It seems reasonable to assume that when most readers started out in the accountancy industry, firms were rigidly structured, whatever their size.
This meant that each partner had his own office (in those days female partners were a rarity) and, depending upon the exact timeframe, their own secretary. Slightly more recently, secretaries might have been shared or worked in a typing pool.
The advent of the computer began to make inroads into the secretarial resources since many staff members and even some partners began to take on some of their duties themselves. This left secretaries either working as shared typists or carrying out PA type roles keeping diaries, answering phones and providing other services as and when needed, sometimes even doing bits of basic bookkeeping.
As new generations of partners took over from their more traditional predecessors, the secretarial resource diminished further, perhaps working on a ratio of one to three or one to four but still providing valuable services.
Secretarial role and values
It might be worth stopping for a moment to think about the kinds of work through which secretaries can still add considerable value. Much of the basic typing has been overtaken by technology since few of us would bother to ask someone else to type short emails. While mobile phones mean that most of our messages get left on voicemail – if we miss calls in the first place.
Mobiles also make it difficult for our PAs to carry out one of the primary roles from the past, lying like mad to persuade clients that we weren’t sitting on the other side of the wall from them or in the pub chatting up one of their colleagues, while charging a client for our time.
For reasons that have never become apparent, accountants seem unwilling to embrace speech recognition software of the kind used to “pen” this article. If they did so, then even long letters to inspectors of taxes could be created electronically, while the need for formatting documents on pieces of paper has also largely become redundant.
Covid cuts secretaries
In the last six months, as the vast majority of accountants have worked from home, many will have realised that the need for support services has either disappeared completely or changed significantly.
Even in the world of the law, where they have always made far greater use of typing resources, given the nature of their work, stories are abounding of firms making significant job cuts at secretarial level as the long period of government-subsidised furlough comes to an end.
No one knows how long it will take before we return to something closer to office-based normality but by that time most small practices will probably have lost all of their secretaries or possibly retained a single person to work the switchboard and carry out some allied duties.
Further up the food chain, there may be a few more staff in supporting roles but even at the biggest firms, the numbers are likely to be drastically cut.
In conclusion, perhaps it is time to offer up a sad RIP for a much-loved but now professionally deceased class of colleague.