“He may act like he wants a secretary, but most of the time they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress,” says office manager Joan Holloway to new recruit Peggy Olson in Season One of Mad Men. The show, which returns to AMC for its sixth season on April 7, revels in the ghosts of offices past: drinking on the job, racist jokes, typewriters. Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency is built around a charmingly retro (if gallingly sexist) division of labor. Secretaries screen calls, arrange meetings, manage calendars—and often make great wives—allowing their bosses to create life-changing ad campaigns and go out for boozy client lunches. Tellingly, everyone’s desk looks fastidiously neat. Those were the days.
Fifty years later, as a result of changing technology and cost-cutting, assistants are disappearing from corporate life, along with their cousins, executive assistants, office managers, and clerks. “There’s absolutely no question that fewer people have secretaries now,” says Pat Cook, a corporate recruiter who places executives at blue chip companies. “People at the C level, the chief marketing level, and so on, probably still do have an assistant. But when you get below that level, it’s free fall.” This does reduce head count, but, she adds, “everybody agrees that they could be so much more productive if they did have an assistant.”
A 2011 article in the Harvard Business Review, “The Case for Executive Assistants,” points out that surfing Expedia (EXPE) to book business trips and itemizing expense reports is hardly an efficient use of a senior executive’s time. For someone earning close to $1 million a year, an $80,000-a-year assistant needs to help the boss become only 8 percent more productive for the company to break even. “When workers see the boss loading paper into the copy machine, the theory goes, a ‘we’re all in this together’ spirit is created,” writes the article’s author, Melba Duncan. “But as a management practice, the structure rarely makes economic sense. Generally speaking, work should be delegated to the lowest-cost employee who can do it well.”
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Many assistants do their work very well. “I’m a people person, so the job fit my personality,” says Keri Crump, who was an executive assistant at Bank of America and Calvin Klein. “I’d take all of the little stuff off of my boss’s hands so she could deal with the big stuff. And I enjoyed doing it.” Ted Childs Jr., a former top executive in IBM’s (IBM) human resources department, describes the awkward transition that followed when he lost his assistant and began to share an admin with his entire team. “My assistant used to screen my e-mail—I probably got 200 or 300 messages a day. Without that, I had to read them all myself and sort out the garbage from the important people,” he says. “I had to set aside time in the evenings to do it, because I had meetings during the day.”
Childs’s situation is now the norm. In Women Laid Off, Workers Sped Up, a paper for the Roosevelt Institute, authors Bryce Covert and Mike Konczal note that women lost 925,000 jobs in “office and administrative support” occupations between 2009 and 2011. And they point out that the continuing “speedup” within the economy has workers taking on ever-increasing burdens, often without extra compensation. In a 2011 survey by the International Association of Administrative Professionals, 52 percent of assistants said they supported three or more people, and they reported a median salary of $45,000. “This trend has been going on over the last 20 or so years,” says Childs. “There’s been a steady change in culture and management practice and a need to reduce costs,” he says. “A gatekeeper is nice. I don’t know if a gatekeeper is affordable.”
In addition to having gainful employment, some of those gatekeepers found fulfillment. “I loved being an executive assistant,” says Victoria Prestia, who worked at the Sears corporate headquarters before getting laid off in 2007. “We’d free up our boss’s time. Now they’re doing their own travel, their own scheduling, their own spreadsheets. I feel like I really helped my boss with his productivity,” she says. Assistants reduce office chaos. (Setting aside that notable Mad Men incident involving a secretary, a lawn mower, and a severed foot.) “A great executive assistant is someone who can manage the scheduling insanity and keep the wheels turning,” says Kim Kelleher, president of Say Media, an Internet marketing firm. “An excellent executive assistant is someone who can do all of those things and get you home on time to see your family,” she says. “I’m thankful every day for Melissa Jimenez, my excellent executive assistant.”
In industries where assistant jobs often had functioned as apprenticeships, younger workers have seen entryways into careers shut down. Rachel Hooper, now an analytic consultant at Truven Health Analytics, started out as a secretary for the Tennessee Department of Health. “I used my downtime there to learn about databases, and when one of my colleagues left for another company, she knew my skills and essentially took me with her,” Hooper says. “My secretary job allowed me to network and learn new skills for climbing the ladder.”
The assistant-free mentality is especially prevalent in Silicon Valley, where part of the high-tech CEO machismo entails bragging about “flat” organizations and self-reliance. This has spawned an online cottage industry of experts trying to teach the masses how to better manage their time. A particularly absurd entry on the Lifehacker blog, titled “How to Turn Your Phone Into a Mind-Reading Personal Assistant,” lists more than a dozen apps and tricks to help stay on top of e-mails, flight delays, and to-do lists. At least one former assistant is trying to remake herself for the new era—60-year-old Jo Ann Plante held administrative positions at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island and Citizens Bank and eventually became an office manager for a financial planner. She left her job in 2009 to care for her ailing mother but couldn’t find a full-time position when she tried to return to the workforce two years later. She recently launched a virtual personal assistant business, Virtual Colleague, out of her home. “My selling point to potential clients is that they don’t have to pay benefits, and they don’t need to provide a computer, a desk, and a telephone for someone,” says Plante.
A Jan. 4 blog post by Chad Dickerson, the chief executive officer of online retailer Etsy, suggests a backlash against the assistant-purge in corporate America may be imminent. Titled “I’m Hiring an Executive Assistant,” it included a lively section about the job’s duties. “You will keep my calendar in order when sometimes the time slots move so fast it feels more like a video game than a calendar,” read one bullet point, along with others such as “Organize travel and make sure all aspects of trips work seamlessly from start to finish” and “Schedule board and investor meetings amongst some of the busiest people in the world, then make them seamless technically, logistically, and culinarily.” His outgoing assistant, Jen McKaig, piped in, “I like to think of it as a bodyguard position, and the bodies you’re guarding are Chad’s time and the company’s momentum.”
Dickerson included one final disclaimer: “Earlier in my career, I thought having an executive assistant was a bit vain, but now I know that most companies would fall apart without them.” As Don Draper puts it, “I’d have my secretary do it, but she’s dead.”
Photograph by Jeff Minton for Bloomberg Businessweek