image image 21st January 2021

Putting the PA in PAndemic

More like putting the PA in ‘when will this PAndemic bugger off and let us get on with our jobs?’

For those of you working as a personal or executive assistant, you’ll be very familiar with the array of tasks that work their way onto your to do list. From personal errands to minute taking, our job is a hybrid of everyone else’s at the company, with us needing to understand every function to be able to properly support our executives.

None of this has changed since lockdown started. Our skills are possibly needed more than ever as quick catch ups and overheard conversations in the kitchen aren’t happening, we find ourselves having to work twice as hard to find out information.

Now, for anyone reading this who isn’t a PA/EA, I don’t mean it to sound like we’re spying (a joke that was made during my first few weeks) but there is this sense of detective work as you untangle information you’ve been given, or navigate confidential information. A big part of my role is giving my execs a heads up, and that’s a lot easier to do when you are working side by side with the team.

One thing I’ve really struggled with is knowing how the team are truly feeling. We have 4 mental health first aiders which I am one of, but unlike in the office where you can tell just by the way someone says good morning that something has changed since yesterday, online you see just a snippet of them that they’ve choreographed for the meeting they’re attending.

This is probably not news to anyone I work with; I didn’t enjoy having my desk on reception. The constant distractions made up of doorbells, phones ringing, people gathering for a chat and the side glances when the coffee machine needed cleaning often tested my patience.

But I’m going to be honest, I miss it. I miss feeling useful and being able to say hi to every Shedder as they start their day and I actually miss making hot drinks for people (after leaving a 10 year career in hospitality to start this job, I never thought I’d say that).

I don’t know if it’s just digital companies who use whiteboards and post-it notes for everything, but that’s something I loved looking at when I walked around the office. In a company that relies on technology, the creativity that is sparked through the simplicity of a whiteboard and pen is not only great to watch but also provides much needed context.

Communication has been something we’ve had to work on in all areas of the business, and unlike when you walk past someone who is furiously drawing diagrams on a wipe board and you ask what they’re working on, you can’t see what people are working on which leads to duplication and sometimes a lack of collaboration. Rooted in the foundations of The Data Shed is our value ‘Share Knowledge’, and this has been called upon throughout this year as a way to get conversations started and enable consistency across processes which has really helped to avoid silos.

Now the stress of Christmas has passed I’m in a place where I can look back and smile about it, but as anyone involved in planning a Christmas Party can confirm, the days and weeks prior are chaotic to say the least. Having said that, it’s one of my favorite things to plan, despite one year coming up against a member of the team who refused to eat anything other than chicken nuggets and chips during a 3-course meal..

I was genuinely gutted at the prospect of not being able to see the whole team and end the year on a high. But then, we found Kate (my new favorite person) from the Secret Event Service who has helped plan the most wonderful virtual Christmas party for the team. It seems silly that one evening could make or break a team but it’s so important that everyone has something to look forward to and also know that the directors or managers are making space in the diaries for something that rewards hard work and develops the culture. It might have taken a little extra planning, but it was worth it. I’m lucky to be working with a company whose values I share and one which quickly adapted to working from home, putting a focus on wellbeing and ensuring members of the team feel supported and secure in their jobs.

At the start of lockdown, I went through this real period of feeling like I wasn’t adding anything to the company and my skillset no longer aligned with the role I was in. I felt everyone had an agenda that I didn’t know about and I was constantly having to chase people to include me in things. With minimal diary action, no office-based tasks and limited client meetings due to everyone focusing on a contingency plan, I was lost. Working closely with my executive we realised that my role would need to adapt and cover more areas and whilst the day to day tasks would still go ahead, I needed to fill my time with other things. This was music to my ears as there were so many parts of the business I wanted to learn about.

My passion for Diversity & Inclusion and Mental Health has taken a front seat, and since summer I’ve been able to really spend time exploring potential new avenues – which is something I’m really excited about. Fast forward to the start of 2021 and I’ve been offered a role in Employee Engagement which encompases all the things I enjoy and feel are crucial to team wellbeing and a positive work culture. Some examples of  what makes my role so varied are; leading the recently formed D&I panel, supporting our Mental Health First Aiders and ensuring the wider team have access to wellbeing and health advice, improving our onboarding processes and working alongside others to develop a learning and development framework. Sometimes I think we focus so much on climbing that obvious career ladder we forget that you can step off onto a windowsill and shuffle across to a new ladder, without starting the climb all over again, and I’m grateful I’ve had that opportunity here at t’Shed.

Arranging stationery cupboards has been replaced with organising our Sharepoint site and solving the problem of not having enough desks for new starters has been replaced with the question; how do we get a chair from the office which is closed, during a national lockdown, to a person’s house who doesn’t drive and also keeping a 2 meter distance? Basically, I’m using all the same skills as before but for a different reason and looking at the skills you bring to the table is much more powerful than comparing outputs like for like.

As PA’s and EA’s we’re fortunate to be in the position which allows us to have a holistic view of the company and the projects going on within it. It means we don’t necessarily have an emotional attachment to a decision as it doesn’t impact our role or workload and therefore our opinion is based solely on the bigger outcomes and how everything fits together. With that in mind, we’re able to easily identify the cracks, connect people or projects and be innovative in our ideas, some of which we may be able to own and develop.

The roles of a PA and EA have changed, and we are no longer reactive to the needs of our executives. We’re strategic partners, we’re mental health support, we’re party planners, negotiators, managers and risk assessors. We support everyone from sparkly new team members to company dinosaurs. We can talk to a swimming teacher, a recruiter, a charity partner, a removal company, the coffee supplier, someone selling shredders and an international client all in a single day.

So for the PA’s and EA’s doubting their value in a business and for the Execs that don’t realise the nugget of wisdom you have virtually sitting next to you, don’t underestimate the potential this role provides to a growing business.

If anyone has suggestions on how I can fill the void that not being able to laminate anything has left, that’s something I’m still unsure of. One thing I do know however, is that if you’ve ever navigated an office that’s just run out of coffee, you’re perfectly able to navigate the rest of lockdown!

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