We are all secretaries now


Where did all the secretaries and support staff go? They fell victim to automation, you might say. What was left of their jobs was outsourced, you could add.

You would be right, of course — but only half right. Because something else happened to their work too. It was redistributed to all of you.

More and more organisations have shifted to a “self-service” software model in which individual employees must sort things like travel, HR, expenses and procurement themselves. The companies that sell these systems say they save money and “empower” workers.

Critics complain they pile more tasks on to people whose time would be better spent on the work they were hired to do. The author Craig Lambert calls it an example of “shadow work” in the workplace, which “just gets grafted on to people’s duties without their consent or sometimes even their awareness”.

The savings from cutting support staff are easy for organisations to calculate, while the costs of lost productivity across the rest of the workforce are hard to measure. But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored.

One public health consultant who is employed by a local authority in the UK tells me his job now involves a whole range of tasks, from sourcing IT equipment for new hires to publishing job adverts.

“I’m not trying to suggest any of this is ‘beneath us’, it’s all important and necessary, but we used to have well-resourced business support, admin and HR roles that did all this — and did it well,” he says. “Every hour we spend doing this is an hour we’re not spending doing what we’ve trained for and are being paid well for.”

It doesn’t help when the systems themselves are time-consuming or impenetrable. “At our work we find that new systems are not properly supported with help functions and it’s hard to speak to someone who can help overcome hurdles,” one worker in a large multinational says.

“The standard mantra is to ‘raise a ticket’ that can all too often lead to a written reply that doesn’t help.”

Some workers are so frustrated they have tried to recreate the old system of dedicated support staff at their own expense. I know of one person who offered to split the value of his expenses with a junior staff member in exchange for submitting them for him.

It’s worth saying that self-service works well sometimes. Plenty of people like to book their travel themselves, for instance. Complex systems have tended to get better over time too.

I put up with a problem on my work phone for ages because I thought it would be so time-consuming to get it fixed. When I finally got around to it, the process was practically effortless and I was embarrassed I’d left it so long.

In any case, the secretaries and support staff aren’t coming back. Of the 30 occupations forecast by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics to shrink the fastest over the next decade, 10 are some sort of secretary or administrative worker.

The question is whether the next wave of technological change can lighten the load. I am optimistic.

Both Microsoft and Google are developing artificial intelligence tools for the workplace which promise to let people “focus more on the task at hand and less on the busy work”, as Microsoft puts it. One tool will write the minutes during meetings, for example — eliminating an admin job no one likes to do. It is suddenly possible to imagine a future in which you could take photos of your receipts with your phone and tell the AI, “Please file my expenses.”

A note of caution, though. Automation doesn’t always do away with the dull parts of people’s jobs and leave the best bits untouched. In the 19th century, for example, the economics of manufacturing “focused invention not on the dullest or even the most machine-like jobs in a factory but on the most intricate and most expensive”, writes Daniel T Rodgers in The Work Ethic in Industrial America. The complex motions of shoe peggers were automated quickly, for example, while people were left to feed materials to the machines.

There is obviously a big difference between a 19th-century shoe factory and a 21st-century office. And what counts as fun for one person (writing, for me) might be a grind for someone else.

But it is a reminder that new technology can change work in unpredictable ways. If workers want to shape the future, they should think hard now about what they actually want from it.

I don’t want AI to write the first drafts of my columns. But I’d love it to do my expenses for me.

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