal trust? People are much more inclined to trust your motives, or follow your lead, if they’ve established an in-person rapport first.

If we remember that intrinsic to the role of the EA is deputizing as their executive’s ambassador, then WFH assistants are not true deputies. Ambassadors are on site, assessing, lobbying, communicating, coordinating on behalf of their boss and reporting back on the lay of the land. How does a remote EA do this on a large scale? They don’t. There’s no first-hand exposure or experience of what’s going on in real time. No last-minute stepping into a meeting on behalf of your executive who is backed up and sadly in need of relief.

I’ve been inundated with messages from assistants who are back at the office and from others who are still remote and waiting to see, hoping for hybrid. Some are thrilled to be back in the office, others are ambivalent. For someone like me who’s used to being at the helm on behalf of my executive, I’d be back in the office like a lightning bolt even if my executive chose hybrid or remote. Being my executive’s surrogate is in my blood. I’m the one who “touches” his stakeholders on his behalf. It is fundamental to my role, so it is incumbent on me to serve all the parties concerned in the most visible and effective way possible. To me – technology or no technology – the office is still command central, so that’s where I would be. Central and in command. And I’m delighted to hear from executive assistants who feel the same way.

Some executive-assistant partnerships require onsite collaboration. Others are more transactional requiring less contact. Top-level EAs are not yet as imperiled as administrative professionals from having their roles digitized. Now that I’ve refreshed your memory about the true role of the executive assistant, decide at which end of the assistant spectrum you’d like to be and make your choice accordingly. In light of the comment from Deloitte about digitization reducing the need for administrative staff, administrative assistants may wish to recalibrate their mindset and upskill the functions they perform, to emulate the true executive assistant. Do your homework and consider your options for long-term success. As an assistant, you are versatile and adaptable, so your future looks bright ahead.

©The CEO’s Secret Weapon. The ideas expressed in this article and any text extracted from “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” are the intellectual property and copyrighted to Jan Jones. All rights reserved. No unauthorized usage or duplication by any means is permitted without the express consent of the author.

Author: Jan Jones

Want more from Jan Jones? Check out her Q & A Series!

Jan Jones is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness.” The book has received widespread acclaim from executives and executive assistants worldwide. Jan spent 20+ years as an esteemed international executive assistant to well-known business people, including Tony Robbins, the world’s #1 business and life strategist. Jan continues to champion the executive assistant profession with her writing, consulting and speaking. She offers timeless, practical advice that is relevant to the day-to-day role of the executive assistant. 

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