The May 2011 issue Harvard Business Review is dedicated to “How to Get More Done,” a topic that consumes a lot of us as we try to do more with less, while simultaneously pedaling uphill during our current recession. There are a few good articles in the issue but the one that got me thinking is about the role of administrative support (The Case for Executive Assistants by Melba J. Duncan is available here.) The point of the article is that cutting back on support staff is not a route to productivity for a team, and that, in fact, adding support staff, delegating more to them, and letting them help more with “air traffic control” is the better decision.
One thing that’s changed a lot is the amount of communication we all are doing and the platforms we’re doing it on. Because individuals are available on multiple channels, it’s become a lot more difficult for support staff to do their jobs.
Example: someone on the support team is trying to set up a meeting with staff and Board members. A meeting request goes out, and how might we hear back? A couple of weeks ago, this happened at our office. Several people replied to the Outlook meeting request. A couple of others texted my mobile phone. One replied via Facebook. And yet another replied to my personal email account. Of course a few didn’t reply at all. Chaos.
There are multiple reasons this can happen. The first is that there is no single platform (yet?) that is widely used for getting people to the same place at the same time. Go to meeting, Doodle, Evite, Outlook invitations, Google calendar — everyone is using a different platform. Even if we decided that internally, everyone will use the same platform, externally, there is no single ubiquitous option. So the live and in-person support person becomes the communications hub, bridging the technology divide and injecting a human (and humane) touch into one of the most frustrating and time-consuming activities of contemporary business life. The answer to: when can we get together to talk about this? is not a simple one!
The second reason people feel comfortable communicating via whatever channel is convenient: there is an underlying assumption that each of us is an individual productivity unit. It is assumed that each person handles her own communication and juggles the channels personally. And this is true! I do it and I’m pretty sure that all of you do it, too. Our brains are coordinating our work “channels,” family channels, our friends’ channels, our tweets, our snail mail, and whatever I’ve forgotten to check lately. We keep track of our electronic task lists and our paper-based grocery lists; we book our own travel; and we synthesize paper, email, and all our other digital communication to construct our daily lives.
The cost of this is, among other things, our serenity. (When is the last time you saw that word?) We all know that breakthrough thinking is more likely at moments of detachment — staring out the window, going for a walk, or thinking about nothing in particular. The cost of commotion is not only physical (stress) but also the way it handicaps the full realization of our work and ourselves. So, if we can’t locate serenity in our lives, breakthrough thinking is unlikely.
So what does this have to do with support staff? Duncan’s HBR article argues that it has a lot to do with it. Some of her reasoning won’t resonate because it is so focused on executive life, but she makes an important point that’s relevant to every organization. She reminds us that support staff add people to the office equation. People who can get things done by interacting with other people. People are a kind of “office technology” that can provide what no software solution can: “troubleshooters, translators, help desk attendants, diplomats, human databases, travel consultants, amateur psychologists, and ambassadors to the inside and outside world.” We’d all do well to consider whether we are counting enough on people to get our work done, and not hoping for the technological silver bullet.
Duncan’s article is a nice reminder that there’s no substitute for the human touch.