A dedicated admin is now a rare perk as companies cut jobs and technology automates many tasks
By Callum Borchers March 9, 2023 12:01 am ET Valerie Balensiefen remembers the directive she got from a former boss on her first day as his executive assistant in 2019: She’d been hired to support him, and him alone. If others tried to steal her time, she was to tell them to fend for themselves. A couple of years later, she says, the technology company where she worked in the Dallas area assigned her a second executive. In January, her position was eliminated. She started a new job last week as an EA to five leaders of a different company. Ms. Balensiefen, 38, says she understands why the ranks of executive assistants have been thinning for decades. Software can automate many administrative tasks, and office management is less intensive in the hybrid era. Still, that doesn’t mean executive egos don’t bruise when admins are taken away. “It’s a pride issue,” she says. “Most people can handle things for themselves. They just don’t want to.” A full-time assistant has long been a mark of importance, a signal to others that an executive’s time requires a gatekeeper and is too valuable to be spent managing a calendar or, heaven forfend, filling out an expense report. But with apps like Calendly to book appointments and ChatGPT to draft messages using artificial intelligence—plus budget constraints amid recession fears—many businesses are telling their executives to share assistants, use remote EAs or go without. Large banks and professional-services companies have trimmed administrative positions in recent years, sometimes on the advice of consultants. Now McKinsey & Co., one of the biggest consulting firms, is set to lay off as many as 2,000 people in the coming months, including some in support roles.
Anyone who’s ever been downsized is excused for chuckling at the prospect of partners at a big consulting firm fetching their own coffee and fumbling with whatever app reserves the conference room, though it’s unclear how many assistants and admins will be part of the staff reduction. McKinsey declined to provide details. “The perk of having a fully dedicated administrative support person is very rare these days,” says Jerry Maginnis, a senior adviser at Centri Business Consulting and former managing partner of KPMG’s Philadelphia office. From 2000 to 2021, the number of executive secretaries and executive administrative assistants plummeted 63% to 508,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which forecasts another 20% decline by 2031. Mr. Maginnis says young professionals are more tech-savvy and self-sufficient than their predecessors, and companies are generally happy to have them continue handling their own small tasks as they advance. Some emerging executives say they like the sense of control and privacy, since having an assistant can mean sharing a lot of personal information. Startup CEOs often work without assistants to demonstrate they are humble and know how to run lean operations. Matt Johnston, chief executive of the software company GitKraken in Scottsdale, Ariz., says he books his own appointments and travel—and files his own expenses, too. He expects the rest of his executive team to do the same, even as the business has grown to more than 100 employees and become profitable. “I would always rather invest in that next engineer, support person or customer than in an EA,” he says, adding that the company does employ an office manager for some administrative duties. Others maintain they work better with an assistant’s help. Moritz Plassnig, who works in Boulder, Colo., as chief product officer of the cybersecurity firm Immuta, had an EA when he founded a previous company, which he later sold. Now he doesn’t. He doesn’t mind keeping his own calendar but hopes to start another business someday and says he looks forward to having an assistant again—ideally a chief of staff who knows him well enough to function like a second brain. Those who’ve never had EAs don’t know what they’re missing, but those who have loved and lost the support of admins can find the change painful. “If you went to a 600-attorney law firm 25 years ago, every attorney had their own assistant, if not two, and now you don’t necessarily have somebody answering the
phones,” says Charlie Cain, managing director and executive vice president of the administrative placement firm Beacon Hill Associates. Lawyers seldom pick up the phone, anyway, he quips. “So who needs someone to answer it?” Wasn’t the appearance of being too busy and important to take the call (“Tell them I’m in a meeting!”) part of the fun having someone else answer it? Alexa, Siri and Cortana attest to the joy people derive from delegating to an assistant, regardless of whether such a helper is necessary—or even real. TikTok is rife with tales of people who claim they’ve scored exclusive restaurant reservations or airline upgrades by pretending to have assistants, thereby inflating others’ perceptions of their status.