Artificial intelligence and the EA


Virtual digital assistants, such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, have become a fixture in daily life and their cross-over into the business world is not far away – but PAs and EAs are not waiting quietly for robots to replace them!

With Gallup reporting that PAs don’t have enough time in the workday to complete their tasks, marketers and developers suggest that so-called artificial intelligence (AI) devices will help. Traditional and tech start-up developers hope to create the ‘perfect office assistant,’ which could take on tasks like setting up meetings and trudging through emails with a simple voice command.

Chris Rosebert, head of data science and AI at recruitment firm, Networkers, says: “Without doubt AI and robotics are providing the biggest technology leap that we have seen in a very long time and will affect every business and individual. In our recent Technology: Voice of the Workforce survey of over 1,600 tech professionals, 39 per cent of respondents see automation technologies replacing traditional human processes as the biggest disruptor to the industry in the next five years.”

There are already some pioneers out there. According to a report in The Sunday Times, Aviva is planning to survey its 16,000 workers on whether their jobs could be done better by robots. Those that answer ‘yes’ will be retrained for other roles within the business. Similarly, Capita, which counts the NHS and DVLA as clients, announced plans in December to replace 2,000 jobs with robotic processes.

However, Deloitte’s latest Global Human Capital Trends report revealed that just 16 per cent of leaders feel ready to manage a workforce consisting of both people and AI.

Anne-Marie Malley, UK human capital leader at Deloitte, says organisations need to prepare themselves for the workplace of the future: “Technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate and is rewriting the rules of work.”

Naturally, of course, these looming interruptions raise concerns as advances in AI, machine learning and robotics suggest a threat to professional and skilled jobs.

As such, research from luxury support specialist Change Group claims that 44 per cent of London-based PAs fear robots or AI may replace their role. What if the AI assistant is so perfect that the need for a PA is no more?

“The role of the PA is one that is often mooted to be at risk from the rise of the robots. 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 organisation,” says Jeremy Campbell, chief commercial officer at global HR and payroll provider SD Worx.

In fact, it’s thought that AI entering the workplace could benefit high-skill workers. PAs could use clever new machines – is an AI assistant that schedules meetings, for example – for repetitive tasks, and reallocate gained hours to deeper, more productive work time.

Campbell continues: “Robotic process automation can operate at the user interface layer of business applications and work between existing systems to mimic tasks which were usually carried out by PAs, removing the thankless and mundane responsibilities.”

Getting prepared
Although this ticks the efficiency and productivity boxes, PAs still need to prove they’re essential as technology evolves. As such, lifelong learning, ever-greening skills and co-operative training will become more important, and some EAs are already on this path.

Craig Allen, director at Change Group says that PAs are already acquiring new skills (33 per cent) and extending their role into other areas such as marketing, HR and finance (33 per cent), whilst 40 per cent plan to undertake a qualification. Positively, a quarter say their roles are already evolving to ensure they remain valued and more than half maintain that robots could never replace the ‘personal touch,’ that will always be key to the EA role.

He explains: “They are actively acquiring new skills and experience to ensure they have a place in the work force long term. The fact that they have fewer options to work flexibly or from home than their colleagues certainly suggests that their continued presence in the work place is vital to the smooth running of many companies.”

Rachael Bonetti, EA to the people director, Australia & New Zealand at Bupa, agrees, suggesting that PAs need another specialist skill to remain relevant in the digital and mobile age. She says: “As mobile technology advances, executives are able to manage their time at speed and remotely, so assistants need to be able to provide additional value to businesses. Senior PAs and EAs who command higher salaries absolutely must continually seek to hone their skills; it’s the extra bells and whistles on CVs that hiring managers are attracted to in this era.”

“Assistants have to work far harder to stay a step ahead of their bosses. By having a few other strings to the bow a great EA can add unexpected value, take on special projects and become a true extension of their manager and remain indispensable.”

An advocate of training as the way forward, Mary Irwin, EA to director of Shire Infrastructure at Southern Grampians Shire Council, recently completed an Advanced Diploma in Executive Office Management.

“PAs should consider training that will assist them in their current role and achieve goals in their personal development plan. Key areas to consider could be; stakeholder engagement, project and event management, financial services, report writing, human resources and health and safety. And consider both local and online providers and previous student reviews to assist in finding training that will fit your needs,” says Mary.

Bonetti points out that it’s never been easier to access educational tools at little to no cost: “I believe we each need to be accountable for our own learning and not wait for our employer to approve education expenditure.”

Of course, it’s only natural for a skilled worker to feel anxious at the thought of automation, but concerns over humans becoming redundant as machines take control have surfaced numerous times since the first industrial revolution. This time around, however, we’re genuinely are at a tipping point in business regarding the development and application of AI and automation.

There is no denying the efficiency these new technologies are going to bring and for PAs it offers a real opportunity to dramatically improve productivity, emphasise your strategic business management role and add another skills or qualification to your toolbox.

AI and… recruitment
Deloitte research shows that recruitment remains a top concern for 87 per cent of UK business leaders, with 45 per cent planning to include AI in their recruitment process over the next five years.

AI and… HR
The HR department will have one of the most important and pivotal roles to play in the future of business; identifying automation and any re-skilling needed. Deloitte’s Anne-Marie Malley explains: “Technology will increasingly disrupt the world of work and companies need to be ready. For HR specifically, this presents an enormous opportunity for the function to show leadership.”

AI and… events
A recent Event Tech Talks panel in London explored how robotics will be used at events. Ivan Lian, head of technology at AI mobile event networking platform Grip, said the best step event organisers wanting to incorporate AI can take in the short term is to talk to the people who are working creatively with the technology, rather than diving in too quickly: “We have the tools but we need domain knowledge. We need people in the event industry as partners to work with us to do what they’ve done in the medical field where doctors are working with computer scientists.”

AI and… corporate travel
A study by and futurist Dr James Canton predict that by 2060 you could be checking-in to a hotel on Mars that features augmented reality, artificial intelligence and touch screen everything. Suitcases will be a thing of the past, with 3D printers to generate real-time items like shoes, computers and wearable phones. And forget about booking your boss’ transfers: self-driving pods will help avoid traffic.

Whilst such developments are still a while off, airports are already some of the most technologically advanced buildings in the world. According to Priority Pass research, almost half of frequent business fliers regularly use airport mobile apps and 46% expect to see high levels of automation across areas such as kiosks and check in. Tech-savvy airports in Geneva and Auckland already guide passengers through the building in a language of their choosing by robots who can recognise, read and react to emotions.

Rachael Bonetti, EA to the people director, Australia & New Zealand at Bupa, has cleverly broadened her skill set to shape her career and demonstrate her value:

“I realised that if my core duties were in hand, nobody ever turned down the offer for me to take on more of the work I enjoyed, which was always outside the administration realm: writing, creative work, events, building networks. In fact, my managers loved that I was adding value beyond my role. I also realised that if I wanted to work at a senior level where my exposure to these tasks was greater, I needed to work hard to develop skills my managers would find useful. My previous role was in a business that began to embrace social media to raise their profile but there wasn’t anyone with a specialist skill to take this on. I was an intuitive user of social media and had a keen interest in it so recognised it as an opportunity. I started to study social media management and shared ideas with my manager. Then it became part of my job. This approach has meant I’ve steered the direction of my career. Now, I do more of the things I love: strategy for business development, staff management, workforce planning, recruitment and building great teams.”