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Is coronavirus tolling the final bell for the secretary?

Philip Fisher believes that the end of furlough could signal the demise of the secretary.

26th Oct 2020
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Secretary using a computer and talking to a customer over a headset while doing customer support in a call centre.
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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.

Replies (6)

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By tom123
26th Oct 2020 16:20

40 words per minute copy typing has benefited me so much over the years

Thanks (1)
Jennifer Adams
By Jennifer Adams
26th Oct 2020 18:38

Ummm... what about me... is my profession redundant?
Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (now named the Chartered Governance Institute).
:-)
When I started out (x number of years ago!) I got fed up with being asked what my shorthand and typing speed was.

Thanks (1)
All Paul Accountants in Leeds
By paulinleeds
27th Oct 2020 11:46

With Windows 10 and built in speech recognition all you need is a microphone for £10.00 from the local shop, nothing if you have a modern laptop.

I think almost every day how much more efficient I am with speech recognition and how quickly I can dictate short or long emails / letters.

PS All of the above dictated through speech recognition, just had to capitalise Windows manually!

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By Rgab1947
27th Oct 2020 11:48

Speech recognition. Tried that admittedly some years ago. Either lousy software or my accent (Not English born). Probably the software.

Will have a go again after this as typing with 2 fingers does not lend to speed.

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By wilcoskip
27th Oct 2020 12:22

Perhaps the best investment of my time at university were the hours that I spent tapping away at a tough typing tutorial housed on the servers. It was fun, and has saved me countless amounts of time ever since.
Back in my early training days, a whole bank of secretaries used to type up accounts from the scrawled numbers that we'd enter onto tippexed copies of last year's statements). Then one of the outlying offices jumped onto the IRIS bandwagon (this was on DOS, pre-Windows), and the rest (for the secretaries, at least) was history.

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By Diana Miller
27th Oct 2020 14:06

Personally, when I was an employee, I used to have a PA/secretary that was amazing. I still miss her every day. Yes, computers do I lot but a secretary/administrator/receptionist that understands accountancy practices is to my mind a valued professional in their own right.

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