Are We at the End of the Admin Era?

I finished my very first episode of Mad Men this evening. I know, I’m behind the times, but I’ve made an agreement with myself that my treat for exercising is an hour of television. Thus I am making my way through America’s most watched series of the past 5 years one dreaded treadmill session at a time.

It’s hard to miss the stark contrasts between the 21st century workplace and that of 1960’s Madison Avenue: the cigarette smoke lingering above every desk, drinks before and after big meetings, the switch-board. The list goes on and there have been thousands of blog posts and articles comparing and contrasting these differences not to mention the overt commentary on women. I will spare you any cultural commentary and get straight to business.

Half of the cast (and thus staff) is dedicated strictly to secretarial, administrative work. This hit home because, by comparison, these are the sorts of jobs that technology like TimeTap is phasing out. That’s all well and good – we live in an innovating world and we’re a curious species – but it has made me wonder what the new admin role looks like.

The charities that TimeTap focuses on donating time, money, and resources to primarily service women who are in transition. “In Transition” is the PC term for any period of time a person’s going through where they need an extra something to lean on. This could include stints of homelessness, periods recently out of incarceration, long bouts of unemployment…you can keep the thought pattern going.

What we have gained through our work with these women is deeper understanding of how 2008 hit this population. The administrative roles, for many organizations, were some of the first cut and for these women, training for the tech innovations rolling out daily seems like a steep, uphill battle. How would they get the resources to learn? Who would train them? How do they future proof themselves to ensure they don’t get phased out again?

The Technology Meets the Skills

Much of what the secretaries/administrative staff of the 1960’s Mad Men needed to do to support the men above them has been (and is being) replaced with software solutions. While there’s no hardware/software combination that can pick up the dry-cleaning yet, there are plenty of solutions for call dispatching, client relationship management, online scheduling, support desks, transcribing, etc.

Which brings me to the crux of the debate. Is the Administrative role, as we know it, dead?

Certainly not, I’d say. But then again, I’d be a fool to not recognize how it has evolved.

Companies will never require receptionists to have the same skills as the receptionists of 20 years gone. They will need to be savvy with a computer, to learn the internal systems the company has in place to make it more efficient, to read combined calendars, just to name a few. While fewer dollars will likely be spent in annual salaries toward these types of positions, admins no doubt service an important role of keeping daily operations running efficiently and knowing the ins-and-outs of the systems used company wide.

But I’d be willing to say we are at the end of the multiple admin era. I believe a company that used to need 5 administrative employees can downsize to only needing 2 or, in the case of a real sharp-shooter, 1. While it is more stress on that one or two employee(s) it is money saved. It means fewer employment opportunities and an increase in trade skills needed for seemingly entry level positions. It means training employees to learn systems that perhaps no one at the company even knows. It means that these one or two employees become much more valuable, much less replaceable, and potentially rarer.

So what about all the people displaced as the multiple admin era consolidates? It’s one of the driving forces behind our volunteer efforts: retraining the displaced workforce to have the new business critical skills. That’s not a full solution, however, because there’s more people than openings at these positions.

Good-bye Smith, Hello Marx

Adam Smith understood that, if there were 12 steps involved in making a pen, that it was much more efficient to have 12 people each working on one step in the process. Part of Marx’s argument against this was that only focusing on one aspect (being a cog in a wheel) will devoid a person’s work of purpose and value.

One of the hottest debates amid this changing economic landscape is how benefits at a workplace are going to need to be reshaped to meet changing employee demands. With this shift, almost a new-post-industrialism era, more people are going into business for themselves. (If this is a topic that interests you, I’d highly suggest the TED talk Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely gave on motivation to work)

Knowing that administrative-esque software exists for them to leverage to help them grow their business makes the decision a lot easier. So while software’s evolution has meant a decline in administrative gigs, it has meant a sharp increase in the amount of people able, and thus willing, to start their own business.

Is this good or bad? Personally I think it’s fantastic, but I think most future-looking things are fantastic so I’m not the best judge. Let us know in the comments below whether you think seeing a decrease in admin roles is or isn't a bad thing. Also, please fill in what business-critical software you’re using to help your company grow. If you've found it useful, I’m sure all the community here would as well.