The Diverse Workload of an Administrative Assistant

We would like to make it clear that by using the word "diversity" in this article, we do not mean diversity as it refers to race, gender, age, disabilities, religion, etc., in the workplace.

We are referring to and dealing with diversity in relation to an assortment, range, variety, and multiplicity of tasks that an administrative assistant is likely to handle at one time or another in the workplace.

An administrative assistant supports the various activities and responsibilities of one or more managers or executives. As a result, nearly anything and everything that falls within the parameters of his or her boss's job also falls within the parameters of the administrative assistant's job.

As the management ranks shrink, more and more administrative assistants find themselves becoming responsible for more and different tasks and responsibilities.

Scope of Responsibilities
It may be quicker these days for the average administrative assistant to list what arrangements they would not be expected to make rather than those they would. This is a slight exaggeration, of course, but it is not far off the mark.

Often one of the hardest things to clarify when you start working as an administrative assistant is the expectations your employer may actually have of you: your duties and responsibilities. Your boss may not even be sure what she or he should expect or can actually ask of you.

It is wise not to assume that a new manager knows what you can or should do when you first start working for him or her.

You should always clarify, when you first begin working with any new organization, the expectations as to duties, responsibilities, and possible authority bestowed on you.

A good administrative assistant will do the following:

  • anticipate the needs of the boss and act accordingly,
  • act as a liaison through the office and company,
  • act as a buffer, and
  • take over projects for your boss when that is desirable and possible.

Generally speaking you, as an administrative assistant, will be responsible for any administrative activity or minor decision-making activities that free up your boss's time and allow him or her to devote energy to more significant tasks. In other words, you take the load off his or her shoulders. Yes, the duties may sometimes be mundane or "hack" tasks, but they are important in that they leave the boss time to do other more executive tasks.

These tasks could include filing, writing and processing correspondence on the boss's behalf, making travel arrangements, compiling and writing reports, and attending meetings in her or his stead. You will be your boss's other arm, so to speak.


You might have expected that travel would be included in the list above. However, we are devoting a full section to it. These days, in today's competitive and diverse market, many companies routinely buy and sell services and products all around the world; hence, business travel has become quite common to most types and sizes of companies and covers a group of tasks that carry quite important responsibilities.

Even if you work for a larger organization, private or public, that has its own in-house travel department, make a point of knowing not only the approved procedures but the basics generally, so you can troubleshoot for your bosses if necessary.

The main rationale in making travel arrangements is to get the boss to the appropriate destination and back again, isn't it? Yes and no. There is much more to it than just getting the boss there and back.

There are some basic questions you need to ask yourself that will not only influence the trip itself but the circumstances surrounding it:

  • What is the actual purpose for the trip?
  • What is the required point-by-point itinerary?
  • What are the desired departure and return dates and times?
  • Will your boss be traveling with others, including family, or totally alone?
  • What type of accommodation does the boss require?
  • What location would be best suited to the purpose of the trip?
  • What type of transportation does your boss require and/or desire?
  • What other personal requirements must you fulfill for this particular boss?
Use of Checklists

Checklists are one of my favorite tools. They have saved my professional life a number of times over the years.

No matter how experienced you are, how long you have been doing something, or how confident you are, do not be one of those silly fools who does not use a checklist when either it should be used or there is one available.

Why do you think well-trained and experienced people such as airline pilots still religiously go through a checklist before a flight? Because they know that is the professional and efficient way to go.

Here is a true story that only too well illustrates the point. A U.S. Air Force test pilot who also trained others had not flown for about two years, after a serious accident. Now he was set to start in the air again.

Picture someone who actually worked on the many checklists and system that the Air Force used before any flying operation. He not only knew the several checklists used but had written parts of them. He knew them off by heart until he stopped flying. He found that at the time just prior to his accident that he hardly ever looked at them, though. He did not have to, he thought, because he knew them by heart.

Then he found himself sitting in the fighter plane, ready to go, only to find that he just could not think what to do next. It was then that he thanked God for the checklists that were mandatory, even for an expert. Ever since, this man has loudly proclaimed the compulsory use of the checklists, no matter who the pilot is.

A sample administrative assistant checklist you might find in a general business office:

  • attend meetings with, or instead of, your boss;
  • plan and coordinate meetings and even conferences;
  • handle routine correspondence;
  • respond to direct boss's correspondence;
  • draft speeches;
  • schedule appointments;
  • make travel plans and arrangements;
  • coordinate holiday schedules;
  • act as computer coordinator, at least for your immediate section;
  • train immediate administrative staff;
  • coordinate development and production of promotional and sales materials;
  • write and edit copy for printed material;
  • maintain and organize files;
  • plan or schedule office functions;
  • coordinate office maintenance;
  • assist in planning for your office or department.

Managing Multiple Roles and Switching Hats

Just a quick look at the checklist above is enough to make anyone realize that an administrative assistant wears a number of hats. Some are more difficult and time-consuming than others, but they still all need to be worn and sometimes several at the same time.

The bad news is that you will need to become proficient at each task, and this will take varying amounts of effort and time initially. The good news is that it becomes easier over time and with experience.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Administrative Assistant course?

As time goes on, administrative assistants are taking on increasing levels of responsibility that can contribute substantially to the success of the business.

These responsibilities, though increasingly more complex, often are not fully appreciated. In some cases, they are not appreciated at all. Some of the reason for this is that in some companies, the actual administrative assistant position is either a completely new one or very much an extended exercise. Therefore, it follows that people simply may not understand the required scope of skills required or level of the administrative assistant's responsibilities. Never assume that they do and do not make the mistake of thinking that someone else will explain it to them, either. That job may very well fall to you, and when you realistically look at it, what better person to do so!

Now let us look at what I call "administrative switcheroos," which really do call for different hats, maybe even "upgraded hats"!

Basic Skilled

Sort the mail.

Sort the mail and then prioritize the communications that came in.

Order office supplies.

Make acquisition decisions.

Set up the room or area for a meeting.

Plan and coordinate company events.

Take or make a call to angry client.

Actually manage client and customer relations.

Restock office first-aid kit.

Arrange first-aid classes and prioritize actual staff attendance.

General Trends and Specialization

It is a well-recognized trend of the modern business organization that the nature of administrative work has radically changed and will continue to do so. This is excellent news for administrative assistants as a whole.

More and more managers and executives are now doing work on their own computers that a secretary may have handled in the past. As this trend has developed, there have been fewer secretaries required and more administrative specialists. In other words, companies require and will continue to require fewer and fewer secretaries and more and more administrative assistants who have a broader range of skills and responsibilities.

Continually updating your skills and learning new ones is the best professional insurance you can ever have. It is tantamount to a lifetime guarantee of work at a higher level of satisfaction and financial reward.

Do not forget that the days of working for many years for one company are well and truly gone now. It is quite normal these days for most people to work only a few years or so for the same company.

When we allude to specialization, we refer not just to those changes that have taken place but to a possible decision you may make to specialize in a given field; for example, medical, legal, or political administrative work.

Translating "Doing" Into "Teaching" Those Administrative Assistant Skills


Why would you be involved with teaching the administrative assistant skills and responsibilities involved in your particular job to someone else? Possibly because you have been promoted, or maybe because you are leaving to go onto greener fields.

Whatever the reason, make sure you train your successor conscientiously with a sense of enjoyment, as well as a sense of duty and responsibility. After all, someone trained you, or will train you, and that knowledge not only needs to be passed on but adapted as jobs and the situations surrounding them constantly change.

Teaching someone else about the skills, experience, and responsibilities involved in being a proud and competent administrative assistant is an important mission. You, the teacher, can learn from the experience and feel deep satisfaction from accomplishing the task successfully.


Preparing a Job Description

The best way to go about writing a job description is to think of it as a snapshot of the job.

The job description should communicate very clearly and concisely exactly what responsibilities, duties, and tasks the job entails. The job description also needs to clearly indicate the key qualifications of the particular administrative job, the basic requirements, and preferably the attributes that underlie good performance.

Unfortunately, far too many job descriptions are inaccurate, if not downright wrong. They either were not done correctly in the first place or have not been amended and adapted over the years. Inaccurate job descriptions can only lead to possible disappointment all around.

The actual preparation of a job description is an important part of the recruitment process. It should provide the employer and potential applicants with a clear outline of what is required. Therefore, if you are faced in the future with the task of either preparing an entirely new job description or updating it, please do so with a certain amount of caution and dedication to the truth, even if it is rose-colored a little to satisfy the boss.

How do you start preparing the actual job description?

  • Start by sitting down with a sheet of paper. First, jot down the duties and responsibilities you were told you would have before you started your job as an administrative assistant and to whom you would be responsible.
  • Then, on a separate sheet of paper, list the duties, responsibilities, and tasks that you actually do and for whom.
  • Finally, take a third sheet of paper and list the duties you would like to see added to the job description.

NB: A job description that indicates a mix of all three would probably show the best result. Unfortunately, you will most likely end up with only the first two involved, but my suggestion would be to aim for a combination of all three. That way, you will end up with an excellent job description that someone is going to be very grateful for!

It could be very helpful to make a distinction between normal, irregular, and urgent duties and, if possible, assign an approximate percentage of time to each duty or responsibility.

Choosing People Suitable for the Job

There are a number of steps to take in choosing and hiring the right person for a job. It is very easy to get it wrong, but do not worry. Below are some tried and true tips to use so that you and/or your boss will end up with the right person.

Hiring the right person is a big plus, whether you are remaining with the organization or not. It is good if you stay because both your former boss and his new administrative assistant will be grateful to you and sing your praises. If you are leaving, your former boss will sing your praises, anyway. Do not ever make the mistake of underrating the importance of this; you will find as you progress on that the world is a very small place indeed at times.

  1. Write a job description: You are ahead already, as you have just done this one.
  1. Consider the character and personality traits the position requires, as well as the skills, experience, and qualifications.
    Consider not only the basic job skills needed but the people the new person will actually be working with, as well as the requirements of the job itself. For example, is it a small, quiet office where someone who likes action and a busy crowded atmosphere might become frustrated and disgruntled? Does the position require someone who enjoys being helpful?
  2. Interview for the character and personality.
    It is important that you note any signs of dominance and complacency in candidates' body language, face, or voice. You would not want to hire someone who likes to control if he or she will be required to quickly take orders. If all this is new to you, it will come with experience or you could read a book or two, or better still get someone else with experience to help out. Do not just rely on your instincts.
  3. Consider what the job requires basically: an introvert or extrovert?
    The simple fact is that, while extroverts derive energy from others, introverts are often drained by other people. Obviously, it is crucial to consider what the particular job requires.
  4. What are the candidates naturally good at? Are those strengths part of the job? Why is this important to consider? Things we are naturally good at do not drain our energies nearly as much as those that we are not good at. It is as simple as that.
  5. How do they get along with other people? Ask yourself simple questions such as (a) Would I personally want to work with this person? (b) Do I like this person?

    When a person or persons become serious contenders for a position, a good way to possibly differentiate between two good candidates is to arrange to have those interviews interrupted and observe how the candidate handles it. Did they get upset and show it? Do they handle it smoothly?
  6. Can they handle stress?
  7. What have they learned or picked up along the way?
The Importance of Appropriate Training

First of all, on-the-job training within organizations is important for a number of very simple reasons:

It shows people what the organization needs them to do and differentiates between basic duties and more important or urgent tasks that may crop up.

It also helps to make the new employee feel as though he or she is part of the team, as well as wanted and appreciated by the company.

It is important for companies to develop good training programs to keep staff motivated and happy. The training may involve a wide range of facets, from training for new staff about the particular department or section, to training about the entire operation of the company, so that employees can place events in context.

If, however, your company has little or no in-house training, you can design a simple on-the-job training of your own. All it really requires of you is to list your tasks, when and how to do them. You can devise something relatively basic; something is better than nothing!

Unless it is entirely impossible for some reason, initial training should be followed by ongoing training to keep the staff member abreast of what is going on within the company.

Any job training, whether your own simple one or the company's, should obviously include an overview of the job expectations, performance skills, and goals. It is crucial for the new person to have the background knowledge and understanding of not only the position but how that position fits into and within the organization as a whole.

Armed with that knowledge, the person can concentrate on performing the job rather than worrying about what the job is about and whether she or he is performing the correct tasks. A lot of people reading this would understand the feeling of "newbies" who were doing what they thought was right and found out later they were entirely off on the wrong tangent through no fault of their own but because they had not been told.

Job Orientation

An important part of the orientation process occurs when a new employee is introduced to his or her new colleagues and is supplied with material, including basic information such as hours of work, facilities, benefits, dress code, standards of work required, etc., that will enable the newbie to perform the job to the best degree possible.

Company Orientation

Most of us can remember our first day on the job. I usually felt something between terror and nausea, every single time.

But I can also remember the times when this quickly passed because of the thoughtfulness and kindness of other staff members, particularly those who took the time and trouble to conduct the appropriate and proper company orientation. It made all the difference in the world to the way I felt and hence the way I performed, even from that very first day.

Being inundated with lots of new information and processes can be overwhelming, as is being uncertain of how to apply all of it. Therefore, it is vital that all new staff members have a reasonable understanding of not only the organization's basic structure and operation but what is expected of them as individuals. They require this to enable them to be confident to perform in their new job environment.

Far too many companies fail to realize the basic importance of the company orientation. Without it, there is likely to be quite a ripple effect on staff morale and motivation and hence a downward effect on productivity.

The type or lack of orientation process that an employee is taken through can determine whether that person becomes either an asset or a liability to the company.