Published April 28, 2011
While actress Heather Locklear and "Daily Show" regular Jason Jones are reported to be teaming up for a new TV show called "The Assistants," America’s four million real-life administrative assistants are observing Administrative Professionals Week (April 25 - 29).
A lot has changed since office workers started celebrating that Administrative Professionals Day in the 1950s. Back then, it was called National Secretary’s Day. In those days secretaries took dictation in “shorthand” on steno pads and then typed up their boss’s bon mots on manual typewriters.
Fast-forward to 2011. Computers stand sentry on desktops. Smartphones chime personalized ring-tones in every corner of the office; fax machines gather dust, while broadband-enabled scanners are working overtime. Workers communicate with colleagues and clients through e-mail and video conferencing. And people collaborate through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Technology has upped the administrative professionals’ game and created unprecedented opportunities for office workers. Today’s admins are now essential partners in the 24/7 world of global business and more empowered than ever to drive business growth.
Much of that change has been spurred by technology, which has redefined the role of administrative professionals in the workplace and freed them up to participate more than their predecessors did back in the days of "Leave it to Beaver."
Today’s office professionals master a variety of skills to fill a myriad of roles: from computer software expert, to business systems professional, to the office manager who keeps the workplace humming.
Over the years, many cultural hierarchies have broken down -- and administrative professionals working everywhere, from real estate offices to neighborhood banks, are playing a bigger role in the way business gets done.
According to a recent IAAP survey, administrative professionals today are branching out into non-traditional roles including budget analysis, research, project management and internal communications. Nearly 60 percent of admins today are buying software, learning how to use it and training the rest of the office, including management.
Technology has driven this transformation of the administrative profession. Consider how much electric typewriters changed the workplace.
Back in 1961, IBM introduced the Selectric, which revolutionized the day-to-day life of office workers. Its design enabled typists’ fingers to fly across the keyboard at unprecedented speed. A top-notch typist could clock 90 words a minute versus 50 with a traditional electric typewriter. Because of this innovation, the productivity of the American office worker practically doubled overnight. It also paved the way for keyboards to emerge as the primary way for people to interact with computers, as opposed to pressing buttons or levers.
Personal computers hit the scene in the1980s, which marked another radical change for office workers. Not only did PCs change business by processing information faster than typewriters – they altered the way the world did business and quickly became an office necessity.
The rise of the Internet in the 1990s, coupled with the advent of broadband in the early 2000s, provided the glue for the interconnected world and proliferation of mobile devices that we now take for granted.
Another technology that has transformed the administrative professional's job is instant messaging. It reduces the psychological distance they feel with their managers by "being there when you aren't." Remote or long-distance support -- a fact of life in many companies -- would be incomprehensible if IMing didn't keep execs and assistants connected.
While this is the latest change, it is certainly not the last that will create opportunities for administrative professionals. Technology will continue to drive productivity that was unimaginable a few decades ago. A 2011 IAAP Survey found that the majority of admins rate continued technology training to be their No. 1 priority. Technology has and will continue to be a game-changer in the workplace.
It remains to be seen how long Heather Locklear's TV team of frazzled assistants will survive. But one thing's for certain: despite the challenges of today's workplace -- maybe because of them -- administrative professionals will remain the backbone of any well-run operation.
Lillian Davis is Area Leader, Global Administration for IBM, based in San Antonio, Texas. Susan Fenner, Ph.D. is IAAP’s Education Manager, based in Kansas City, Missouri.