How I transitioned from being an executive assistant to a virtual assistant, even though I didn’t want to

Like many other EAs, I’m used to being by my executive’s side. Right there, never far away, always within shouting distance – reading the facial expressions, acting on the manic hand signals.

Diverting people, responding unbidden to her mobile calls and text messages, preparing correspondence before she knows she wants it, saying no to people, ‘gently’ reminding her that it’s time to finish one thing up and move onto another thing.

In a nutshell, guiding my executive through the day to ensure that it all gets done, that she has everything necessary to do what only she can do, and there’s as little unplanned interference as possible so that everyone that she meets gets the best from her.

It doesn’t always work out that way, of course, but there I am—right there—ready to jump in and fix it up so that everyone gets what they need from her, and that she has everything she needs from them.

To me, that’s the basis of the job, that’s always been the job, and that’s the job I signed up for.

And now here I am. In Point Cook. And there she is, not in Point Cook. It’s been an interesting time, that’s for sure.

Having always been that EA-to-the-CEO type person, languishing in my gilded cage, I’ve never fancied WFH – it’s always seemed odd that anyone who wants to be doing what I do thinks they can do it remotely. In my mind, my efficacy has always relied entirely on me having personal interaction with my boss so that I understand, as if by some kind of telepathy, exactly what she needs without her having to explain each time she wants me to do something.

Perhaps it’s because I hate being micro-managed and I thought that if I were an expert mind reader, I’d be left to get on with it and do a really great job! So far, it’s worked out pretty well for me. Until now.

After the first week or so of operating from a teeny weeny desk that I inherited from my teeny weeny mother, sitting on a dining chair eight hours a day squinting at a laptop screen, tapping on a keyboard that you have to have fingers the size of a four-year-old to use, I had a big rethink. I needed to change the way I was working – my mind, my eyes and my back were breaking up.

I recalled a forum I went to some years ago where Julia Gillard was the keynote speaker. At the forum, she spoke to us about AI or artificial intelligence.

At that time, Julia was travelling the world meeting with different businesses. She wanted to share with us that although AI was certainly going to affect many kinds of workers, in her view, EAs like me, like us, would be amongst the least affected because of the intuitive and personal nature of our work. She added that in order to remain relevant however, we must stay ahead of the technology curve. Sound words, I thought at the time. However, four years on, I’m not so sure.

I don’t think that being ahead of the technology curve is enough. I think it’s a given—without staying ahead, we will fall behind and become irrelevant (from a work perspective). I believe that the greatest thing we can teach ourselves, and that is what I have learned during this period of isolation, is to be agile.

Not always easy to do, I know, but I think it’s key to success. Not just for now while we have to WFH, but for the future. It’s not just about having the tools for the job, although that is certainly part of it – it’s about changing your mindset to embrace the new normal. And I think that in our hearts we all know that things will never go back to the way they were before. We need to be ready, physically and mentally, for a different way of working – and the crunch is, that we don’t know what that will be yet.

I haven’t cracked it completely, far from it, but I’ve spoken to a few virtual assistants who do this all the time, and they’ve been incredibly helpful in getting my head around the way we are working now, not pining for what was before, and in preparing me for the future.

These are some of the steps I’ve taken that have helped me settle into a much better mindset.

Get your tools sorted out

The absolute minimum setup you should have at home, so that you feel and know that it is your place of work, for now, and for whenever you want it in the future:

  • Desk and proper work chair
  • Separate large screen—two is awesome if you have space
  • Keyboard and mouse
  • Headset or Jabra speakerphone—I am loving the speakerphone as it means I can move around on the longer calls
  • Some natural light
  • Powerboard for the mobile phone charger, landline etc.

If you feel like you have a proper ‘home office’ you will be reassured that while you are in that space, you are still fully operational and able to do your best work. Also, it keeps a little separation from your home life. I know it’s not possible for everyone, but do what you can to get a proper setup.


This is a biggie. I believe that many of us feel like we are no longer as ‘in control’ of our days and our lives as we used to be. Let’s face it, EAs are controllers. We don’t get much time with our execs, so where we used to have some reliance on them for random workload, banter, guidance, laughs, sharing ideas and thoughts, now that’s largely gone. We have to take control back, albeit in a different way and without so much reliance on the exec or on your teams. Here are a couple of work suggestions for putting some control back into your life.

Structure your day and stick to it. Mine goes like this:

  • Log on and check your emails at 8:45 am, not before. If you have a series of team calls during the morning, all good
  • Log off at lunchtime for an hour
  • Log off at 5 pm

Let your exec and your teams know that this is your new defined working pattern and that if they need something from you, there are still a mighty eight or so hours in the day when they can get hold of you. Of course, as EAs we are, in all honesty, available 24/7 and will always welcome the chance to have time with our execs—but back to current reality.

Try to go paperless

There’s an opportunity to get into this right now. Use the tech tools to help with that—tasks, notes, OneNote—whatever works for you and your exec. I’m loving OneDrive and am getting most of our common files onto there so that my exec can access everything easily. Working remotely like this, and in the future working from different sites, it wouldn’t be a good look for me not to have access to old files, papers etc that she might need. When you can, get it all scanned and sorted so that you can get hold of it quickly. Get on the front foot, control.

Make sure you’re using the technology at your disposal to the max

Everything now is geared towards being paper-free and doing things more quickly, and once you have taken control of that, I promise you’ll find it liberating.

Where IS everybody?

One of the great things about working in an office is that, as an EA, you get drawn into a load of other things. Other projects, counselling people, managing your team coordinators etc. In fact, I would say in many cases those extracurricular things take up 50 percent of the time.

I suspect those are the things that many EAs are missing. So, while you’re working remotely, perhaps reach out to your teams and see if there are things going on that you want to get stuck into and help with. Maybe they haven’t asked because they don’t physically see what you’re doing during the day in this remote environment?

Instead of people coming to you all the time for your help—you may have to go to them and offer it. Control.

I’m going to be honest here, while I’ve observed some angst amongst EAs both internally and externally on our current situation and on WFH generally, I haven’t observed any angst from the executives. They have moved straight into another gear. Most of them call us when they need us and I’m going to say, they seem pretty chilled about, essentially, having virtual assistants. It’s just different. It is on us to make this work for each and every one of us. To get our mindsets into a new way of working.

So, what to do with the rest of your time during iso, now that you have sorted out a controlled working environment and you’re feeling so damn good about that!!? That one I can helpless with – some will continue structuring the rest of the day with regular exercise, some are less active but enjoy other things that take time – whatever floats your boat.

I’m not one of those Gwynnie Paltrows who recommend learning another language, taking up an instrument online—I’ve just brushed crisp crumbs out of my bra and I’m not quite sure what day of the week it is—so don’t be looking to me for inspiration on that front. But, I am finding things I’m enjoying doing while I’m in iso. Hopefully, it won’t be for too much longer and we will be able to see friends and family soon, I know I’m hanging out for that.

I’m also looking forward to getting back into the office as and when we can—I’m not going to lie. But, do I want to work from the office every day, ever again? Hell no. I’ve got a home office and I’m working on my agile, WFH positive mindset and damn it, I will be good and ready for whatever comes next.

Fiona Huane, EA to Catherine Tanna, MD of EnergyAustralia and National COVID Commissioner