I've just read an article that has literally made my blood boil and really riled me up. It's on a topic that I've been meaning to blog about of late and as its a subject that certainly is a hot topic of discussion at the moment. It's also something that has begun to be 'joked about' in my office, but those individuals that choose to joke about it with me should start practicing their 'duck', if you know what I mean! Anyone that says to me that my job will one day be done by a robot should expect a firm fist to fast approach their face! Digital assistants like Siri and Alexa are not a new phenomenon, but with technology fast advancing, there is an idea progressing out there that some day (and some think that this will be some day soon) that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will in fact replace Assistants entirely. Now I'm not sure who these people are that are out there making these proclamations, no doubt they are probably the makers and designers of this technology, but one things is for sure, they are definitely NOT EAs or PAs, nor have they ever been! This topic feels somewhat familiar though, especially given my recent blogs and correlating 'movement' I'm trying to initiate around the demolishment of negative or incorrect stereotypes associated with our roles, and I'll explain why as I go on.
Now the article in question was in fact printed in a leading EA/PA industry magazine. But for a magazine that is written specifically for Assistants, I was surprised to read this. Obviously Virtual Assistants (VAs) are not new to our industry and understandably for some Executives/managers, having an Assistant who is remote to their business works for them, especially when the tasks that are being asked of them don't necessarily need the Assistant to physically be present in the office. But the concept that a robot could take over these tasks entirely is something that I cannot get my head around.
The article suggests that if we don't up-skill ourselves with more training and education, our roles will eventually be made redundant, and I quote from the article, "PAs still need to prove they're essential as technology evolves". It explains that the rise of this AI technology will eventually be so advanced that all the tasks that we do on a daily basis will essentially be able to be done by the likes of Siri, Alexa or some technology similar. It suggests that we should be considering training in areas like HR, finance and marketing, in order to keep a requirement around our positions. Craig Allen, Director at Change Group says in the article that, "PAs are already acquiring new skill sets and extending their roles into other areas", as to "ensure they have a place in the workplace long term". I wonder if his EA/PA (if he even has one) is 'up-skilling' herself given his comments?! I believe though that if you are being forced to do HR, finance or marketing within your EA role, you are probably being taken advantage of, as this is not traditionally part of our role. And if you do some of these functions within your role you absolutely should be having a discussion with your manager around re-titling your role and matching your salary to whatever a marketing/finance/HR manager would earn. I've seen it all too many times before, where small businesses bundle corporate functions into the EA or Office Manager role, just to save on headcount. And we all know that these functions really are so far from what we do, that we would in fact require formal training to do them. But the idea that we should be expanding ourselves to include these functions, just to validate our existence, is nothing less than an insult to what we currently do.
I'm all for further development as Assistants, but it should never be done to validate our roles, or to 'keep' them and ensure we have a place in the workplace. Rather, further training and education should be undertaken to better ourselves so that we are more valuable to those we support. We shouldn't be doing it for fear of rising technology, nor for the fear that our roles may no longer be required!
Some of the experts quoted in the article I actually feel are in no position to speak on behalf of the EA/PA role. I quote, "The role of the PA is one that is often mooted to be at risk from the rise of the robots", says Jeremy Campbell, Chief Commercial Officer at Global HR and payroll provider, SD Worx. "In fact, rather than making PAs redundant, AI is more likely to help complement their role and even add to the overall influence they have within the organization". Words clearly spoken by someone who has never been an EA/PA. The article goes on and explains, as Jeremy reinforced in his quote, that these AIs are something that may in fact make our job easier. If used in conjunction with our own skill sets, they could take over some of the repetitive tasks that we often do. But when I actually stopped and thought about this, I wondered how well these so called robots, could do some of these tasks we commonly do? I know, as no doubt you probably do too, that whenever I ask Siri to do anything, her answer is "I'm sorry, I'm not sure I understand what you mean" or "I'm sorry, I cannot help you with that". I can hardly see myself though, or my Executive for that fact, as tech-savvy as we are, tolerating Alexa or Siri whilst they try to identify by voice recognition the names of all the attendees required at meetings. Not to mention trying to spell out some of the rather complex project names and acronyms we use in our business! But what truly is laughable though is the struggle Siri/Alexa would have trying to find availability of certain company Executives who are booked out for months on end, and who would need the intervention of an Assistant to shift the diary around, just to accommodate what potentially may be an urgent meeting request. On top of that, I would truly wish Siri/Alexa luck in finding available meeting rooms to match the requested meeting times, especially ones that are restricted or not available on the network and that require a manual request of the meeting room owner to book it. Many business processes would have to be adapted, on top of their internal systems, just to accommodate these AIs. And although they say that the technology will develop and get better as they work to produce the 'perfect Assistant', so will we. The fact of the matter is, we all get better every day, every time we perform tasks. Practise makes perfect remember!
The thing is, these tasks that are labelled as 'so simple a robot could do them' can actually be done by us, with our eyes closed in the matter of 1 or 2 seconds, so will this technology actually help us? Or as technology so often does, will it actually fail us? Or hinder us? The idea that a large company full of managers, all asking their robotic assistants to do things, is so far fetched, especially when it comes to calendar synchronisation and integration. Yes they could tell you where you're meeting your next appointment and when, but then again, so will your eyes if you just care to look at your calendar. But Campbell continues in the article and states, "Robotic process automation can operate at the user interface layer of business application and work between existing systems to mimic tasks which were usually carried out by PAs". Now I ask you, what tasks do you think he's referring to? I hate to say it, but clearly another person who really has no idea on the variety of tasks we get asked to do on any given day, and the complexity surrounding them. Once again our job is boxed up and assumed to be something that it's not, and all because of out of date stereotypes that are still attached to the role. Which is ironic given we are talking about the advancement of our roles here. And if we are really going to bring our role out of the dark ages into the 'future', then there needs to be a better understanding of what we do and the value we add. No robot can replace the 'personal touch' we do add to the role, and no matter how much training we embark upon, the personal and human touch we offer, along with the opinions, view points, advice and not to mention, memory of what's been done previously, can never be replaced.
The article states that Deloitte's latest Global Human Capital Trends report revealed that only 16 per cent of leaders surveyed said they felt ready to manage a workforce consisting of both people and AI, and you can see by my points why. But the article also states that research from a luxury support specialist, Change Group, claim that 44 per cent of London-based PAs fear that robots at some point will replace their roles. My message to them is, relax, we aren't going anywhere....trust me. And whilst I'm always an advocate for more training and development, don't let fear dictate you actions on this one.
I'll finish by saying this - although the argument is that AI will improve efficiencies and productivity, essentially that is what we are here to do. And like any business - systems, processes and technology all can do that, but there has to be someone behind all of it - driving it, initiating it and implementing it, and that's where we come in. As much as they want to put the fear into us that AI will either take over our roles entirely, or even partially, at the end of the day, the key part of the EA/PA role that robots will NEVER be able to take over, is relationships. Just think of all the things that will be absent for that manager/Exec if Assistants were no longer there? - the trust, the loyalty, the second set of eyes/ears, the second set of arms and legs when they're too busy to get their coffees or lunch. And I'm not saying that Assistants are just there to get the coffee, but robots will never be able to replicate the relationship and human touch elements that we bring to the table. But it's not just the manager that will suffer without our physical presence, its also the relationships of all the key stakeholders too, both internally and externally. Essentially if Assistants were not there, business' would struggle to run. Others can joke around or blow wind up us by saying that 'we basically run the company', but you know, and I know, that we actually do! It's like saying that one day AI will replace all CEO's or Company Directors.....it's never going to happen! And quite frankly the idea that is developing that Assistants could be replaced by an electronic gadget is just insulting.